On a recent trip to deliver a traveling exhibit, Jeannette (coordinator, Local History Services) and I made a detour to the tiny town of Fountain City.From the name of the town, you might guess that we were stopping to check out a beautiful water feature in their downtown. But no.We went to see the home of Levi Coffin perhaps the most famous Hoosier participant in the Underground Railroad. In the end, though, we did find water.
I was unsurprised by many of the stories the tour shared both those about and 1830s era home and those of the Underground Railroad. Levi Coffin was a Quaker who had the fortitude to act on his anti-slavery beliefs by helping more than 2,000 enslaved people escape to freedom.But what was compelling about the tour were the details that were unique to Levi Coffin?s story, his home and the artifacts in it.
We heard about a pair of wooden shoes that (according to Coffin family tradition) were worn by the only former slave known to have stayed in the area. William Bush was a blacksmith and is buried in a local cemetery. The guide said that she had been skeptical of this family story of the shoes until a visitor shared with her that wooden shoes were commonly worn by blacksmiths as better protection against the heat and tools of the trade than leather shoes.It turns out that the knowledgeable visitor had his own set of wooden footwear for a weekend gig as a blacksmith re-enactor.
The guide also shared particular stories from Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (p. 183):
On that morning my wife had risen first, and when she heard the two wagons drive up an stop, she opened the door … She spoke to these conductors, and asked: What have you got there??
One of them replied: All Kentucky.?
Well, bring all Kentucky in,? she answered, then stepped back to our room and told me to get up, for all Kentucky had come.?
They welcomed 17 people into their home that day.
While it?s important for the site to share the overarching history of the Underground Railroad it was hearing this unique story, humor and all, that made the tour so interesting. It also made me want to put Reminiscences on my reading list.
But where, you ask, was the water? In the basement.
It turns out that in restoring the basement kitchen a few years ago, they discovered a spring-fed well that amazingly still fills with cool water today. I don?t expect I?ll see another one in my lifetime.
You can find out how to visit the Levi Coffin house at www.indianamuseum.org/sites/levi.html.And, in case you were wondering why we bothered to make the detour in the first place, it?s because the museum won the Corey Award from the American Association for State and Local History this year the most prestigious award for an all-volunteer organization there is in the field.