Freedom, according to one story, meant so much to an enslaved man named William Bush that he had himself shipped in a wooden box addressed to “Newport, Wayne County, Indiana, care of Levi Coffin.”
That story from 180 years ago is one that Aaron Martin loves to hear and retell in his work as program developer at the Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site. Martin will share that and other stories this Saturday during a “Walking Tour of Old Newport.”
In Newport, now the town of Fountain City, Bush befriended the Coffins and became a blacksmith and lay veterinarian. Despite the presence of “slave catchers” who visited the town periodically in the years before America’s Civil War, he helped other enslaved people escape bondage along the Underground Railroad. His great-great-granddaughter, Eileen Bragg Baker-Wall, often shares family legends about him as a volunteer tour guide at the Interpretive Center.
Newport became known as the Underground Railroad’s Grand Central Station, and Levi Coffin as its unofficial president. The Coffins and a network of helpers successfully helped 1,000 people find freedom.
“We really try to tell the stories of the freedom seekers and of the Coffins and all of those who helped on the Underground Railroad,” said Martin. “It’s an incredible story: why they chose to take those risks; the hardships of slavery and the personal beliefs of the Coffins.”
Martin, fellow staff members and volunteers get to share those stories in programs centered on the Levi and Catharine Coffin Interpretive Center. It is a museum-like set of displays located just north of the Coffins’ brick house at 201 U.S. 27 N, Fountain City. Both are open to the public Wednesday through Sunday, with two guided tours daily.
“We try to give visitors ‘the history happened here’ experience,’” Martin said. “That’s my favorite sensation. Technology is not yet to the point of replicating what you can get here: the creaking floors, the smell of an old house. We have an actual hiding place that people can stick their heads in.”
On the first Saturday of June, July, August and September, Martin will lead “A Walking Tour of Old Newport” from 3 to 5 p.m. The walk will visit several homes that William Bush and the Coffins would have seen. Each stop provides a chance to tell a story about real people who lived there and what they did. Reservations are required by Friday.
Juneteenth, a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, will be observed by the Coffin House, the Indiana State Museum and all state historic sites with free admission on Saturday, June 17. The Earlham Jazz Band will play lively concerts for paying guests at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
“What We Can Learn from the Dead” is the title of a July 29 program which will be repeated in October. During an hour-long guided tour of Willow Grove Cemetery starting at 1 p.m., meet soldiers and doctors, business owners, Underground Railroad heroes and early African Americans who settled here and made this the first integrated cemetery in the community. Plus, learn the techniques and challenges in the art of gravestone rubbing. Advanced registration is required by noon July 28. Participants meet at the cemetery.
A one-day workshop for educators, “Teaching Freedom and Unfreedom: Frederick Douglass in Indiana and Beyond,” is scheduled for Monday, June 26. It will examine the speeches of Douglass, a leading abolitionist, in various periods of his life. Registration, due by June 13, is free for educators in grades K-12.
Each year on Presidents Day in February, all the Indiana historic sites offer free admission. A special feature at the Coffin House is a visit from an impersonator of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, who performs for paying guests.
Programs at other times of the year include candlelight tours in December and January; and tours for children in October and January that focus on how children lived in 1830s Newport.
The Interpretive Center and Coffin House is open five days a week, Wednesday-Sunday, offering guided tours at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Tour capacity is 10, so reservations are recommended by calling 765-847-1691.
If you go
The Levi & Catharine Coffin State Historic Site includes the Coffin House (c. 1839) and an Interpretive Center at 201 U.S. 27 N., Fountain City. It’s owned and operated by the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites.
Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, with two guided tours a day. Special programs at other times. Reservations are recommended for tours and required for programs.
Admission is charged for the public except on three holidays, and there are fees to attend most programs. Membership is available and provides free admission.
Programs are available for school classes and other groups.
For information, call 765-847-1691 or send email to LeviCoffinCenter@indianamuseum.org. Website: www.indianamuseum.org/historic-sites/levi-catharine-coffin-house/
A version of this article appeared in the May 31 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.