by Pat Whitney, Courier Staff Writer
It was a time of remembering at The Gathering this weekend at Eleutherian College.
And it was day of celebration, especially for 11 descendants of John H. and Sarah Tibbets who came from five states - as far away as Arizona - to honor their Lancaster ancestors for their role in freeing escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad.
Before the unveiling and dedication of a marker Sunday, the Rev. Frank Heil of Hopewell Baptist Church conducted a church service. His sermon was about freedom, a topic relevant to the weekend's dedication and Civil War re-enactment adjacent to the Lyman Hoyt House in Lancaster Village.
Most of the 60 people attending the dedication, including the descendants, made the march up the hill from the newly-opened Hoyt House Visitors Center to the Tibbets' house Sunday afternoon for the unveiling of an Indiana Historical Bureau Marker at the site on North Boyd Road. On hand at the dedication was National Park Service representative Pam Bennett, who made the official presentation.
During the ceremony, Bennett thanked Lena McDole, who lives in the Tibbetses house, for her loving care in maintaining the property she has owned since 1946. She also praised Marjorie Tibbets Kendall for the gift of John Tibbet's trunk filled with his reminiscences presented to Jae Breitweiser and Eleutherian College a few years ago.
"The first-person accounts in that trunk were instrumental in getting the marker," Bennett said. " From a broader emphasis, the information documents Underground Railroad connections from the south going north up the line as far north as Decatur County."
She added that the lifeblood of the marker program comes from local communities and research applications, along with the financial support that comes with them. And she said the mission of the program is to promote Indiana history.
"Thank you for sharing that history with the world," she said to the Tibbets family members present at the dedication.
Historical markers commemorate significant Indiana individuals, places and events, and help communities throughout Indiana promote, preserve and present history for the education and enjoyment of residents and tourists of all ages.
Dona Stokes Lucas, state co-chair of the Indiana Historical Bureau and Marker Administration Commission, was also present at the unveiling.
The Tibbetses, members of Neil's Creek Anti-Slavery Society, provided assistance to fugitive slaves in their Lancaster home, now part of National Park Service' Network to Freedom. Nearby Eleutherian College, where John Tibbets served as trustee, as well as homes in the surrounding village, were all known safe houses as a key stop to Greensburg, Detroit, Mich., and onto Canada, according to Breitweiser, president of Eleutherian College Inc.
Breitweiser welcomed the Tibbets descendants to the informal, but meaningful, dedication.
"They are not visitors. They are not friends. They are family because of all the things they have given us and shared about their family history," she said.
Until Marjorie Tibbets Kendall contacted her, there were only bits and pieces of information on the Underground Railroad in the county, Breitweiser said. Kendall's contribution has led to a resurgence in research by area residents on the Underground Railroad.
"I'll never forget the day when Marjorie came to Eleutherian for the first time," Breitweiser said. "The trunk held documentation of the whole area's involvement in the Underground Railroad. It was a very emotional meeting. We talked about her family history for hours and continue to communicate by phone or e-mail to this day."
The Hoyt House is next in line to get a marker, she added, noting that several more historically significant homes in the area are in line to get the same recognition.
"My family was going to have a picnic, and I copied all the papers in the trunk to give to each," Kendall said. "It was then that I told them I wanted to give the trunk to Jae - that it was of more value to her than to us."
Kendall said that once she actually visited Eleutherian College, saw the chapel and school, and met Breitweiser in person, she knew she had made the right decision to hand over such a treasured piece of her family's heritage.
"To think, as a child, I used to take the papers to school," she said. "This is such a wonderful place. We can all walk tall knowing that we are related to those people."
Kendall, who lives in Witchita, Kan., brought her two daughters and two granddaughters with her to the dedication.
"Some of the Tibbets then moved on to California," said Tom Gordon, who possesses the Tibbets' family Bible.
Carol McConnell came to the dedication from Minneapolis, Minn.
Some of the Tibbets' descendants at the dedication met for the first time.
"Until a couple of years ago, I would have told you I come from a small family," said Joan Tibbets Hudson of Dallas, Texas. "Now look at my family."
A great-great-great-granddaughter of John and Sarah Tibbets, Mary Tibbets, who is a Houston, Texas, native now living in Chicago, pointed out how proud she is to know that her ancestor played such an important role in history - a role so well documented.
"Sharing stories with other members of the family, I realized that there is a certain spark or drive in all the Tibbets that is similar to our ancestors," she said. "We all seem to be the same way. Perhaps it's something in our genes."
Tom and Jim Gordon, also the Tibbets' descendants, came from Mound Valley, Kan., where John and Sarah Tibbets moved in 1879.
Meagan Brown, planning committee chairman for the event, had two special words for the descendants: "Welcome home."
Before the ceremony's closing, Bennett pointed out that Sunday was Constitution Day.
"Keep that in mind when you think about what the Tibbets did," she said.
After the dedication, Union and Confederate soldiers, part of the Civil War re-enactment that took place adjacent to the Hoyt House over the weekend, stood side by side, firing a five-gun salute to honor the "free blacks from Madison and surrounding area, and white abolitionists who freed fugitive slaves" - words stated on the marker.
"They were people who were brave - people of principle," said Steve Cox of Tuscon, Ariz., great-great-grandson of John H. Tibbets.
The Tibbets family joined hundreds of history buffs and curiosity seekers at a Civil War re-enactment, held Saturday and Sunday on the grounds of the Lyman Hoyt house. Throughout the two days, actors shared stories of Civil War history and life on the battleground.
For the first time, both North and South set up encampments, separated by 300 feet and a small rise. Not often told in history books, many families accompanied their soldiers to war.
"Women and children often had no place else to go," said Shirley Toney of Indianapolis, a re-enacter representing the 1st Wisconsin Regiment. "Their homes may have been taken over by federals or burned."
Women also served as soldiers and spies in the Civil War, she said.
The re-enactors displayed their artillery as visitors toured their outdoor kitchens. Women shared their stories of hardship, their worry about the safety of loved ones fighting the war and whether there would be enough food for their families.
"Food was scarce," Toney said. "They often cooked squirrel, venison or elk - whatever they could kill to eat."
They also gathered berries, learning quickly which ones were poisonous and which ones weren't, she said.
Toney and her husband have been doing re-enactments with the regiment for the past 14 years. Nearly 60 people belong to the traveling unit, although only a dozen made the Eleutherian trip.
"We do it because of our love of history," she said. "We teach what we know and share what we have."
Toney shared her display of antique jewelry, gloves and handmade dolls.
"This is called a 'mourning brooch'," she said, holding up an ornate piece of jewelry. "Women would have the hair of their departed loved ones intricately woven into a strand that was tucked within the brooch."
A primitive doll was actually a lady's handkerchief.
"Mothers would often make the simple dolls using a small ribbon while in church to help keep their children quiet," she said.
Like the Tibbets family anxious to share their heritage with the younger generations, the Toneys and other role-players have passed their love of history on to their children.
"Our daughter's wedding was a re-enactment of a ceremony during the Civil War using a military theme," Toney said. "Her wedding invitations were taken from that period. My daughter chose an 1862 Victorian wedding gown made of satin and lace, while the and attendants wore period dresses and uniforms - in blue and gray."