Cass County adds new attractions to Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program

CASSOPOLIS — Cass County’s history and connection to the Underground Railroad were recently recognized at the national level.

Last week, the National Park Service announced two new Cass County listing would be added to the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. The new listings join nearly 700 other sites, programs and facilities in the network that honor, preserve and promote the history of resistance to enslavement through escape and flight.

Out of 16 total listings added from across the country, two were added from the Underground Railroad Society of Cass County:

• The Bonine House Underground Railroad Research Library, located at the Bonine House in Vandalia, contains collections and research materials that document the area’s Underground Railroad history.

• Cass County Underground Railroad “Wax Museum in A Box” is an educational program that uses local history to teach fifth graders about the Underground Railroad, culminating in an annual performance in which students portray a figure that they have researched. 

The new listings join the URSCC’s 20-site driving tour and the Stephen Bogue House in the network.

“It’s really gratifying to be recognized,” said URSCC member Cathy LaPointe. “The application is really rigorous. You have to prove, without a doubt, the connection to the Underground Railroad.”

Representatives with the URSCC said the two listings represent years of work.

The “Wax Museum in a Box” got its start in 2012 as a volunteer program, where fifth-grade students would dress up as local characters from the time of the Underground Railroad and standing still as “wax figures” until a guest came up to them asking for information on their character. With the help of Felomina Patton, Sam Adams Elementary students got involved researching their own characters and hosting an annual event at the Bonine House.

In 2019, URSCC members decided to create the “Wax Museum in a Box” by compiling all the research and materials needed for the project into a single box. Members LaPointe, Cindy Yawkey, Mike Moroz and Lin Pollard spent roughly three months on the project, which became an official section of the Sam Adams Elementary School fifth grade curriculum in 2020.

“There are folders for every character and every group,” LaPointe said. “Teachers don’t have to do any research of their own. It’s right here for them.”

The Bonine House UGRR Research Library was created from 2015 to 2018 based on UGRR research collections of six local historians, as well as that of the URSCC. LaPointe organized the research, while Yawkey helped create more than 100 notebooks with copies of the research. Sara Lawson digitized the notebooks, scanning more than 9,000 pages. In 2018, the library was put on the URSCC website.

After months and years of work, the URSCC members involved in these two projects said they are excited to see them be a part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.

“We are very proud,” LaPointe said.

Despite all the work that comes with preserving Cass County’s history, URSCC members said they are passionate about what they do and fully believe in the importance of making Cass County’s history with the Underground Railroad known.

“Before this, if you looked up Underground Railroad, there was virtually no mention of Cass County,” Yawkey said. “We want this story to be known.”

‘To have the contributions that this county made be recognized is phenominal,” Lawson added. 

Though URSCC members are still celebrating their most recent additions to the Network to Freedom, LaPointe said they are far from done. Next, she hopes to have the Bonine House and its Carriage House added, which the URSCC lists as stops on the Underground Railroad. 

“From there, we will start ticking off each one of our 20 sites,” she said. “They should all be on there, and I don’t think there is any reason not to. [Cass County] was a major hub of the underground Railroad, and it is a fascinating story of people doing what’s right under difficult circumstances.”

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