Road to Freedom
storied past to be retold in future museum
Board members awaiting results of cost study
to begin capital campaign to restore building
(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 Indianas 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.
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. Its 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 countys 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 OBannon visited the
site as part of the nations 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 wars
end and the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been signed Jan. 1863.
Galveston is considered the last city in the country to learn of the
OBannon 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.
OBannon 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.
OBannon 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, OBannon
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 buildings 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. Were 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 colleges historical significance.
A few years after the colleges 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 Neils
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 Madisons Clifty Falls State Park have unearthed research
describing Underground Railroad activity taking place at a farmhouse
that once stood inside the parks 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 states attempt to document
Underground Railroad sites. She and Davis attended the luncheon at Eleutherian
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, Im 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 museums 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 museums vast collection
of digitized research.
Eleutherian College Advisory Council members also plan to be a part
of the museums 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 colleges
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.
HMIs director of programs, Kim Franklin Nyberg, is John Nybergs
wife and sits on the Eleutherian Colleges 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 weve 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:
To learn more about Indiana Freedom Trails, visit: www.dnr.state.in.us.
The DNRs 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about the National Park Services Underground
Railroad initiative, visit: www.cr.nps.gov/nr/underground/travel/ugrrhome.htm.
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