Exploring Indiana’s Underground Railroad History and Amish Life

Upstairs bedroom crawl space Levi and Catharine Coffin home Fountain City on Indiana's Underground Railroad (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Upstairs bedroom crawl space in the Levi and Catharine Coffin home, a Fountain City, Indiana Underground Railroad stop – there is not much room in there – you’d have to stay lying down most of the time (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Trust.

The “stations” of the Underground Railroad were trustworthy people and safe houses that freedom-seeking slaves could rely on to help them escape captivity. In a world without today’s enormously powerful communications networks, people still found ways to connect those seeking freedom with those who would help them find it.

This person could be trusted. That house is safe to go up to in the nighttime and quietly tap on the door. This person won’t actively help you, but would look the other way and not turn you in to bounty hunters.

Trust.

In eastern Indiana near Richmond, there is a state historic site in tiny Fountain City that was the home of a Quaker couple who lived their abolitionist, anti-slavery values so deeply that their two-story 1839 brick house was designed in part to support their work for the Underground Railroad.

The Levi and Catharine Coffin home is full of secrets, despite its bland, Quaker-plain exterior and pleasant, but rather unremarkable front rooms and bedrooms.

Here is the rear door entrance into the kitchen, where for twenty years before the Civil War, over 1,000 escapees either walked up themselves to knock on the door, or spilled out of wagons that had secretly transported them. It was not a good idea to just go bang on the front door in full view of the street, you know.

Rear entrance from inside Levi and Catharine Coffin home Fountain City Indiana near Richmond Underground Railroad (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Rear entrance leading into the kitchen in the Levi and Catharine Coffin state historic site in Fountain City, Indiana, near Richmond (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Here is the house and that rear door viewed from the outside … Levi and Catharine moved here from North Carolina because they could not abide living in a slave state.

Exterior Levi and Catharine Coffin home Fountain City on Indiana's Underground Railroad (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Exterior of the Levi and Catharine Coffin home in Fountain City, Indiana, showing the much-used rear entrance (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

They were right on a major thoroughfare in a town that was then called Newport, surrounded by many like-minded Quakers in the community who supported their work and served as lookouts.

In addition to touring the house itself, spend time in the excellent Interpretive Center right next door, to understand how the Underground Railroad worked nationwide and in the state.

Looking at the map below, you can see why Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, with their proximity to Canada and shared borders with slave states, were so central to the Railroad network. Note all the activity around Cincinnati – today’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is located there.

Slave and freedom seeker escape routes shown at Levi and Catharine Coffin state historic site Interpretive Center Fountain City Indiana (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Freedom seeker escape routes shown at the Levi and Catharine Coffin state historic site Interpretive Center in Fountain City, Indiana (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The Coffin historic site presents Levi and Catharine as equals when discussing their work for fugitives. Levi was a prominent businessman and community leader in the town, but his wife’s efforts were crucial to the work of feeding, clothing, hiding, and providing emotional support to freedom seekers.

Said Levi about Catharine:

“I knew that my wife’s feelings and sympathies regarding this matter were the same as mine, and that she was willing to do her part … It was never too cold or stormy, or the hour of night too late for my wife to rise from sleep, and provide food and comfortable lodging …”

Levi Coffin portrait and desk Fountain City Indiana Underground Railroad (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Levi Coffin’s portrait and front room desk at his home in Fountain City, Indiana, a major stop on the Underground Railroad (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

When touring the home with one of the site’s excellent guides, note that most of the rooms have more than one entrance, so people have a way to move to safety if needed. The photo at the top of this post shows an opening from an upstairs bedroom into a small space that could hide fugitives.

Here is the unique spring-fed well INSIDE the house, below the kitchen, so that no one outside the house could see any unusual increases in people fetching water at odd hours of the day or night …

Indoor well at Levi and Catharine Coffin home Fountain City on Indiana's Underground Railroad (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Our guide Joel shows us the unusual indoor well at the Levi and Catharine Coffin home in Fountain City, Indiana (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Outside in the barn is an example of a false-bottom wagon.

Freedom seekers would lie flat on the actual bottom, then a divider would be placed above them (making a compartment) and boxes or sacks or maybe hay could be piled up so the wagon would look unremarkable going down a road.

Can you imagine bumping along for hours at a time, unable to see anything, trusting the wagon driver who you probably just met?

False bottom wagon at Levi and Catharine Coffin home Fountain City Indiana Underground Railroad (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

False bottom wagon for hiding human cargo, at the Levi and Catharine Coffin state historic site (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The Coffin site’s Interpretive Center tells some interesting stories, like that of the free black Ampey family who bought land in town from Levi. Their three sons all fought in black Union infantry regiments during the Civil War; one did not survive.

There are quotes on the walls that make you think …

Frederick Douglass quote about slave escape at Levi and Catharine Coffin home Interpretive Center Fountain City Indiana Underground Railroad (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Frederick Douglass quote about slave escape at the Levi and Catharine Coffin state historic site Interpretive Center (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

As I was driving away from the Coffin historic site, I happened to see a small green sign with an arrow pointing to my left that said, “Highest point in Indiana.”

Who could resist? I turned left.

It became quite the trek, as I went down one small road after another, through endless cornfields. None of the signs gave any distance information, but just as I would be ready to give up and turn around, another one would pop up turning me left or right. There was absolutely no signal out there (at least for me on T-Mobile) so Google Maps on my phone was useless.

These were quiet backroads, with the occasional unattended truck parked at an intersection with a bed full of produce and a handwritten sign over an honor system payment bucket saying, “Sweet corn, $2 a bag.”

I also passed one house that I knew was Amish because there was a woman outside with a white bonnet and long dress, mowing with a push-reel mower as laundry dried on clotheslines (the Amish avoid connecting their homes to the public power grid.)

At one point I passed an Amish boy and girl in the cutest little wagon, complete with giant reflective safety markers, pulled by a pony. They could not have been more than seven or eight years old, and they were laughing uproariously about something. I knew that they were self-reliant and were fine with handling their pony and wagon, but I worried for the rest of the day about other cars, or big pickup trucks, going too fast and not seeing them.

After about 20 minutes of turning left and right, I was about to give up on my objective when I happened to see the small sign that told me I’d reached the highest point.

It was called, of course, “Hoosier Hill.”

Hoosier Hill in Wayne County near Fountain City highest point in Indiana (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Hoosier Hill in Wayne County near Fountain City, the highest point in Indiana (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I had to get out of the car and celebrate my success!

Sheila Scarborough in the corn on Hoosier Hill near Fountain City Indiana

The corn in August was higher than my head. On Hoosier Hill, Indiana.

Somehow I worked my way back into Fountain City to get back on the road toward Richmond, and I realized that an Amish grocery store that I’d passed earlier was still open for another 30 minutes or so – Fountain Acres Foods.

You can sometimes spot an Amish business from the outside because they are really good at using lots of roof skylights to light the interior without electricity.

Exterior Fountain Acres Foods Amish store showing skylights Fountain City Indiana (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Exterior of the Fountain Acres Foods Amish store, showing the many skylights that keep the interior well-lit without electricity (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I parked in front; an Amish gentleman pulled up at the same time, but he was in a buggy so he went to “buggy and horse parking” on the side of the building. The Amish do not like to be photographed, but he stopped for a minute to talk pleasantly about his horse, and unload some things from the buggy.

Inside the store, you’ll find an incredible variety of items; some you’d expect and some you wouldn’t. Wasabi peas was something I did not expect …

Wasabi peas at Fountain Acres Foods Amish store Fountain City Indiana (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

They aim to please every palate at the Fountain Acres Foods Amish grocery store in Fountain City, Indiana (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

There were refrigerated products available even without electricity, because many Amish are okay with using diesel generators or propane refrigeration systems.

Many items are hand-packaged and tidily arranged on shelves, like the massive selection of cookie and cake decorating goodies stacked in identical clear plastic containers – sanding sugar sprinkles in blue, pink, yellow, orange, red, black, white, green, rainbow, and more.

Cookie and cake decorating products at Fountain Acres Foods Amish store in Fountain City Indiana (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

If you want sanding sugar or those little sugar beads, they’ve got it at Fountain Acres Foods Amish store in Fountain City, Indiana (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The bakery still had a few apple fry pies left, and I spotted chocolate whoopie pies with coffee filling. Wow!

The canned and jarred selection included exotica (to me) like pickled, cured pork hocks and turkey gizzards, plus an array of jams and jellies …

Part of the jam selection at Fountain Acres Foods Amish store Fountain City Indiana (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Not sure what they taste like, but they look intriguing!

Outside is an enormous selection of outdoor furniture, including full children’s playsets, gazebos, swings, and all of these chairs …

Outdoor furniture for sale at Fountain Acres Foods Amish store Fountain City Indiana (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Every kind of chair you can imagine in the outdoor furniture for sale at Fountain Acres Foods Amish store (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Here is 30 seconds of peace on the front porch of the store, as a passing breeze moves all the whirligigs and soothing wind chimes …

 

It was a perfect afternoon in the U.S. Midwest – some history, a pretty drive, and some unique shopping.

To top it off, on my way out of town I passed a dignified Amish man in a traditional straw hat, riding a kick-scooter down the sidewalk.

Doesn’t get much better than that.

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