The Montgomery County Historical Society is committed to preserving and researching African-American history. One such effort is the preservation of the Speed Cabin.
The Speed Cabin was part of a home owned by John Allen Speed (1801-1873), a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Originally the cabin sat on the corner of North and Grant Streets in Crawfordsville, Indiana. The home was slated for demolition in the 1930s, but the kitchen cabin, known as the Speed Cabin, was saved. Each piece of the cabin was carefully dismantled and numbered.
Years later, the cabin was reconstructed in Crawfordsville’s Milligan Park. It was moved again in 1990 to its current home on the grounds of Lane Place. Although the cabin has been moved from its original site, a historical marker has been placed at the cabin’s original location to document where the structure originally sat. The marker can be found at 310 N. Grant Street in Crawfordsville.
John Allen Speed was born in Perthshire, Scotland in 1801. In 1823, Speed immigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania followed a year later by his wife, Margaret, and their oldest daughter. A trained stone cutter, Speed traveled to sites that needed his work. The family left Philadelphia for Norfolk, and then moved on to Washington, D.C. where Speed worked on several public buildings including the stone steps of the Capitol and the east steps of the White House. Upon hearing that a new state house was to be built in Indiana, Speed came to Indiana in search of work. Upon arrival in Indianapolis, Speed discovered that the quality of the stone being used for the statehouse was not satisfactory. He was not willing to work with the low quality stone, so he left Indianapolis and went north.
In 1834, Speed settled in Crawfordsville with his family, and the family purchased the land on which they built their home. As the family became more settled, their home was expanded, and the original cabin became a part of their larger home. Speed set up shop in Crawfordsville as a marble dealer on North Green Street just a short walk from his home. Speed was a successful stone worker and well-respected citizen of Crawfordsville. He went on to be elected the second mayor of Crawfordsville, and served in that post from 1868-1869. Speed had no religious affiliation, and was termed a “Free-thinker”. Speed’s political affiliations changed over his lifetime. First he was affiliated with the radical Jacksonians, then the Whig party, and eventually voted Republican. He lived in the home until his death on January 1, 1873.
Montgomery County was along the Western route of the Underground Railroad in Indiana. The Speed Cabin is just one of multiple sites in Crawfordsville and in the county that play a part in this history.
Those in favor of the Underground Railroad came from various corners of the county; among those were Quaker families who held strong beliefs about freeing the slaves. Many professors and administrative members at Wabash College hailed from New England, and they were very supportive of the Underground Railroad. Several physicians in the community assisted in moving the freedom seekers. Their enclosed buggies and night journeys kept them free of suspicion. Dr. Joseph Emmons, resident of the Quaker community, Dr. Iral Brown of Alamo and Yountsville, and Ryland T. Brown of Crawfordsville were among those who helped. The main supporters in Crawfordsville were John Speed and Fisher Doherty. Doherty, an abolitionist and spiritualist, owned and operated a wagon factory. One of his employees, Jesse Cumberland, married the older Speed daughter and they too became actively involved in the Underground Railroad.
Speed continually showed his support for the African American community in Crawfordsville. Speed’s cabin sat adjacent to the local African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. The cabin’s proximity to the church was not a coincidence. According to the oral history of the church, Speed was a great help in the procurement of the land on which the church was built. Crawfordsville’s Bethel AME Church congregation gathered as early as the 1830s, but it was not until 1847 that the congregation was able to procure land and build a church structure. Like Speed’s cabin, the AME church was also used to assist freedom seekers. According to oral history, the basement of the church was used as the hiding place.
Other members of the community also worked with Speed to assist freedom seekers. One of Speed's neighbors, a prominent African American family, the Patterson's assisted Speed in one event recalled by Speed’s son, Sidney which happened in the year 1858 or 1859. In this story, a young woman is taken in by Speed and his family in an effort to escape slave catchers who were close behind.
The young woman had recently been sold in Louisville, Kentucky to a plantation owner from New Orleans, Louisiana. She escaped, but was closely followed. According to Sidney, the men in pursuit were so close that they had tracked her to Crawfordsville, but were unable to locate her. They were suspicious of the Speed family, and visited their home often. In his account, Sidney states: “In fact for some days some of them were nearly always at the house either on some pretended business or making social visits. I do not think that the house was searched, or they would surely have found her, as during all this time she remained in the garret over the old log kitchen, where the fugitives were usually kept, if there was danger.” (The ‘old log kitchen’ that Sidney refers to is known today as the Speed Cabin.)
The woman was eventually able to reach freedom in Canada with the help of a plan devised by the abolitionists in Crawfordsville. Sidney explains: “she was rigged out in a costume of silk and ribbons, was furnished with a white baby, borrowed for the occasion, and, accompanied by one of the Patterson girls as a servant and nurse.” Sufficiently disguised, the woman and her companions boarded a train going north. The men looking for the fugitive slave were so close to catching her that they were on the same train, but did not recognize her because of the thick veil that she wore. Sidney explains the frightening journey: “But what must her feeling have been when she boarded the train to find that her master or owner had already got on the same car. However she kept her courage and he did not discover her identity until the gang plank of the ferry boat at Detroit was being hauled aboard, and the Patterson girl with the borrowed baby had returned to the shore when she removed her veil that he might see her and bade her owner goodbye.”
Today, Montgomery County Historical Society members are still actively engaged in sharing our county's involvement in the Underground Railroad.
A book by Shannon Sullivan Hudson, a Montgomery County Historical Society Board Member and local teacher, is available at Lane Place. Abolitionists of the Underground Railroad, Legends from Montgomery County, Indiana is a comprehensive look at the many Montgomery County citizens and organizations that were part of the massive, yet “underground”, movement to assist slaves in their quest for a new life. Hudson begins the book in 1746 and her exhaustive research leads the reader on a fascinating trip back in time. Phone (765) 362-3416 or e-mail for more information.