Eleutherian College plans reunion
to obtain materials for its archive

Officials seek status as a National Park

By Carri Dirksen
Contributing Writer

LANCASTER, Ind. • A decade ago, two women, Jae Breitweiser and the late Dotti Reindollar, felt an inner drive to preserve the history of a building and the people associated with it. The building is the Historic Eleutherian College, located outside Lancaster, Ind., 10 miles northwest of Madison.

Eleutherian College

The Eleutherian College sits
high on a hill
overlooking Lancaster, Ind.

We both felt the need to save the building, Breitweiser recalled. She and Reindollar became the owners in 1990 through a sealed bid auction, buying the building without either of their husbands' knowledge. Reindollar died in January in connection with a tragic early morning house fire.
Vern Reindollar, Dotti's husband, recalls the day he learned about the women's new project. We were visiting our daughter when Dotti got a call from Jae that they had won the auction. She then told me that they had bought a college. I remember jokingly telling her that was great, everyone should own a college.
Now Breitweiser and others are working to gain a national park designation for the site and are planning an October reunion of people with any knowledge or family history related to the college. A visitor's center at the site also recently opened to the public. And a new director, John Nyberg of Madison, has been hired to manage the site and a future computerized data base of information related to the college's history. Breitweiser has applied for a grant through Cummins Engine Co. to purchase a computer system.
The Eleutherian College was founded in 1848 by the Rev. Thomas Craven. The name derived from the Greek word eleutherous, which means ‹freedom of equality. 
Craven first came to Lancaster as a guest preacher at the Neil's Creek (named for a local stream) Abolition Baptist Church & Anti-Slavery Society. Founded in 1825 by Baptists from Ohio and New England, the group assisted the Underground Railroad in moving escaped slaves from Kentucky to freedom in Canada. 
The members were inspired by Craven's sermon that told of his dream to build a college where people of all races and both sexes could attend classes together. They urged him to build the college in Lancaster. The college became the first  in Indiana to offer classes to African Americans and the second to admit students without regard to race and gender.
The main college building opened in 1854. The three-story building, constructed of stone quarried nearby, contains seven classrooms and a chapel. The original cast-iron bell transported by ox cart from Madison is operating today.
Late historian Emma Lou Thorn-brough writes, "A primary purpose of the school was to increase the opportunities for an elementary school education for more colored children through the training of more teachers."
By 1858, 100 graduates of the college were qualified to teach, 15 of whom were black. 
Not everyone in the community supported the school. Knights of the Golden Circle (a forerunner to the Ku Klux Klan) operated nearby. In 1850, three homes intended for black students were burned to the ground. In 1852, three college officials were arrested for violating a statute of the state constitution that made it illegal to ‹encourage Negroes to come into the state. The county judge, a fellow abolitionist, dismissed the case.
Many students served and gave their lives to the Union Army during the Civil War. The school grounds were used for training volunteers. After the war, the college continued operating, primarily as a training college for teachers, until 1887 when it was sold to the school trustees for use as a grade school. The grade school operated until 1937, then the building sat idle for years and had several owners.
C.A. Dryden from Hanover was the first owner, according to Violet Fewell, a former owner and now a member of the Historic Eleutherian College Advisory Council.  ‹After vandals broke 100 window panes, he asked my husband, Richard, to take the building over because we lived nearby. To make it legal, he sold it to Richard for $100.
After Richard's death, Maj. T. Jester took it over. His son gave it to Historic Madison, Inc. to preserve it when his father died. It was from HMI that Breitweiser and Reindollar purchased the building.
Neither woman stepped inside the building until after they had purchased it. Breitweiser recalls, "We purchased the building in November. There was a very strong wind the day we first went inside. The door blew shut behind us and we couldn't get it open. I had pants on, so I climbed out the window and proceeded to slip on the snow on my behind. Dotti and I just laughed and laughed."
The women donated the building to the non-profit Historic Eleutherian College Inc. Advisory Council in 1991. The council then purchased the neighboring property to the west of the college and the home of Lyman Hoyt, a founder of the school. 
The building in 1993 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1997, it was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service. 
In a 1997 interview, Reindollar said, ‹We have had a dream to eventually become a national historic park. 
Breitweiser and a large team of volunteers are now pursuing that vision. Reindollar's son, Brook, serves on the advisory council.
Congress must act to designate the site a national historic park. The process takes many years and requires support from the local, state and federal level. Breitweiser says, "We continue to work to preserve the building and tell its history. Many people, both white and black, are involved."
Sue Livers, an advocate for educating others on the history of the Underground Railroad in Jefferson County, said, "The Under-ground Railroad was a time when both blacks and whites worked together for a common cause without any reward. I see a similar effort at the college with both races working to preserve the building and tell the story."
Nyberg, who has relatives who  attended the college, says there is much work to do, but that "I'm really excited to get started."
A visitor's center has recently opened in a farmhouse at 6927 W. State Road 250 next to the college building. Both it and the historic college building are open the first full weekend of every month from 10 a.m to 4 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays through November. Both will re-open again in March. 
A Historic Eleutherian College Reunion is planned on Oct. 8 from 
1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. 
Anyone with knowledge or family history of the building when it was a college or later a grade school is urged to attend. A computer and scanner will be set up to copy any pictures and other artifacts people bring. Refreshments will be served.

• Directions to the Eleutherian College from Madison: Take Hwy. 7 north to Hwy. 250 West. The college is on the left. Park at the visitor's center, the first entrance past the college. For more information, call the Eleutherian College visitors' center at (812) 273-9434 or Breitweiser at (812) 866-2795.

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