The Lewelling Quaker Museum in Salem is celebrating the 60th anniversary since it became a museum and a charitable nonprofit with their annual tea and special guest speakers on Sunday, April 28.
Walter Lewelling, the great-great-grandson of Henderson Lewelling, who built the house in 1840, will be speaking at the tea as a historian, along with several other members of the family. The Lewelling Quaker Museum is on the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom as an important place in the underground railroad.
“What’s significant about the (Lewelling house) is that it was saved,” said Dave Helman, president of the Lewelling Quaker Museum board of directors. “There were six known safe houses in Salem leading up to the Civil War — many of the old buildings are gone.
“This place was saved. It could have gone the other direction,” Helman continued. “When you’re in the Lewelling museum, it’s very much like it was in 1840. The citizens of Salem have taken pride in this house for 60 years.”
The annual spring tea is already sold out; however, the museum at 401 South Main Street in Salem is open for tours on Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. from May through September or by appointment.
The house came up for sale 60 years ago, when five private residents came up with the money to purchase it with the idea of preserving it. The residents were Herman Elgar, of Mt. Pleasant, and Howard Pittman, Elbert Brown, J.W. Moxley and Roy White, of Salem.
“It was one of those pivotal points in history in a small town, where the land could have been cleared, the house could have been changed,” Helman said, thanking the five men who purchased the house for their leadership and vision for a museum.
Helman said the Lewelling Quaker Museum is one of the best preserved underground railroad houses in the country, preserved “pretty much the way it was in 1840.”
Henderson Lewelling and his wife Elizabeth moved to Salem from Indiana in the 1830s. They were abolitionists and Quakers, which meant they strongly opposed slavery but did not believe in using violence to try to abolish slavery, Helman said.
Walter Lewelling, the great-great-grandson of Henderson, visited the Lewelling Quaker Museum in 2018 and was asked by the museum board to come back and speak for the 60th anniversary.
“Walter is quite the family historian,” Helman said. “He’s done an interesting written timeline of the Lewelling family from the time Henderson was born in 1809.”
Lee and Carrie Luelling, which is a different spelling of Lewelling, are also descendants of Henderson and will be speaking during the anniversary celebration.
It’s unknown how many slaves — known as Freedom Seekers — passed through the Lewelling house. National numbers of Freedom Seekers vary from a hundred thousand to a million, Helman said.
“That’s speculation because no one kept any record,” Helman said. “It had to be very secretive because you couldn’t trust anyone.”
The Lewelling house is unusual in the fact that it does, however, have a record in the form of a lawsuit of at least nine Freedom Seekers who attempted freedom. There is documentation of a slave owner from Missouri who filed a lawsuit in Iowa to get his property back.
“In those days, slaves weren’t considered people, they were property,” Helman said. “The lawsuit describes the physical description of the Freedom Seekers, just as you would give a physical description if someone stole your car.”
Helman said five men in Salem were found guilty of knowingly and willingly harboring runaway slaves in 1850, and fined $2,900 — a lot of money for that time.