The Road to Freedom

Historic Eleutherian College’s
storied past to be retold in future museum

Board members awaiting results of cost study
to begin capital campaign to restore building

By Don Ward

(July, 2002) LANCASTER, Ind. – Perched atop a hill in rural Jefferson County, the 148-year-old Historic Eleutherian College rises high above the farming landscape like a lighthouse beaming out the sacred word: Freedom.
For several years during the Civil War and a few years afterward, the college played a central role in southern Indiana’s deep-rooted history in the Underground Railroad – the escape and education of black slaves fleeing to the north.
Today, the non-profit Historic Eleutherian College Inc.’s 25 executive and advisory board members want to restore the college for use as a teaching laboratory, museum and meeting place.

July 2002 Edition Cover

They are awaiting the results of a master restoration plan study from an Akron, Ohio-based restoration consultant which will provide cost estimates for the ambitious project. The first phase would restore the ground floor so it could be used for public gatherings, said Elbert Hines, an Eleutherian College Advisory Council member.
“Although we had some local companies bid on the project, we decided to go with the one that had the most experience in working with museum restoration and old stone buildings, such as this. It’s a delicate project,” Hines said.
Once the study is in, the board plans to launch a capital campaign to raise the money required via federal and state grants and private donations. The board already has received many donations, including $7,500 from the Jefferson County Commission presented in June to match a state grant totaling $50,000. The county’s donation comes from casino money it receives from a revenue-sharing agreement with Switzerland County. Eleutherian College officials plan to use the money to pay for the study.
The board, however, lost $20,000 that had been earmarked for the college when the State Budget Committee in April voted to use the Build Indiana funds to fund state budget deficits.
But the decade-year-old campaign to save Eleutherian College received a boost June 18 when Indiana First Lady Judy O’Bannon visited the site as part of the nation’s Juneteenth Celebration. Juneteenth, celebrated this year for the first time in Indiana, marks June 19, 1865, the date Union troops landed at Galveston, Texas, with news of the war’s end and the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been signed Jan. 1863. Galveston is considered the last city in the country to learn of the war’s end.
O’Bannon toured all three floors of the building then spoke to a group of 75 “Friends of Eleutherian College” members at an outdoor luncheon held under a tent on the lawn.
O’Bannon compared the effort to restore the college to other “community building” enterprises rising up around the state. She said her impressions from touring the building with Eleutherian College director John Nyberg and Advisory Council member Sue Livers made her “feel like going back to 1854 again. You can smell the wood and see the paint peelings. The flavor is still in that building,” she told the group.

Nyberg & OBannon

Nyberg & O'Bannon

O’Bannon sits on the executive board of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana but had never visited Eleutherian College until her June visit. As part of the Juneteenth celebration, O’Bannon on June 18 also helped install the first Indiana Freedom Trails Indiana Historic Bureau marker at the Levi Coffin House in Fountain City, Ind. She installed another marker June 24 at Lyles Station, considered the most intact African American settlement in the state.
Jae Breitweiser, together with the late Dottie Reindollar, in 1990 purchased Eleutherian College from Historic Madison Inc. at a sealed bid auction. The women later donated the property to the newly created not-for-profit corporation. HMI had acquired the property several years earlier from the last of a series of separate owners since the building’s last use as a grade school from 1897 to 1937.
HMI was the only preservation group around in 1973 when the last owner, Maj. T. Jester, died, according to HMI President John Galvin. His son gave the property to HMI, and the non-profit, Madison-based organization maintained it for 17 years until its board decided it had become too expensive to keep.
“HMI was acquiring more properties here in Madison, and because of its location in Lancaster, the college was getting less attention. Rather than see it deteriorate and because of the financial drain, HMI decided to sell it. We’re delighted that Jae and Dottie were the successful bidders because we knew they wanted to preserve it.”
“There were two other bidders wanting to buy the property, gut it and convert it into a residence,” Breitweiser recalled. “We were the only ones wanting to buy and restore it. We both felt a need to save the building.”
Breitweiser, a retired school teacher, and her husband, retired physician Thomas Breitweiser, moved to Lancaster 17 years ago and were familiar with the college’s historical significance.
A few years after the college’s sale, the corporation also bought the nearby Lyman Hoyt House, a stone structure that sits on the main Hwy. 250 within view of the college. Hoyt was a known conductor on the Underground Railroad in Lancaster and was an officer in the Neil’s Creek Anti-Slavery Society. The residence is in the initial stages of restoration and open for tours by appointment only.
Breitweiser and Reindollar spent most of those first 10 years getting their newly acquired property some credibility. First they had it recognized as a state historic site. In 1993, the college was named to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1997, it was declared a National Historic Landmark, thereby making it eligible to compete for federal grants.
“We knew the building had to be recognized for national significance if we were to apply and receive federal funds,” Breitweiser said.
Reindollar died from a heart attack she suffered after escaping an early morning house fire in January 2000. Her husband, Vern, and son, Brook, are Eleutherian College board members.
A nationwide initiative to document Underground Railroad activity began at the beginning of the Millennium as part of a 1998 bill passed in Congress. Congress authorized funding for the National Park Service to manage the project to “establish an enduring national commemorative Underground Railroad program of education, example, reflection and reconciliation.”
Underground Railroad sites in 29 states were identified as having high potential for preservation and visitor use. No single site or route completely reflects the Underground Railroad system, the bill said, “since its story and associated resources involve networks and regions of the country rather than individual sites or trails.”
Officials at Madison’s Clifty Falls State Park have unearthed research describing Underground Railroad activity taking place at a farmhouse that once stood inside the park’s current boundaries. Officials have located a field in which the house once stood and plan to conduct additional archaeological research to locate the foundation, according to park naturalist Richard Davis.
Jeannie Regan-Dinius of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology is directing “Indiana Freedom Trail” efforts as part of the state’s attempt to document Underground Railroad sites. She and Davis attended the luncheon at Eleutherian College.
“The project will be unique in connecting natural and cultural aspects, as far as what slaves had to overcome in their escape to freedom,” Regan-Dinius said. “Remember that slaves would be unlikely to travel known roads for fear of being captured. They traveled along creeks and hid in caves and basements. These areas would have changed dramatically since that time.”
Davis said, “I’m anxious to include any research we find out about the Underground Railroad into our interpretation program at the park.” He is hoping to bring in a team of DNR officials in July to explore the area where the Todd family home once stood.
Indiana DNR officials, meanwhile, plan to work with the new National Underground Railroad Freedom Center museum that is to be built on the riverfront in downtown Cincinnati. As of June, Freedom Center planners had raised $77 million in public and private donations toward their capital campaign goal of $110 million to build the 158,000-square-foot facility. It is expected to be completed in two years.
Officials there held a groundbreaking ceremony June 17 in Cincinnati that featured keynote speaker First Lady Laura Bush and former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, along with dozens of celebrities and politicians. Indiana could become one of the museum’s “Freedom Stations,” which will be a link on the website and included in historical and tourism displays on the Underground Railroad. Each “Freedom Station” will also have electronic access to the museum’s vast collection of digitized research.
Eleutherian College Advisory Council members also plan to be a part of the museum’s story, said Nyberg. Madison could soon become a stop on the regional tourism trail taken by visitors to the Cincinnati museum, he said.
“Southern Indiana has a rich history with the Underground Railroad, so we expect to play a large role with the Underground Railroad museum,” said Nyberg, 39, who in October 2000 was hired as the college’s first director. He has a degree in historic preservation from Middle Tennessee State University and experience in restoration. He also spent eight years working at the Madison Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We think Madison and Lancaster could both be part of any future driving tours originating from Cincinnati. The potential for increased visitors is enormous,” Nyberg said.
Nyberg also has a personal connection to the college, since his great-grandmother attended there. “Her name is written in the grafitti on the third floor,” he said.
A native of Soldier, Ky., near Morehead, Breitweiser attended a teacher training school at Morehead State University. She later taught third grade in Speedway, Ind. She and her husband moved to Madison in 1972.
Breitweiser says Eleutherian College has received “tremendous support” from Historic Madison. “John Galvin has been nothing but helpful to us when we were a little fledgling organization. And they have awarded some grants to us over the years.”
HMI’s director of programs, Kim Franklin Nyberg, is John Nyberg’s wife and sits on the Eleutherian College’s Advisory Council.
Breitweiser and Nyberg only began extensively researching Eleutherian College history since Nyberg was hired. They have examined history books and other texts in search of any links to Eleutherian College. The college sells many of those books at its Visitors Center and on its Internet website. They have established ties include freedom fighters who were operating in Madison and other nearby areas.
The college founded in 1849 by the Rev. Thomas Craven of Oxford, Ohio; the schoolhouse was completed in 1854. It was the first institution in Indiana specifically organized to educate both blacks and whites, men and women, together. Eleutherian College helped prepare fleeing slaves for a life as free people in the north and enjoyed its largest enrollment from 1858 to 1861. In 1860, 200 students were enrolled, 60 of them black and many former slaves.
Disbanded shortly after the Civil War, Eleutherian College was used as a training ground for soldiers, then became a teacher training school in 1887. A decade later, it was deeded to the township and used as a grade school until 1937.
Breitweiser said the Advisory Council not only wants to research the history of the college but also “be able tell the stories of the people who went through here.” For the past two years, the college has held a “gathering” of people who came to provide historical information or photos to be catalogued. A similar event is planned from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sept. 21. It is open to the public.
Even after completing months of research, Breitweiser said, “The Underground Railroad is absolutely a dynamic story, and we’ve just begun to dig into it.”

• Anyone interested in contributing money to the project or volunteering time to conduct research is urged to contact Nyberg at (812) 273-9434. To learn more about Eleutherian College, visit: www.eleutherian.org.
• To learn more about Indiana Freedom Trails, visit: www.dnr.state.in.us. The DNR’s second annual Underground Railroad Summit is scheduled for Aug. 9-10 at the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Ind. For information, call Rachel Clarens at (317) 232-1646. The DNR also has several books and original research for sale at that number. Jae Breitweiser serves as the southeast regional coordinator for the Indiana Freedom Trails. Contact her via email at: breitweiser@msn.com.
• To learn more about the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad initiative, visit: www.cr.nps.gov/nr/underground/travel/ugrrhome.htm.

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