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Richmond: Quaker Heritage
Saturday, October 7, 2000

By Joan Bey

Twenty members of the Society of Indiana Pioneers left the parking lot of the Indiana Historical Society by bus on Saturday, October 7, 2000, to tour historic sites in Richmond, Indiana, with the guidance of the Historical Society’s Tom Krasean.

The first Richmond stop was the Stout Memorial Meeting House on the Earlham College campus. Dr. Thomas Hamm of the college’s History Department provided a thorough explanation of Quaker roots, beginning with the founding of the religion in England in the 1600s and the migration of its members to America. The Earlham School of Religion is the only degree-granting Quaker seminary in the world.

He discussed the Quaker philosophy of working to influence the world for good by changing attitudes toward people in mental hospitals and prisons. In the earliest days in America, the Quakers were considered “weird,” he said, for their beliefs that servants, slaves, and women were equal to men. Titles presented a conflict with the equality they sought for all. Their uncommon attitudes brought persecution in England and in America. After Rhode Island colonists passed a statute of religious tolerance, many Quakers found relief from persecution.

By 1806, North Carolina Quakers had settled in Indiana, a territory where slavery was not allowed. Three years later they held their first meeting. Dr. Hamm pointed out that former Presidents Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were Quakers.

The current liberal arts college began with some 40 students in 1847. The tour group arrived at the only public art museum housed in a high school by midmorning, according to the Richmond Art Museum. Founded in 1898, the museum’s current exhibit includes pottery, sketches, and paintings by four of the seven Overbeck children of Cambridge City, a Wayne County community a few miles west of Richmond on US 40. Using distinctive glazes made from their own formulas, the Overbeck sister’s unique pottery was designed and sold between 1911 and 1955. The exhibit included sketches they used to decorate their pottery. Note cards, calling cards, bookplates, invitations, garden ornaments, textiles, wallpaper, and jewelry were among the items the women produced. Considered highly collectible these days, a piece of the pottery was presented to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, according to museum records.

Lunch in the Olde Richmond Inn was the usual treat members of the Society of Indiana Pioneers have come to expect. A salad, a choice of three entrees, beverages, and dessert was served in one of the seven dining rooms of the former Ferdinand Grothaus family home not far from the county courthouse and the Grothaus parish church. Built in 1892, the home has three fireplaces decorated with Italian tiles popular in the period. After it became a restaurant in 1984, the owners added a banquet facility for groups of up to 130 and increased its bar/dining room area.

The restaurant is a part of the Old Richmond Historic District which the group toured by bus with narration from Neva Houser, a volunteer of the Wayne County Convention and Tourism Bureau. The 250-acre portion of the city south of the courthouse and east of the Whitewater River is a mix of 213 residential and commercial buildings dating from the 1800s. Old Richmond, Inc. purchased a two-story brick Federal Townhouse built in 1825 and an 1893 building used as a grocery until 1973. The restoration of these buildings was the beginning of a downtown beautification program that included bricking Main Street, once a stagecoach route known as the National Road West and later identified at U.S. 40. She pointed out the Starr Piano Company and its Gennett Records Division where Hoagy Carmichael first recorded “Stardust” and where Louie Armstrong was the first black musician to record his Louisiana style jazz in the 1920s.

As Mrs. Houser guided the tour toward the Wayne County Historical Museum, she identified the statue at the entrance to Glen Miller Park as the Madonna of the Trails, one of twelve across the country and the only one in Indiana. The pioneer woman in her sunbonnet carries an infant in her left arm and leads a toddler with her right hand as she marches westward. Later in the afternoon, the group learned that Harry Truman selected the site for the Madonna when he was president of the National Old Trails Association.

Dick Reynolds of the Wayne County Historical Society joined the tour at the Julia Meek Gaar property across the street from The Palladium-Item, the daily newspaper now owned by the Gannett newspaper chain. The Midwest edition of USA Today is forwarded electronically to Richmond from the chain’s East Coast center of operation and is printed and distributed from Richmond. Mr. Reynolds is a retired reporter and columnist who wrote many stories for The Palladium about the community’s history.

The county museum was incorporated in 1902 and is known for its authentic Egyptian mummy and a collection of Richmond-manufactured automobiles dating from the Crosley back to its first electric models. The block square property includes many curiosities collected around the world by Mrs. Gaar, the first building in Richmond with glass windows and a log cabin built in 1823 for a couple and nine children.

The final stop on the tour was the Gaar Mansion on a farm north and east of the city. The three-story house with its lookout at the top was built in 1876 by Abram Gaar and designed by Richmond native John Hasecoster. The architect’s drawings on linen are framed and hung in the structure. Mr. Gaar was a German immigrant who settled in the community in 1807. By the 1840s he made a fortune manufacturing threshing machines and steam engines. Built in eight months at a cost of $20,000, the home contains 90% of the original family furnishings ordered from Mitchell Rammelsberg in Cincinnati on May 31, 1877, according to the bill of sale. Continuously occupied by a member of the Gaar family since it was built, the house is owned by Joanna Hill Mikesell, a great-granddaughter of Abram Gaar. She restored the home; it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. A recent $150,000 grant from the Build Indiana Fund will be used to continue restoration in some areas of the home. The original walnut woodwork in the mansion has never been painted. Along with the parquet floors in the family rooms, the home sports wide plank flooring and native poplar woodwork with artificial graining in the servant’s rooms. The Franco-American structure was designed to collect water in its box gutters for the indoor bathrooms. Spring water was used for drinking. Mrs. Mikesell grew up in the home but lives in another home on the property.

Society of Indiana Pioneer members returned to the Historical Society parking lot at 6 p.m. to retrieve their vehicles after a bright, sunshiny fall day spent in Wayne County.