Archived Story

It’s now or never to save historic Bonine home

Published 9:00am Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The James E. Bonine home west of Vandalia on M-60 mixes Greek Revival architecture with flamboyant Second Empire, including tall arched windows. (The Daily News/John Eby)
The James E. Bonine home west of Vandalia on M-60 mixes Greek Revival architecture with flamboyant Second Empire, including tall arched windows. (The Daily News/John Eby)

By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News

VANDALIA – The new Underground Railroad Society of Cass County has an urgent mission announced Monday of raising $25,000 in 30 days for a down payment to close the $100,000 purchase of the James E. Bonine House for restoration as an education center.

If the URSCC’s immediate goal can be met, its mission will be providing a focal point for exploration into the origins and activities of the Underground Railroad, the unique role the people of Cass County and surrounding region played throughout its existence and how it impacted local, state and national history.

Dave Bainbridge of Northern Indiana Center for History in South Bend, and his wife, Treasurer Carol Bainbridge, executive director of Fort St. Joseph Museum in Niles, Tuesday afternoon guided tours which took media representatives through the home all way up twisting stairways to the tower.

There will be a meeting at Vandalia Village Hall at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday that will delve into the history of the house, fundraising ideas and what the URSCC plans to do to restore the property Bainbridge first saw eight years ago.

It’s “one of the best examples of Victorian domestic architecture in the area. After the Civil War, the tower was added. Bonine owned 1,600 acres and probably made a great deal of money during the Civil War. After the war they added this mansard tower.”

A porch wrapped around the front from the 1870s until the 1960s and overlooked showplace gardens. On the farm was a beautiful grove, including a 12-acre elk and deer park established some 20 years after procuring one pair of elk from Iowa and one pair of deer, also from the West.

After that time he sold $1,000 worth of elk – seven to King Emanuel of Italy, who sent a war vessel for them – and numerous other animals of this country.

The Bonine park was surrounded partially with a high picket fence and the balance with a rail fence. It was most beautifully sodded and supplied with spring water. It was always an attractive sight along the highway west of Vandalia, where these denizens of the wild roamed around at pleasure, with their young capering at their side.
Nearly opposite the residence and across the road from the elk park was a chestnut orchard of 100 trees, set out regularly, which began bearing fine large nuts after nine years. The nuts were larger than the seed, which had been procured earlier from east Tennessee. Thirty acres of fruit trees more than supplied necessities to the household.
Around the residence were planted a row of native pines which grew to measure more than 32 feet across the tops. They not only told their age, but also did service as a yearly barometer, plainly indicating wet and dry seasons for each year by setting forth a row of limbs encircling the trunk.

If the season was wet, growth might exceed two feet to the next year’s outshoots, but if dry, or very dry, the growth was proportionately small.

Very fine stock of all kinds could be found grazing over the farm, while among the bovines, grazing as quietly as if upon the wild prairies of the West, could be found several buffalo, which added a certain picturesqueness to the scene.

Exactly opposite the residence, which is on the corner with Calvin Center Road, was a finely built storehouse, which radiated two rows of arbor vitae.

It was doubted Michigan had another farm that could compare with this one.

The late 1840s Greek Revival farmhouse was home to the James E. Bonine family and their descendants for more than a century.

Bonine settled in Cass County in 1843. With many of their Quaker neighbors, the Bonines immigrated north from Virginia, a slave-holding state, to escape the hated institution. Quakers played a major role in the abolition movement and were the first whites to denounce slavery in the American colonies.

From Virginia, James settled in Richmond, Ind., a prominent Quaker settlement.
Communities across the country assisted fugitive slaves on their way to freedom. Cass County played a significant role because the area near Vandalia was the junction of two main routes.

Cass County was even more unique because of its northern location, the presence of numerous abolitionists and a community of 1,500 fugitive slaves and free blacks. The Bonines set aside the area called Ramptown for settlement.

Underground Railroad activity was so intense that Cass County was referred to in Washington as “that hot bed of abolitionism.”

Many sites where Underground Railroad activity occurred long since disappeared. The Bonine home and carriage house are the most visible reminders in Cass County of that era when America struggled with its conscience over the slavery question. They influenced the course of national history by promoting abolition of slavery, pursuit of personal liberty and the evolution of civil rights.

Greek Revival emulated the temples of classical Greece and reflected the origin of America’s civic and political vision of a new democratic republic.

Soon after the Civil War, the farmhouse was stripped of its original decoration and enclosed in one of the most flamboyant American-Victorian styles, Second Empire. The Bonine house then boasted elaborate double doors, tall arched windows, decorative brackets and the central tower surmounted with an elegant, high-pitched roof.

A very rare example of a Gothic Revival carriage house, built in the 1850s, stands across M-60 from the farmhouse. It is thought to have been adapted from a plate in the book, “The Architecture of Country Houses” by A.J. Downing, published in 1850.

Downing was one of America’s most prominent architects.

“This house has been at risk for a long, long time,” Bainbridge said. “We just feel it’s now or never. If this house goes down, what do we have to show in this area? We’re taking a great risk,” but nothing compared to those who moved fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad to freedom.

Raising $25,000 in 30 days “is very ambitious, but it’s now or never. As you tour the house, you’ll see the responsibility we’ve taken on, but this is our legacy to future generations. Two major lines met right here,” Bainbridge said, the Illinois line and the Quaker line.

Many Quakers who came up into this area were from Richmond, Ind.,” including Levi Coffin, often called the president of the Underground Railroad.

“In his memoirs, (Coffin) comes up here to see people he knew. Charles Osborn, the first Quaker to own a newspaper and come out and say slavery must be abolished. The Quakers were the first Europeans to ever espouse that philosophy. His newspaper’s printing press was destroyed a couple of times. He was driven out of areas in Ohio and came up here. He lived not very far from here. His farm was right across from James Bonine’s father’s farm, just south of here. Charles Osborn died in LaPorte County, ministering to a small group of Quakers there.”

“We have to get into the court records,” Bainbridge continued, “but the Bonines were never publicly sued in the Kentucky Raid of 1847. Then there was another raid called the Fugitive Slave Case, where planters came up here and apprehended fugitive slaves they owned. It also happened in the 1850s. The planters got as far as South Bend and workmen on the East Race surrounded the wagons. Tensions in the South became much worse because after the Fugitive Slave Case, you were liable for any of those slaves who escaped to the planter. Many people were much at risk for losing everything.”

“When America argued the question of slavery, this house and those houses of ardent abolitionists, such as the Bonines, they were in the crosshairs. People were fearful of what this might bring on,” Bainbridge said. “Nobody wanted the Civil War to happen. They were afraid it might divide the republic. They said it was our last best hope for this nation to prove it could handle that debate and settle it without war,” but, of course, Civil War came anyway.

“This question split churches, including the Quaker church.”

Many Quakers were wealthy, Bainbridge indicated, but did not “live in an ostentatious manner,” even if they were. “The interior of this house is very plain,” its rooms much smaller than one might guess from seeing its soaring red brick exterior.

The broad porch and tower “seem to go against the Quaker lifestyle.”

“Even if you weren’t an out-and-out abolitionist,” Bainbridge said, “imagine the commitment these people had. My great-great-grandfather from the Marcellus area was in the Civil War – his name was James Riley – said in his diary he would leave his body on the battlefield and see this through. He was not the only one, by any means, who felt that way. The evolution of the debate about slavery, and we as a young nation, what are we doing with slavery? The onset of the Civil War changed everything. it changed America into a world power. This is not isolated in any way.”

Added Marcellus Village Councilman Burke Webb, “One of the things I find interesting about the European view of the American Civil War is that many Europeans thought in imperial and dynastic terms. Their concern was where 3 million troops were going to go after the American war was over. Would they stay on this side of the Atlantic?”

“Two weeks ago I had a bus full of kids from Riley High School with 30 German students,” Bainbridge said. “A lot of Germans were involved in the end of our rebel war because of the 1848 revolution. A lot of them gave up because the monarchy re-established its power temporarily, until World War I. You can draw that correlation for that quest for personal freedom all the way back to that. We made it relevant for them by bringing them here. It isn’t relevant just to the United States, it’s relevant on the world scale.”

Mike Moroz of Dowagiac has joined URSCC as building and grounds chair.

“I’ve had my eye on this house for years,” he said, “then I read in the paper what’s going on, and it had Cathy (LaPointe’s) number. I went to the first meeting at SMC and have kept going to the meetings. It’s a labor of love.”

  • Cathy LaPointe

    Thanks John for the wonderful write up on the Bonine House and the Underground Railroad Society of Cass County. We hope on reading it that many will decide to become a Friend of the Bonine House and attend the meeting tonight at Vandalia Village Hall at 6:30pm. We will talk about the history of the house, and plans for the future. This is a true community effort and everyone is encouraged to participate in this vital project.

    Thanks to you for your tireless committment to our community.

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