This piece is part of a series of articles submitted to The Local Tourist through a cooperation with a 400-level travel writing class at Purdue University.
By Jenna Davis
My mom’s a bit of a history buff. My family likes to travel (I’ve visited 41 states in 21 years), and along with trying new restaurants, our trips are usually chock-full of what we like to call “obscure historical sites.”
I’ve been to more battlefields, old houses, and government buildings than I can remember. Despite my mom’s apparent quest to make sure that I can sweep the U.S. history categories on “Jeopardy,” there are two small museums in my hometown of Crawfordsville, Indiana, that I had yet to visit: The General Lew Wallace Study and Museum and the Lane Place Montgomery County Historical Society. My mom joined me on tours of both on an overcast fall day.
I’ve always defined Crawfordsville in relation to bigger cities (an hour from Indianapolis and three hours from Chicago). However, during the mid-19th century, Crawfordsville was home to influential figures in industry, politics, and the military.
The legacies of two of these men, Lew Wallace and Henry Lane, are commemorated through local museums.
Wallace was a leader in the public arena and wrote the international bestseller Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, and his study is now open to the public.
Lane served in government, advocated against slavery, and helped to form the Republican Party, and visitors can tour his home.
Related: find things to do in Lafayette Indiana, only forty minutes from Crawfordsville and the home of Purdue University.
Historical Things To Do in Crawfordsville Indiana
The General Lew Wallace Study and Museum is located east of downtown Crawfordsville and includes the carriage house, Wallace’s study, and the surrounding grounds.
Our tour began in the carriage house with a short video discussing Wallace’s life and achievements. Born in 1827 in Brookville, Indiana, Wallace had a tumultuous childhood, struggling with discipline issues in school and having to live up to his politician father’s expectations.
Wallace was a 19th century Renaissance man. He rose to be the Union’s youngest major general during the Civil War, served as governor of the New Mexico Territory and minister to the Ottoman Empire, practiced law, wrote novels, painted, and played the fiddle.
After the video, museum director Larry Paarlberg took us across the grounds to Wallace’s study. The study is a red brick building designed by Wallace himself. It combines Romanesque, Byzantine, and Greek architecture, paying homage to Wallace’s time in the Ottoman Empire.
The study is unlike any building I’ve ever seen. Carved into the frieze are four characters from Wallace’s novels, including Judah Ben-Hur.
Larry told us that Wallace originally had a moat around the study but filled it in when he realized that it could cause structural issues and be dangerous for neighborhood children.
Inside the study (or Wallace’s “man cave,” as Larry put it) are artifacts from his many life pursuits. Bookshelves line the walls, and several of Wallace’s paintings are on display, including one that he did of the Lincoln conspirators.
After Lincoln’s assassination, Wallace served as a judge on the tribunal handling the case. Too impatient to just listen to testimony, Wallace occupied himself by sketching the conspirators and created the painting.
A small antechamber outside the main room of the study commemorates Wallace’s most famous achievement, the bestselling novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.” It tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman living in Judea in the first century, whose life runs parallel to that of Jesus of Nazareth.
The novel was extremely popular, second only to the Bible in the 19th century United States, and it has yet to go out of print. It was adapted into a Broadway play and three live-action feature-length films, and it was translated into dozens of languages.
Ben-Hur made Wallace a wealthy man, giving him the ability to construct the study. A statue on the grounds of the study marks the place where Wallace penned much of the novel under a beloved beech tree.
Having grown up in Crawfordsville, I had heard about Lew Wallace, but I was not aware of the breadth of his accomplishments. At the end of the tour, I asked Larry about why he chose to lead this small museum in my small town.
He said that he had grown up in the Midwest and wanted to return after some time working in Florida, but he also found Wallace himself compelling:
“He was an old dead white guy, how interesting could he be? But I was interested in him as a character. We know a lot about him because he wrote so much, and other people wrote about him, both those who liked him and those who didn’t.”
Larry told us that Wallace was also incredibly supportive of young people, including students at Crawfordsville’s Wabash College and the next generation of Indiana writers.
Larry’s enthusiasm for Wallace was infectious, and I think he could have talked to us for another hour if we had come prepared with more questions. This intriguing museum has been in my backyard for years, and I wish I had visited sooner.
Just blocks away from the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum is the Lane Place Antebellum Mansion, run by the Montgomery County Historical Society.
Lane Place is the impressive Greek revival-style home of Henry and Joanna Lane. Like Lew Wallace, Henry Lane was influential in national affairs during the mid-19th century, serving as a U.S. senator and an early leader in the Republican Party.
Lane was elected president of the first Republican National Convention in 1856, and he played an important role in securing Abraham Lincoln’s nomination to the presidency.
Our volunteer tour guide was Chuck Sommer, a member of the Historical Society. We started our tour of the Lane Place in the front hall and learned about Lane’s support of Lincoln during Lane’s term as a senator.
Lane also served as an honorary pallbearer at Lincoln’s funeral, and the hat that Lane wore to the ceremony is on display in the house.
In the parlor, we learned about Lane’s close connection to Wallace. Lane was Wallace’s commander during the Mexican-American War. After the war, Wallace met his wife through Lane in the parlor of the Lane Place; Susan Wallace was Joanna Lane’s sister, making the two men brothers-in-law.
The rest of the house offered insight into the lives of prominent families in the mid-1800s. A bowl of bananas, which were expensive to import at the time, sat on the sideboard in the kitchen to show the Lanes’ wealth, and the dining room table was set as it would have been at the time.
From the balcony, we could see much of the Elston Grove Historic District, a group of large 19th century homes originally belonging to Joanna Lane and Susan Wallace’s family, the Elstons.
For me, the highlight of the Lane Place was the chance to enjoy the grounds. While it was interesting to learn about Lane himself, I did not find him as compelling a figure as Wallace.
However, a stop at the Lane Place is worthwhile just to enjoy the impressive architecture of the house and gazebo and to explore the extensive lawn tucked away from the traffic of downtown Crawfordsville. If you visit on a nice day (unlike our foggy October afternoon), it’s the perfect place for a picnic, a chance for kids to run off some energy, or to take some pictures for the ‘gram.
Thanks to my family’s travel habits, there aren’t many gaps in my knowledge of American history. Before my visits to the Wallace Study and the Lane Place, I didn’t think of Crawfordsville as particularly influential in the grand scope of my country, but now, I know better. These two small-but-fascinating museums make my hometown a worthwhile destination for any history buff.
General Lew Wallace Study and Museum
200 Wallace Ave, Crawfordsville, IN 47933 – website
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; $7 for adults
Lane Place – Montgomery County Historical Society
212 S. Water St, Crawfordsville, IN 47933 – website
Hours: Wednesday through Friday 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. and 2nd & 4th Saturdays 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.; $7 for adults (cash only)