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Historic Crawfordsville Indiana

Updated on December 12, 2015
Montgomery County Courthouse
Montgomery County Courthouse | Source

Crawfordsville Indiana is located in west central portion of the state. Despite its small size (population 16,000), Crawfordsville has several interesting historic buildings. These include Lane Place, the Ben-Hur Museum, and the Old Jail Museum.

Lane Place is the former home of U.S. Senator Henry Smith Lane
Lane Place is the former home of U.S. Senator Henry Smith Lane | Source

Lane Place

Lane Place was the home of Henry Smith Lane. Mr. Lane, a lawyer and former Congressman, purchased this site in 1844. At that time the house was only a three-room brick cottage. In 1845 Lane married the daughter of his next door neighbor, who supervised the construction of the west wing of the home and the landscaping of the estate. Lawyers in those days, like preachers, traveled a circuit on horseback around their hometowns. Sometimes, Lane would travel as far west as Covington, the seat of justice for Fountain County in Indiana. There he occasionally encountered a lawyer from Illinois who sometimes ventured as far east as Covington. This fellow had grown up in Indiana, and was named Abraham Lincoln. The two men became friends and were both active in the Whig Party. After the Whig party disintegrated, Lane and Lincoln worked to bring some of these splinter groups together, forming the nucleus of the Republican Party. Lane served as chairman of the first Republican National Convention, held in Philadelphia during 1856. In 1860 he was a staunch supporter of Lincoln, who was eventually nominated for president. Lincoln became the first Republican president, and Lane became Indiana's first Republican governor. After only two days as governor, he was appointed U.S. senator by the state legislature. During the Civil War years, Lane was a close friend of President Lincoln. One of the items on display is called "Abe's cracker jar." Since the president often visited his friend in Washington, and was fond of crackers, the Lanes kept the cracker jar available for him. Lincoln appointed Senator Lane chairman of his second inauguration in 1865. After the assassination, Henry Lane was an honorary pallbearer at the president's funeral. On a hall tree at Lane Place today is the top hat that Senator Lane wore at the funeral. Henry Lane returned to Crawfordsville in 1867, and lived at Lane Place until his death in 1881. The Lane family had no children, but Mrs. Lane's nieces and nephews always enjoyed visiting "Auntie Lane." After Mrs. Lane died in 1914, Helen Smith, one of her nieces, inherited the estate. Ms. Smith donated this property to the Montgomery County Historical Society in 1931. Since only the Lanes and their niece lived here, most of the articles on display belonged to the Lane family.

The Ben-Hur Museum is located in the study of General Lew Walace
The Ben-Hur Museum is located in the study of General Lew Walace | Source

Ben-Hur Museum

The Ben-Hur Museum is located in the former study of Lew Wallace. A general during the Civil War, he also served as territorial governor of New Mexico (1878-1881) and ambassador to Turkey (1881-1885). The museum contains a number interesting artifacts. These include a painting of the Turkish Sultan's daughter, a gift to Wallace from the Sultan when he left his post as ambassador. There is also a death warrant for Billy the Kid, signed by Wallace when he was New Mexico's territorial governor. He served during the time of the infamous "Lincoln County Wars". It is obvious from the displays that Lew Wallace was an avid hunter & fisherman. The collections include some of his fishing poles and lures, and his last fishing license. There is also a picture of the general teaching a young boy how to fish at the moat, which originally flanked the east side of the study. The moat and a reflecting pool in the rear were eventually filled in. Wallace is best known for his literary masterpiece, "Ben-Hur," first published in 1880. On display is a photograph of Charlton Heston in front of the study. Wallace never saw Heston's movie, which has thrilled millions with its exciting chariot race. Wallace was able to see his work become a stage play. How did they have a chariot race in a stage play you ask? They used live horses on a treadmill. A newspaper article on display contains a diagram showing how it was done.

Crawfordsville has the only remaining rotary jail which can still rotate
Crawfordsville has the only remaining rotary jail which can still rotate | Source

Old Rotary Jail Museum

The Old Jail Museum was built in 1882. It combined a residence for the sheriff and his family with a prison design that was patented the year before. Those who came in the front door were guests of the sheriff. Those who came in the side door were guests of the county. The cellblock in the back resembles a giant lazy susan. It is a two-story cylinder, which is divided into eight pie-shaped cells on each level. Prisoners passed through a narrow opening into the rotating central portion. The reason for this design was to provide maximum security with minimal personnel. The cellblock was rotated by a hand crank, and was so well balanced that a child could turn it. Seventeen rotary jails were constructed, but only three are still standing. The others are located in:

This is the only one, which can still be rotated. The cell is only rotated during the Crawfordsville Strawberry Festival in June, and the Labor Day Breakout Festival. The tour guides are quite knowledgeable, and have numerous interesting stories. My favorite is the one about the inmate who had a wooden peg leg, and kept inserting it through the bars so that the cellblock could not be rotated. Finally, the sheriff came in with a saw and said "You do that one more time and I'm going to saw that leg off." Another story the tour guides tell is about Shorty, who was similar to Otis on the Andy Griffith Show. He stayed at the jail and always bragged about the cooking of the sheriff's wife, especially her strawberry shortcake. Surprisingly, the tour guides say a number of visitors are former inmates who want to show their friends and relatives where they spent a night in jail. You might not think spending a night in jail would be something to brag about, but if the facility is now on the National Register of Historic Places, maybe so. Be advised that if you commit a crime in Crawfordsville today, you will spend a night in an ordinary modern jail. Here's a video that shows a tour of the jail.

Visit Crawfordsville

Why not visit Crawfordsville and see some of these unique attractions for yourself? If you are looking for a place to stay, consider The Davis House bed and breakfast.


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