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Thaddeus Coffin

Resident of New Castle, IN

Thaddeus Coffin's Amazing Desk
The Taddeus Coffin desk is in the Henry County Historical Society Museum. (Darrel Radford / C-T photo )

Thaddeus Coffin was an architect and carpenter. His desk was considered for placement in the Smithsonian:

  • Ex-Postmaster of New Castle, Henry Co., IN
  • A Civil War Veteran
  • Mail agent for the Pan Handle Railroad.
  • Vice-President, and also one of the Directors of the New Castle Loan and Building Association.
  • Carpenter and cabinet maker
  • He designed and built the General William Grose House which houses the Henry County Historical Museum, along with his brother, Arthur.
  • The Thaddeus Coffin desk contains over 53,000 individual pieces. Each piece of wood is numbered and it’s origin .
  • Was a member of the Philharmonic Society and played in the orchestra at the old Alcazar Theatre in New Castle.
  • Created the Thaddeus Coffin desk after he suffered a work accident that severed most of his fingers on one hand.

More than 56,000 pieces of history and inspiration

Desk once considered by the Smithsonian featured at semi-annual meeting

By DARREL RADFORD for Historically Speaking | 

What do the Chicago World’s Fair, Lookout Mountain and Henry County’s very first courthouse have in common with Ben Hur and Abraham Lincoln?

The answer to that question is artistically embedded in a magnificent desk that sits in the Henry County Historical Society museum. All of the above have something to do with some of the more than 56,000 pieces of wood New Castle resident Thaddeus Coffin used to craft it.

On Sunday afternoon about 40 people came and heard the compelling story behind the desk, which began as a retirement project and almost ended up in the Smithsonian Institution before coming to the local museum in 1996.

Celia Burns, a great niece of Thaddeus Coffin, presented a program about the desk during the Henry County Historical Society’s semi-annual meeting.

Burns, wife of Courier-Times photographer David Burns, is a local teacher, writer and musician. She originally became interested in the desk because of what was inside, not how it was made. Thaddeus Coffin’s daughter, Bess, kept family genealogy notes there.

But Burns quickly discovered that the desk was much like the family history: unique, artistic and unforgettable.

Here is just a small part of the story she shared.

Thaddeus Coffin served in the Civil War with both William McKinley and Rutherford B. Hayes, two men who would later become presidents of the United States. Two of Thaddeus’ younger brothers, Arthur and Eugene, were too young to fight in the Civil War but played drum and bugle for the soldiers, a fact artistically noted on the front of the desk.

In fact, when McKinley did become president, he asked Eugene Coffin to play at his inauguration.

But then, the entire family was musical. Thaddeus Coffin himself was a member of the Philharmonic Society and, in spite of a severe handicap, played in the orchestra at the old Alcazar Theatre in New Castle.

The musical heritage is also represented on the desk. A series of notes are carved on the front.

“When he completed the part with the musical notes on it, he put it on the piano and asked his granddaughter, Alice, to play it.”

The young girl soon recognized she was playing “Taps” in honor of the many soldiers who died in the Civil War.

Coffin was no stranger to building things. His father was a fine cabinet maker in Ashland, Ohio, and taught Thaddeus finer points of the trade.

But his life changed forever – both to the good and bad – when he stopped in New Castle to see his sister, who was the wife of mill owner Levi Jennings.

Jennings offered Coffin a job, which he accepted and settled down in New Castle. But while working at that job, operating what was then a state-of-the-art machine that made 4,000 revolutions a minute, Coffin’s hand became caught, and most of the fingers on one hand were severed.

Because of the injury – and in spite of it – the desk became even more meaningful.

Coffin knew he’d need something productive to do in his retirement years. So he began advertising in Civil War veterans newspapers for fellow soldiers to send him “pieces of wood of interest.” He collected these pieces – more than 56,000 in all – over a 30-year period.

“The idea was to give him something to do when he got old,” Burns said. “He felt he would not be able to work because of health issues related to the Civil War.”

Among the pieces collected were:

— Oak from the first Henry County Courthouse, a log cabin-like structure that served from around 1823 to 1836.

— Walnut from the stump of the big log at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

— Laurel from Lookout Mountain

— Beech from the tree Gen. Lew Wallace sat under while he wrote the last chapters of Ben Hur.

— Part of the carriage that Abraham Lincoln rode in to deliver a speech in Atlanta, Ill., in 1854.

It was challenging and tedious work. Alice Freel was living in the Coffin home at the time he made the desk and actually stirred the glue pot for him. Some of the wood measured 1/64th of an inch.

“As light as this kind of work may seem to the public, it is in reality very strenuous,” Coffin was quoted as saying in a 1915 newspaper article. “One’s nerves are on a strain to get the small pieces to fit well and the first thing you know, you actually almost forget to breathe. When I had this feeling, of course, I always quit work and took a rest.”

Burns said it took five years for him to actually assemble the desk. It was finished in 1915.

After Coffin’s death, family members considered giving the desk to the Smithsonian Institution.

“Officials there said it was of Smithsonian quality but there was no room for it,” Burns said. “They recommended it be donated to the Henry County Historical Society, which they said ‘had an excellent museum.’”

It was appropriate then, that Alice Freel donate the desk to the museum in 1996, a place that was designed and built by Coffin along with his brother, Arthur. Coffin was the architect of the Gen. Grose home, which was built in 1870.

In the 17 years since that gift, Coffin’s desk has become a true centerpiece of the museum that has fascinated hundreds of admiring visitors.

“If the desk had gone to the Smithsonian, it would probably have been put in storage and few would have ever seen it,” Burns said.