- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 13, 2016

FOUNTAIN CITY, Ind. (AP) - A storied, local part of the 19th century’s abolition movement has started a new chapter, after a recently completed educational center was unveiled last week in northern Wayne County.

The Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site, formerly known as the Levi Coffin House, is a 5,100-square-foot interactive museum located just north of the long-standing, well-recognized Coffin home along U.S. 27.

It was dedicated by representatives of the Levi Coffin House Association and the Indiana State Museum and Historical Sites.

Long considered one of the most popular historic locations in Indiana, the house offers a glimpse into the role Levi and Catherine Coffin played in the success of the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s.

The new interpretive center received widespread attention in a Smithsonian magazine article called “Twelve New Museums to Visit in 2016” featuring sites around the world. Some of the other choices include the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.; Charlie Chaplin’s estate in Switzerland; the National Blues Museum (St. Louis, Mo.) and six restored sites at the famous Pompeii ruins (Naples, Italy).

The home, a National Historic Landmark, also was featured earlier this year by U.S. News & World Report as one of “5 Places to Experience African American History and Culture.”

The $3.8 million interpretive center, on which ground was broken in October 2014, features the exhibition, “Souls Seeking Safety: Bringing Indiana’s Underground Railroad Experience.” It includes information on the underground railroad, the Coffins, and other important figures in the abolition movement. In addition to its exhibition space, the facility features a screening area, a reception room, a gift shop, offices and public restrooms.

Tom King, president and CEO of the Indiana State Museum, said the opening of the center brings with it a host of new opportunities for those who want to better understand the history of the Underground Railroad. He said he anticipates a groundswell of interest in that history to arise from across Indiana with the center’s debut.

“It will bring (thousands) more people into Wayne County to see this site,” he said. “This place highlights the significant role that this part of Indiana played in helping eliminate slavery. I think that’s something we need to always remember; it’s an important part of our state’s history.”

The small town of Fountain City, formerly called Newport, is considered the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad. Levi Coffin, a Quaker who had been persecuted for his religion, and his wife, Catharine, sheltered more than 2,000 slaves escaping across the Ohio River before the Civil War.

King said he expects the site, which will now be led by a new facility director who works for the state museum system, to see a six- to seven-fold increase in the number of visitors it gets per year, particularly because the site will be open far more often.

“We are going from seeing this facility being open for just part of the year to it being open year-round,” he said. “I think that’s going to make it an even more attractive place to visit.”

The site has typically been open between 70 and 100 days of the year in recent years, due to the limited availability of volunteers, which have historically run the house on the adjacent corner. Volunteers, such as those from the Levi Coffin House Association, will maintain a presence at the facility by acting as tour guides and through other roles.

“The most important thing (for us) was being able to expand the story … so we could cover the story of those who were enslaved and who came here,” said Saundra Jackson, who, with her sister Janice McGuire, has been one of the most active volunteers for the Coffin association. “We will continue to be here to help in whatever ways we can here at the site and we’ll continue to support the house; but the addition of the (staff member) will allow the house, and this new facility, to stay open on a consistent basis.”

Jackson and McGuire were presented the Bicentennial Beacon Award in August as they entered their 40th season volunteering at the house. McGuire is the association’s president and Jackson the association’s treasurer.

Site manager Joanna Hahn, who will be the primary staff member at the center, said she believes the addition will help attract new groups of people to the area.

“The interest in the site comes in all different forms; we have a very large international interest in the site, so I think we will see a large increase in the number of (organized) tours we get in the coming year,” Hahn said. “There is a lot more accessibility with this center than with the (house), so I think that will play a big role.”

Hahn said she expects that there will be a demand for more events outside the normal hours of operation - expected to be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays - because of the added reception space.

“Outside groups are going to want to come in and use this space for different things,” she said. “It’s going to be a great opportunity for us to give them a different perspective on things.”

Hahn said admission for the center and the home will be increased. For adults, admission will be $10, and it will allow visitors to explore both the new center and the original house, built in 1839. Senior admission will be $8, while children ages 3-17 can enter for $5.

She said the price increase is both because of the added value the new building brings, as well as its added costs.

“We think this is going to be a great value for people and it’s a (fair price),” she said. “People are going to gain a wealth of knowledge walking through this site.”

Mary Walker, executive director of the Wayne County Tourism Bureau, said she expects thousands from throughout the country will make their way to the center in the coming years

“This is going to have a huge impact, both economically … and community development-wise,” Walker said. “When you have a facility that has seen visitors from 40-plus states and 10 different countries, you know you have something worth preserving and (improving). I think this is a remarkable step in helping people understand the story behind the Coffins and their work.”

Indiana’s bicentennial torch was lit outside the museum as it began its trek through Wayne County in September, and McGuire traveled with the torch for a short distance in a false-bottom wagon from the museum’s collection.

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Source: (Richmond) Palladium-Item, https://pinews.co/2gmnbAK

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Information from: Palladium-Item, https://www.pal-item.com


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