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A Day in Historic Montgomery County: Athens of the Midwest
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

By Nelson Price

On April 7, a rather chilly Tuesday, a group of Pioneers and their guests embarked on a Spring Pilgrimage that involved a stimulating day visiting historic sites in Montgomery County, including restored homes of famous Hoosiers in Crawfordsville and the scenic Wabash College campus.

The first stop was to a site that truly can be described as almost one of a kind. The Pioneers toured the former county jail built in 1881 with a rare, rotating mechanism that brought cellblocks – and inmates – to a single exit and entry. Now known as the Old Jail Museum, the historic site also includes the restored Victorian-era home of the Montgomery County sheriff (the house was built in 1882), which featured an exhibit of quilts on the day the Pioneers visited. The “rotating jail” served as the county’s jail until 1973, then re-opened two years later as the Old Jail Museum.

Historical plaque outside of the Montgomery County “Rotary Jail”

Guides and docents at the Old Jail Museum were excellent without exception, as they were at the Pioneers’ next stop, the restored home of U.S. Sen. Henry Lane (1811-1881), a close friend of Abraham Lincoln. (The pilgrimage to Montgomery County was chosen partly to honor President Lincoln during the bicentennial celebration year of his birth in 1809.) Known as Lane Place and built in the Greek Revival style, the home features artifacts and memorabilia that even include a lock of Lincoln’s hair and the hat that Sen. Lane wore to the slain president’s funeral.

Portrait of Sen. Henry Lane

After touring Lane Place, the Pioneers enjoyed lunch at the Crawfordsville County Club. That was followed by a trip to Wabash College, one of the few all-male colleges remaining in the country. In the campus library, Wabash archivist Beth Swift did a presentation about the college’s history, accompanying her talk with an array of slides of historical images. Afterward, the Pioneers were divided into smaller groups for walking tours of the campus, with current Wabash students as the guides.

Several Pioneers were guided on a tour of the Wabash College campus by a current student.

Next came a visit to the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum, a National Historic Landmark dedicated to celebrating the colorful life of the author of “Ben-Hur”, which was published in the 1880s and became the best-selling book of its era after the Bible. A video and exhibits at the site, which include a domed study that Wallace built in 1899, feature memorabilia related to various stages of his fascinating life. In addition to being a novelist of spectacular success, Lew Wallace served as a Civil War general, the governor of the New Mexico Territory (where he dealt with outlaw Billy the Kid), and as a diplomat to Turkey. Again, there is an anniversary connected with the site; 2009 marks 50 years since the release of the 1959 movie version of “Ben-Hur”, which won a then-record eleven Academy Awards.

The Lew Wallace Study

After re-boarding the motor coach, the Pioneers enjoyed a driving tour of sites in downtown Crawfordsville, including the historic Montgomery County Courthouse. The trip back to Indianapolis featured wine and cheese to savor as Pioneers discussed the highlights of the day.