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Harriet Tubman gets a new home along the Underground Railroad

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If Harriet Tubman were to magically reappear in Dorchester County on Maryland's Eastern Shore, she might think she had time-traveled back to her childhood. The area's grassy marshes, sparkling rivers and flat farmland look much as they did when she lived there in the early 1800s.

She knew these fields and waterways well, both as a child born into slavery as Araminta "Minty" Ross and as a woman who married and changed her name to Harriet Tubman. She escaped to freedom at age 27 and risked capture and even death by returning to the area a dozen or more times to help about 70 others, including her parents and brothers, escape, too. They used a secret network of people and places called the Underground Railroad. Tubman was one of its most famous "conductors." She earned the biblical nickname "Moses" for freeing her people.

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The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center opens Saturday. MUST CREDIT: Photo: Marylou Tousignant.

That much about Tubman is pretty well known. But other parts of her amazing, long life (she lived into her 90s) are not. A visitor center opening this weekend in Dorchester County aims to give a fuller picture of this remarkable woman.

The first item visitors will see is a bronze bust of Tubman. Mounted on a column, it shows how tall (or short) she was - 5 feet. Sculptor Brendan O'Neill was putting the bust in place last week. He said he wanted to show the strength and grit Tubman displayed, despite her small frame. Preteen visitors may feel it as they face her eye to eye.

Statues and exhibits in the two main halls round out Tubman's life story. One of nine children, she was taken from her mother at age 6 and forced to work. One statue shows her hunting muskrats, valuable for food and fur. Another honors her Civil War service as a cook, nurse, scout and spy for the Union. During an 1863 raid in South Carolina, Tubman helped free more than 700 slaves.

In her later years, she opened a home for the elderly on land she owned in New York. And she worked for women's rights as well as for minorities and the disabled.

"I like to think of Harriet Tubman as a normal person who did extraordinary things," said Angela Crenshaw, assistant manager of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, home to the new visitor center.

Tubman never learned to read or write. She suffered all her life from a severe head injury she received as a girl. She had a $100 reward placed on her, yet returned time after time to Maryland to help more slaves escape.

"She just never quit," said historian Beth Parnicza of the National Park Service. She thinks Tubman's message for kids is in "seeing how a person can truly live their ideals no matter what their circumstances are. ... By doing what's right, everybody can change the world. Tubman's life proves that."

Her tombstone sums it up best. It reads: "Servant of God, Well Done."

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If you go: 

What: The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center

Where: 4068 Golden Hill Road in Church Creek, Maryland. A free shuttle bus is available from 421 Academy Street in Cambridge, Maryland, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. On-site parking will be available Sunday.

When: Saturday-Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The program includes a kids' workshop on games that enslaved children played. Drop in between noon and 4 p.m. to make a yarn doll, shoot marbles or build a candy-corn campfire. Kids can also sign up for the Junior Ranger program and collect eight Tubman-related trading cards. After opening weekend, visitor center hours will be open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

How much: Free. Note that no food or beverages are sold there.

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