LEVI COFFIN, REMINISCENCES OF LEVI COFFIN (CINCINNATI, 1876)
This weekend the 3rd Annual ORNFC Underground Railroad Conference will be taking place at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. Having the conference located in Richmond gives attendees the opportunity to visit the Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site, formerly the Levi Coffin House, in nearby Fountain City. One of Indiana’s most popular historic destinations, the site was previously run by the The Levi Coffin House Association and is now managed by Indiana State Museum of Historic Sites. Joanna Hahn, the current site manager, is leading the Levi Coffin House into the future with a recent renovation and new programming.
At first glance, it’s hard to imagine that this modest, eight-room, federal-style home was one of the most active stations on the Underground Railroad. Over 2,000 men, women, and children seeking freedom passed through its doors from 1838 through 1847 thanks to abolitionists Levi and Catharine Coffin. Thankfully, the home was has been well maintained over the years so the public can get an accurate picture of the monumental events that took place here.
The road to restoration
After the Coffin’s moved to Cincinnati in 1847, the home went through several changes over the years. “For the most part, it was a private family home, but in 1910, one of the families who bought it actually transitioned it into a boarding house, and they built a whole second wing on the back of the house and called it the Underground Railroad Hotel and operated it for several decades,” Hahn says. “And so when the house was restored, some of those details had to be removed because they were not original.”
The home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, leading to a new life rooted in preservation and education, teaching the public about the incredible acts of bravery that took place here in the decades before the Civil War.
“It took three years to restore the house, from 1967 to 1970,” says Hahn. “The volunteers believe the house is in the condition it is now because of how well maintained it was. They were able to restore it with many of the original details and they believe at least it's 90% accurate in what it looked like when Levi and Catharine and their family lived there.” The modifications made to the house included the installation of a bathroom, adding kitchen appliances, in addition new wallpaper (similar to the old wallpaper) and plaster. The home was opened to the public in 1970.
Additional preservation efforts, including an expansion, began in 2014. Thanks to a $3.8 million upgrade, the house was reopened with the adjoining Levi & Catharine Coffin Interpretive Center in December 2016 and is now open all year, rather than seasonally, like it was before the expansion. The center now includes a new space that sits on the site of the former Seybold-Price house, which was built in 1837. The house was dismantled by Maxwell Construction in 2015, and many of the original building materials have been included in the new structure, including hand-hewn beams, river and field stones, and windows. The center includes a theater, exhibition space, meeting room, offices for the staff, and a library dedicated to long-term Levi Coffin House stewards Janice McGuire and Saundra Jackson. (At this year’s conference, McGuire and Jackson will receive the Bold Courage Award for almost 40 years of service at the Levi Coffin House and their commitment to preserving the history of the Underground Railroad.)
Hahn took on her new role in 2016 after working 13 years for the Indiana State Museum of Historic Sites in museum education. In the years before she took the position, the Levi Coffin House had always been her favorite site to visit within the system of historic sites, so it was a perfect fit when she joined. “I enjoy challenges. I knew this would be a challenge of taking it from the hands of the volunteers, putting it into a full-time function, but still working with the volunteers as our Friends group, and expanding the role into programming. And the county we're in, Wayne County, is such a big supporter of the site, too. It just seemed to be perfectly positioned as a site that has great local, regional support.”
The house has received visitors from all walks of life. At the end of the school year in May, the site had approximately 1,200 students visit for field trip season. “For the most part, we have a little bit of everybody. Grandparents bringing grandchildren. They had come here before and now they wanted to bring their grandkids,” Hahn continues. “Our special group visitation has really picked up, meaning bus tours and those kind of things. I get a lot of Coffin descendants, people who come in and say, ‘I'm a descendant of so and so.’ There are a lot of Coffin family members in the area.”
Two of the more memorable guests to the site visited recently. “We had two gentlemen. They tagged onto the tour at the last minute, so I never got to do much proper introduction.” The tour turned to a discussion of William Paul Quinn, who helped to start many of the black churches in the state of Indiana, including the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Richmond, and the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Indianapolis, which is the oldest standing church is that city. During the tour Hahn learned that one of these two men is the bishop for the regional Methodist Church. “He latched onto in the tour, partly was because I talked about William Paul Quinn and the impact he had on this community. So like I said, some people take away different things depending on their background and it was just neat that they had made a point to visit the site. They couldn't stay for very long, but luckily they got to see the cool tour and ask great questions, and I just felt grateful that I got to be the person to do their tour and highlight how their church.”
Inside the Underground Railroad
When the conversation turned to the large number of people that passed through the doors of the Levi Coffin House in search of freedom, Hahn shared a few theories related to what life was like for recent arrivals escaping from the south. “[Levi] talks about a group of 14 slaves that he assisted that were brought from a slave that he had helped before. His name was Jim. He wanted to go back, find his family, and eventually they get back to Levi's house and he brings 14 with him.”
“So how do you manage that? How do you handle such large groups? Those are the kinds of questions I like to ask on the tour,” Hahn explains.” What would you do in that situation without seeming any more obvious than you may already be?” Before Hahn continues, she makes it very clear that the stories about the the Underground Railroad activities inside the home are theories and all guides make a point to mention that during their tours. “Unfortunately in his book, Levi doesn't talk about building the house. We don't have any oral histories of people who were involved in building the house and what the thinking was.”
She then discusses a popular theory that the construction of the house allowed the Coffin’s to shield freedom seekers comfortably. “Imagine 14, 17 people showing up at a house right before dawn. The first thing you're going to want to do is feed them. You're going to be talking to them to find out about their situation, how they're doing, looking into their health and such, and the last thing you want to do is make it look like you're throwing a party in your house, with the fires blazing and noise, making the meals and that kind of stuff. With Levi and Catharine, they wanted the slaves to feel as if they are guests in their home,” Hahn continues. “So the curtains may be closed, and you can't as easily see who's in there, but they are out in the rest of the house with the family during the daytime and they're not being hidden away. But if there were times when things were not safe, and there seems to be a communication network of lookouts and stuff that would send word saying, ‘Hey, bounty hunters are coming from Richmond,’ which is the city just south of us, which was kind of the headquarters for some of these slave catchers and such. They would get word to Levi, and then he knew, okay, we'll need to hide.”
“So the house actually has a basement kitchen in it, which is not quite an unusual feature for some American homes, but in this region in Indiana, we don't really see that. It's a deep basement kitchen. I would say the ceiling is probably around between seven and eight feet, and it's a good sized room for to hold a group of people. It's located in the back wing of the house, which means if they were down there, they could do all of this. And anybody who may be watching for any, as Levi says, he knows he's under surveillance at times. So we think that what he's done is created an area, so if his house or his actions were being watched, they could do all this kind of underground, literally, under the house, in that kitchen, without making all that noise and being that obvious on the main floors of the house. So we don't necessarily think it was used as a hiding place, but just as a place that was easy for them to better care for these groups of people without being so obvious.”
Visit the Levi and Catharine Coffin Historic Site to experience their recent expansion for yourself, including their exhibit Souls Seeking Safety: Bringing Indiana's Underground Railroad Experience to Life.