New Ann Small Niess novel portrays antebellum and Civil War life in York, Pa.
Ann Small Niess is a Florida-based author and artist with deep roots in York County, Pennsylvania. Like the famed Grandma Moses, she began writing during her elder years, weaving stories and incidents from her childhood with historical events that happened in her family’s rich 19th century history. Her latest book, Hidden Secrets of Jacob’s House, follows this pattern.
As a child she lived in what was known as “Elmwood Mansion,” an impressive manor house then in the countryside east of York (now part of a suburban sprawl). Constructed in 1835 by a wealthy York banker, the house has a long history, serving as a station on the Underground Railroad and later as a Confederate campsite during the Gettysburg Campaign. Some have claimed it is haunted, with numerous unexpected events being reported over the years.
Niess has taken the historical accounts of life in York, the known workings of the Underground Railroad, the ongoing tensions between the firebrands of slave state Maryland and free state Pennsylvania, class distinctions between the rich and poor and black and white, and the coming of the Confederates during the Civil War to weave a rich tapestry of storylines which are both compelling and interesting.
The main character in Hidden Secrets of Jacob’s House is Jacob Dellinger, a young man who overcomes numerous heartaches and setbacks in his life, including the deaths of his beloved parents and the spurning of his first love, a girl from a wealthy Southern family with much different ideals than the Pennsylvania Germans.
Dellinger and several other leading characters are loosely based upon historical people in historical settings, with believable story lines and experiences. Other personalities are broad composites based upon what is known of the people and culture of the Mid-Atlantic region during the mid-19th century. This engrossing new book follows Jacob’s transformation from idealistic and impressionable farm boy into a leading anti-slavery abolitionist who takes an active role in the Underground Railroad.
Life in York County in the years before the Civil War primarily focused on the farm, family, and faith, three elements which the author neatly captures in this her second novel based upon life in Elmwood Mansion.
That building still stands along what is now a very busy exit ramp from I-83 near Memorial Hospital, which owns the old mansion. It stands in mute testimony to the long ago, exciting events which transpired within its walls, from the tense efforts to hide and protect escaped slaves from Maryland and Virginia to the theft and trampling of Confederate soldiers bound for the Susquehanna River during Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s invasion of York County in the early summer of 1863.
Author Ann Small Niess demonstrates a solid working knowledge of that history, from the slavery debates of the antebellum days to the footsteps of the Georgia infantry which marched past the house en route to Wrightsville. She has crafted a highly readable, interesting narrative which transports the reader back to the days when Elmwood Mansion was more than just a hospital’s conference center, a time when the halls echoed the voices of Jacob and Elizabeth Dellinger, their friends and acquaintances, and those wishing harm upon the dark-skinned “guests.”
This is a tale well worth reading, one in which Mrs. Niess shows her late-blooming talent for creating vivid word pictures and impressive imagery.
Visit her website for more information or to read a sample chapter on Jacob’s visit to a typical slave market in the South.