Hundreds tour Bonine House

Published 9:38 pm Thursday, July 28, 2011

More than 500 people toured the Bonine House July 16-17. The house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. (Photo submitted)

VANDALIA — More than 500 people toured the Bonine House in Vandalia during Underground Railroad Days July 16 and 17 and they each had a unique experience. Some wandered around the inside of the home for hours, exploring the living room, dining room, kitchen and two parlors downstairs and the six bedrooms up the beautiful staircase.

Children of all ages climbed the narrow stairs to the top of the tower. Some kicked off their shoes and sat under the giant maples in the backyard, imagining how it used to be. Others wandered around the perimeter, checking out details of the masonry, and needed repairs on the foundation. Everyone had questions, and everyone saw potential for the restoration of this iconic home, built in the mid-1840s by Quaker abolitionist James E. Bonine.

The Bonine House Tour was part of a two-day festival in its second year in Vandalia called Underground Railroad Days to celebrate its heritage as Henry Clay put it on the floor of the US Congress “a hotbed of abolitionism.”

Vandalia, particularly the townships of Penn, Calvin and Porter, was a Quaker stronghold, that from 1840 to 1860 was a haven for slaves fleeing bondage, particularly from Kentucky.  The Quaker Line of the Underground Railroad formed there; and Quakers, as well as free blacks and other abolitionists helped more than 1,500 fugitives on their way to freedom along the UGRR, mostly to Canada.  Many “freedom seekers” however stayed in this area and created a unique community that exists to this day.

The Underground Railroad Society of Cass County provided guided tours of UGRR sites up and down M60, telling the story and showing the sites of the Kentucky Raid of 1847.

A self-driving tour can be found at the historic marker in Milo Barnes Park in Vandalia.

There were booths celebrating various aspects of the UGRR as well as the African-American experience — SMC Museum, The Minority Coalition, Paradise Lake Association, Cass Local History and District Libraries, Penn Friends Church; and a special display on African-American museums and black colleges. Ruth Andrews, local artist and creator of the “Sanctuary and Deliverance” mural in downtown Cassopolis, led a live interpretation of scenes from the mural.

Carol Bainbridge of Ft. St. Joseph Museum in Niles presented an overview of Cass County and the Underground Railroad on Saturday. Dr. Von Washington, director of the Multicultural Theatre Program as Western Michigan University, lectured on Sunday a standing room only audience on the role of African-Americans in the Underground Railroad. He and his wife Fran acted a scene from his play “Seven Stops To Freedom” and one from “Kentucky At Sunrise” about the Kentucky Raid.

The Village of Vandalia sponsored a Classic Car Show on Saturday that drew more than 20 cars, and lined the grassy area by the Village Hall with booths offering arts, crafts, bake sales and yard sales. An outdoor prayer service began Sunday’s festivities. The late Bill Ayers, Quaker and Village of Vandalia employee, conceived the idea for the community celebration early in 2010, and many stopped by the memorial stone placed by the village to honor him.

The Bonine House will be open for tours on a regular basis during the summer and fall.  More information can be found at