Distinctive Fountain City: Small town boasts big attractions
Fountain City, Indiana, is home to fewer than 800 people, but what it lacks in population, it more than makes up for in history.
In fact, the town is awaiting word on its application to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The styles of residential, commercial, and public buildings include Federal, Italianate, Queen Anne, Classical Revival, and Bungalow. Walking through Fountain City is rather like flipping through an encyclopedia of American architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries.
But one modest, painted brick, 1839 house stands out among all the others.This house stands out because of who lived there, what they did, and the story they shared with the world. It was the home of Levi and Catharine Coffin, Quaker activists on the Underground Railroad.
If you are from the area and visited the Coffin House on a school field trip years ago, you might want to take another look. If you’ve never been, make the trip. Fountain City is just five miles north of Interstate 70 on U.S. 27.
Eastern Indiana and western Ohio represented one important route to Canada and freedom for escaped slaves. The Coffins were just one of many households that protected and assisted the runaways. What makes the Coffins unique is that in 1876, Levi Coffin published his “Reminiscences,” in which he described how and why the Underground Railroad operated.
“Most people who were involved did not talk about it even after the Civil War ended,” said Site Manager Joanna Hahn. There are a lot of houses in the region identified as “stops” on the railroad by local lore or family history, but the Levi’s “Reminiscences” offer firm documentation about this house and how it was used.
Levi also passed along stories of some of the people he and Catharine helped – their decision to escape, their life on the run, and what happened after they found freedom.
Just north of the house is the former Fountain City Friends Meetinghouse, now the Quaker Welcome Center. The main room has been partially restored to look much as it did when Levi and Catharine Coffin worshiped there as part of the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends. To arrange a tour, contact EdingerD70@gmail.com.
The Coffin site will host performances by historic interpreter and musician Kevin Stonerock at 3 and 5 p.m. Sept. 15. Details about that and other events are at the Levi and Catharine Coffin House State Historic Site page on Facebook.
If you can’t come that weekend or prefer a quieter visit, Fountain City offers plenty to see and do. Hahn recommends allowing at least two hours to go through the self-guided Interpretive Center and the volunteer-guided tour of the house itself.
Stevie downplays his role in the store’s success, giving more credit to the bank, his wife, and especially to God. “All the honor goes to God,” he said.
In nice weather, folks sit at the lawn furniture to enjoy sandwiches or homemade ice cream from the store (there also are a few tables inside). “Don’t die until you’ve tried the ice cream,” Stevie told me with a smile.
Hunger also can be satisfied at Pizza King or carry-out from the Mini Mart. Or you can have a sit-down meal at the Family Diner. Be forewarned, however. On Friday’s all-you-can-eat fish night, “Everybody in town’s down there,” said resident Mary Lou Griffey. “If somebody doesn’t show up, they call to see what’s going on.”
One year ago, he did just that. But the business is a bit hard to describe. It’s part craft shop (with works by local artisans), part clothing store (with finds Bales brings back from semi-annual trips to Texas) for all ages, part Western art gallery, part tack shop, part feed shop, part antique store, part gift shop. Every aisle is a surprise.
My personal favorites – little kids’ western wear, wrapping paper covered with horses, and a toilet paper dispenser and storage unit made to look like an outhouse, built by a local Amish craftsman.
“There’s something in here for everyone, young and old,” said Bales. “I try to get in things that you can’t find anywhere else.”
That’s sort of true for the whole town.
It’s worth a visit.
By Louise Ronald