Greenfield, Mount Auburn, Fountain City, and New Castle
Friday, May 14, 2004
By Robert H. Everitt
On Friday, May 14, 29 Society of Indiana Pioneers members and guests departed from Indianapolis on the 2004 Hoosier Heritage Spring Pilgrimage. Tour host Bill Kelleher and driver Mark Spangler promised a full day of Indiana history “Along the Old National Road.”
From “Wagon Road” to All-American Road, the National Road (today’s U.S. Route 40) is our country’s first federally funded interstate highway that connected the eastern seaboard to the western interior. First proposed by President George Washington, preliminary funding was provided during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. The 156-mile stretch across Indiana was surveyed in 1827, and construction from Richmond to Terre Haute was completed in 1834. Many Indiana communities we would pass along the road were named for their eastern counterparts, such as Cumberland, Philadelphia, and Charlottesville.
Our first stop was in Greenfield, the county seat of Hancock County (named for John Hancock), where half of the group joined County Council Member Rosalie Richardson for a tour of the spectacular 1896 Hancock County Courthouse, and the remaining members of the group proceeded to the birthplace and boyhood home of Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley. After one-hour tours, the groups traded places.
The Courthouse fronts the National Road in the center of the Square, ringed by the original 1871 Sheriff’s office and jail and other impressive 19th-century buildings, many of which have been well-maintained and attractively adapted to modern use. The impressive three-story courthouse is constructed of Ellettsville limestone and is slated for major renovation and restoration once a courthouse annex, which is now under construction, is completed.
Notable features were the architectural elements such as the interior murals, plasterwork, and intricate stone carving on the exterior. Famed attorneys F. Lee Bailey and Melvin Belli argued cases in the Hancock County Circuit Court.
Two blocks west of the Courthouse, costumed and knowledgeable hostesses guided the group through the house where James Whitcomb Riley was born in 1849 and spent his early childhood.
Although Riley wrote a considerable amount of prose, his verse brought him distinction, particularly his poems in dialect. He always wrote with his eye on the characters: The Raggedy Man, Little Orphant Annie, and Old Aunt Mary. All of these characters had their foundations in persons Riley knew in his youth in Greenfield and the house was filled with memorabilia of his happy boyhood experiences. In a 1917 forward to a publication of some of his works, President Woodrow Wilson wrote: “James Whitcomb Riley has become as much a household word as Santa Claus.” Riley posed for an impressive bronze statue in the Courthouse Square, but it was not erected until 1918, two years after his death.
Continuing east through Knightstown (named for Jonathon Knight, chief surveyor of the National Road), Lewisville, and Dublin, the next stop was at the Lakeview Family Restaurant on the National Road in Mt. Auburn, where a hearty buffet lunch was provided. Following lunch, the group proceeded just a few hundred yards east to the Huddleston Farmhouse Inn and Museum where we were again divided into two smaller groups for private tours by knowledgeable hosts Jim Orr and Ernie Ravinet. Built in 1840 by the Huddleston family (John, Susannah, and eleven children), the house is just a few feet from the side of the road. The family sold provisions and provided “traveler’s kitchens” to migrants for the preparation of their own food while resting their teams and other livestock or repairing their wagons. Now owned and operated by the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, it also serves as the Eastern Indiana Headquarters of that organization. The house and several outbuildings are being meticulously restored to their early 19th-century appearance.
Leaving the National Road, we headed north to Fountain City (formerly known as Newport) and the home of Levi and Catharine Coffin where as many as 2,000 slaves escaping to the freedom to be found in Canada were provided safe haven.
The Coffins, anti-slavery Quakers from North Carolina, built this house in 1839 with the notion that it must serve as a hiding place for fugitive slaves, and it became known as the “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad. The simple two-story brick house is built in the Federal style and features seven rooms, including a secret compartment in the garret off one of the upstairs bedrooms.
Returning through Henry County (named for Patrick Henry), the final stop was at the sixteen-room William C. Grose mansion in New Castle. Owned and operated by the Henry County Historical Society since 1902, the museum contains a remarkable collection of furniture, clothing, tools, toys, Civil War memorabilia, and a reconstructed turn-of-the-century barbershop. Prominently featured are products manufactured in Henry County during the 19th and early 20th centuries: Jessie French pianos, kitchen cabinets manufactured by the Hoosier Manufacturing Company, and coverlets woven by Samuel Graham.
Members of the Society of Indiana Pioneers particularly appreciated learning about the extensive genealogical and historical records maintained in the museum’s library.
The group returned to Indianapolis with a new appreciation for the life of the early settlers “Along the Old National Road” and beyond.