On banjos and museum education

by Anne Fairchild, Eastern Region Program Manager for the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites

This past weekend, I took a couple of vacation days to go on a little getaway. Only it wasn’t a getaway, as much as an adventure. And the adventure began over four years ago right here at the Lanier Mansion after I started working for the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites. 

Dr. Ron Morris, professor of History at Ball State University, received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help teachers learn best practices for teaching social studies. A very large part of that is including regular visits to museums and historic sites (like Lanier Mansion) in their own communities and across Indiana.

Since that time, Dr. Morris has helped many of our Historic Sites develop useful tools for educators, going so far as to purchase everyday objects used at the Lanier Mansion for student programs about the Lanier family and their servants. He even helped us write an educational script about a middle-class carpenter who helped build the Lanier Mansion and worked and lived in the same community as the Lanier family. Dr. Morris’ curriculum development class has developed lesson plans for the Lanier home as well as several other state historical sites. His students also created documentaries on the historical and architectural importance of Madison as well as Indiana Mills, New Harmony and a beginning interactive DVD about the Underground Railroad. 

In honor of his work for the Lanier Mansion and other State Historic Sites in our system and around Indiana, Dr. Morris won a Leadership in History Award of Merit from the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH), presented last Friday in Oklahoma City. A couple of us took some personal time to head to Oklahoma City to honor him. The AASLH also recognized the Levi Coffin State Historic Site‘s outstanding volunteers Saundra Jackson, Janice McGuire and the other Levi Coffin House Association volunteers. There was a strong Indiana contingency at the AASLH Awards Dinner.

(L-R) Laura Minzes, Bob McGuire, Janice McGuire, Ron Morris, Saundra Jackson, Anne Fairchild and David Buchanan

Talk about a turn-around trip! It was 15-hour drive with meeting folks in Indy, stops and such. For those of us in the museum education field, it is impossible to not compare other historic sites and attractions to where we work. How can we not secretly feel a little smug when passing the much-touted Missouri Vacuum Cleaner Outlet and Museum? Even on our vacations, I think we tend to pick up good ideas from other places, and feel good about things we think we do better. It is energizing! However, I was glad to get back home.

All in all, I learned how to make Chickasaw Native American style beaded earrings, saw a tremendously beautiful Chihuly glass exhibit at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, visited the haunting Oklahoma City National Memorial commemorating the 1995 attack, talked to someone about finding a reproduction gold $10 coin that Lanier would have taken to Washington, D.C., (visit the site to find out why!), took a canal ride in the old “Bricktown” district, visited the American Banjo Museum and Hall of Fame, and did a lot of walking around. Seriously, did you know about art banjos? With some, it was hard to tell if you should play them or wear them like a tiara with all those encrusted jewels. My favorite banjo paid homage to the carousel horses. I also found a cool historical toy for the Lanier Mansion toy box that I had been seeking. So you see, it always comes back to Lanier!

Thank you Dr. Morris for all you do for the Lanier Mansion and the other Indiana State Historic Sites, and thank you Levi Coffin House Association for all you do for that site and Underground Railroad history in Indiana. We appreciate you!

All photos by Rainette Rowland.

An unassuming hero

So many people think heroes are larger than life. Superman, Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger, Abraham Lincoln, Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Barack Obama, Michael Jackson, Odysseus, Lance Armstrong, Eleanor Roosevelt, Todd Beamer, Rosa Parks … the list is endless. And maybe they are larger than life, but most of them don’t start out that way — except for maybe the fictional ones.

The back of the Levi Coffin house.

Along U.S. 27 in Fountain City, just north of Richmond, is a red brick house that was once the home of Levi and Catharine Coffin. The Coffins were Quakers who had moved to Fountain City (it was Newport at the time) in 1826 from North Carolina in part because they were staunch abolitionists. This house and its property is now the Levi Coffin State Historic Site and a National Historic Landmark.

Why? Well, Levi and his wife were heroes to more than 2,000 slaves who were risking their lives for the sake of their freedom. They were unassuming heroes as, by day, Levi was the owner of a mercantile in Newport while Catharine kept house — sewing, cooking, cleaning — for their six children. By night, their home often became a refuge for escaped slaves seeking their freedom in Canada. The Coffins sometimes housed as many as 17 slaves at one time — feeding, clothing and caring for them until their journey resumed. And they did this at great risk to themselves.

The second floor crawlspace is on the left (the inset shows the inside). The false-bottom wagon is on the right.

My recent visit to the Levi Coffin State Historic Site gave me a glimpse into life on the run for escaped slaves. Though the Coffin house had many amenities for hiding slaves — from a hidden crawl space on the second floor and an indoor well in the basement to a false-bottom wagon in the barn — it must have been a terrifying experience. Not to mention unbearably hot in the summer and brutally cold in the winter. But for 20 years, the Coffin family generously provided food, clothes, shelter and moral support for those who needed it most.

Volunteer Janice McGuire explains some of the kitchen tools to a group of visitors.

Speaking of unassuming heroes … the Levi Coffin site is run completely by volunteers who care for the property, the artifacts and provide educational experiences for school groups and other visitors — including me! They tell a great story and work hard to make sure visitors come away with a sense of life in the mid-19th century. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH)  just awarded them the Albert B. Corey Leadership in History Award for their “vigor, scholarship, and imagination.” Congratulations to Saundra, Janice and the rest of the crew! Keep up the good work!

For more information about the Levi Coffin State Historic Site, visit indianamuseum.org/levi_coffin.

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State Historic Site Featured on “Jeopardy” show

“Underground Railroad” category on Thursday, 2/26/09  Jeopardy show…….Here’s the question:

“Levi Coffin’s house in  Indiana, a national historic landmark, was known as THIS in the Underground Railroad….for $400. do you know what it is?”  (see below or here for answer)

"Grand Central Station" of the Underground Railroad

"Grand Central Station" of the Underground Railroad