John Gregg Hanson (January 1832- April 14, 1885) was the first cousin once removed of John G. Fee. John Fee converted John Hanson and his entire family to abolitionism when Hanson was a teenager. John Hanson built and ran a sawmill in Berea which went on to supply most of the lumber for Berea College’s buildings. He would eventually serve as one of the original Board of Trustees at Berea College. He also advocated physical development conjointly with mental development..
Early Life and Family
Hanson was born in January 1834, two miles west of Germantown beside the Germantown Brookville Pike in Bracken County. He was the eldest son of Greenbury Griffith Hanson of Maryland and Rebecca Gregg Hanson of Scottish descent. They had six children, two girls and four boys. The younger brother, Horace, died in August 1864. Arthur Hanson became a Berea merchant. Samuel Griffith Hanson and John Gregg Hanson both were lumbermen. John G. Hanson may have been schooled in the nearby district beside The Bethesda Church, an abolitionist church founded by John Fee. Hanson may have attended an academy in Augusta. He became a teacher at Oberlin College. Hanson’s first wife was Ellen Jane Shales. Ellen taught at Oberlin College with Hanson. They had three sons, William Gregg, Samuel Freemont and Horace, who was named after Hanson’s deceased brother. In 1842 John Fee converted the Greggs, Hamiltons and Hansons to abolitionism at Lane Seminary.
In September 1858 Hanson left Bracken County, moved to Berea, and bought a sawmill. He and his wife Ellen were the third and fourth teachers in the new school. Hanson was one of the original Board of Trustees who joined to form Berea College. He was elected Secretary. Hanson, along with John Fee, J.A. Rogers and T.J. Renfro, formed the Prudential Committee. In 1859 John Hanson “ saw a practical need and tried to meet it.” He set up a steam powered sawmill. The sawmill brought money to the abolitionist community, and it provided lumber for Berea’s early classrooms and employment for the students.
Exile and Vigilance
On Friday December 23rd Hanson along with others was warned to leave Berea. He decided that he “ought to go” on December 24th. Hanson chooses a scripture from Psalm 37 for his farewell address and message on the bleak day of December 25th. He left his saw mill and 50 acres and met John Fee in Cincinnati. Hanson and fee salvaged their abolitionist work in Lewis and Bracken counties, but again was met with mobs and violence. In March 1860 Hanson returned to Berea without his wife and children. He had most to lose financially. Hanson claimed that he, “ returned to Berea for the purpose of saving some 300 logs left at the mill, and selling the mill.”
On March 10 John Hanson wrote his Appeal to the Citizens of Madison County and sent it to the editor of the Richmond Messenger. On March 13 the Appeal appeared in the Messenger. On March 25 Cassius Clay advised Hanson to leave Berea. Hanson went south to the Rockcastle County home of T.J. Renfro. A Vigilance Committee of 18 to 25 was formed in Richmond. It was led by Colonel Reubon Monday. They were searched for Hanson. The committee roughly treated Mr. Waters, a man who lived at the mill. Not finding Hanson there, the committee went to the home of Mrs. Burdett in Rockcastle County. They searched her home and abused her and her 5 daughters. Then the committee went to the home of T.J. Renfro to try to find Hanson. However, Hanson had hidden under Renfro’s wood pile, and he escaped undetected. Colonel Monday’s men met Southern Madisonians who were enraged about their action. Green Haley commanded the Madison men. Both sides began to fight. The casualties of the Battle of Slate Lick were 1 or 2 wounded men on both sides. Colonel Monday’s Committee returned to Richmond with the news of the fight. Then they recruited a 150-219 man army. On March 27 the Committee returned to Slate Lick Springs, but no one was there. Thereupon the army wrought their vengeance on Hanson’ Mill. They pulled the chimney half- down and unroofed the smoke house of a neighbor. According to Hanson, “they tore off the roofing, pulled down the smoke stack, broke all the wheels of the mills , and cut a hole in the top of the boiler, leaving all a complete wreck.” After the Battle of Slate Lick, 15 Madison County men were exiled and were given 10 days to leave.
Hanson Exile Three Times
There was a $100 reward to capture John Hanson. He would stay to the woods by day and rest well at night with mountain friends in Jackson County. On April 3 he left Jackson County on foot. He walked to Berea. Despite the reward for his capture, when he was captured he was released. Finally arriving at his father’s house, Hanson made a statement to the National Abolitionist Press, “I shall still labor that so good a land, filled with many generous spirits, and many working slaves, shall yet be free.” He was 26 years old. John Hanson had now been exiled three times, on December 1, 1859, in Madison County, on January 2, 1860, in his native Bracken County, and on January 3, again in Madison County. By the fall of 1860 the Hansons were in Middletown, Ohio. John Hanson preached to the colored population in Cincinnati under a AMA appointment.
Return and Rebirth of Berea
John Hanson and his wife Ellen returned to Berea in April 1865. Sadly, on August 4, 1865, Ellen died. Yet Hanson retained his vision for the town and the college. He still had their three sons. Samuel Freemon stayed with his father. The other two boys, W. Gregg and Horace, went with other family members. In 1865 John Hanson married his second wife, Elizabeth Preston. Elizabeth was the daughter of Mrs. Jerusha Preston, the widow of John H. Preston. Elizabeth was a teacher in Berea that Hanson and Rogers had taught. She had nursed Ellen in her last days. Elizabeth was a faithful helpmate and a great stepmother. Hanson built a large box house not far from the mills at Slate Lick which he called “Glendale.” He had mills in South Madison, Rockcastle, and Jackson Counties.
The Prudential Committee met in Berea for the first time following the exile on April 24, 1865. The executive committee of the Board of Trustees included Hanson, Fee, and Rogers. Hanson was official architect/ builder and was authorized to erect two cottages to be used in September 1866. The first meeting concerned with incorporation was held at Fee’s house on September 7th, 1858, but suffered because of anti-caste sentiment. Incorporation was filed April 12th, 1866, with the board members and passed six years later.
John Gregg Hanson served as Secretary of the Board until his death on April 14, 1885. He was the first founder to pass away. A 1x10- inch board about 5 feet long was thrown from the mill and struck him on the right side of his body. Three and a half hours after getting struck by the board, John G. Hanson died. He was 51 years old.