I will admit probably for the first time on this blog, that I generally meet stories that are relayed to me of great historical interest with a large amount of skepticism. It's not as though I don't want to believe a homeowner when they tell me Abe Lincoln slept in their bedroom, or that the home was used in the Underground Railroad. It's just, well, a healthy dose of reality for what is plausible. So recently when a good friend of mine who has been doing restoration work on a house in LaPorte County tried to tell me that the house was built in 1837 and he saw the drawings, my skeptical mind-full of a lot of interesting (but frankly useless) facts about the history of LaPorte County-sent up the yeah, right signal with rolling eyes.
Knowing the house, it didn't seem to me such a large home would have been constructed 1) in that location, and 2) that early in the county. I mean, if it were from 1837 it may well be the oldest documented home in the LaPorte County. Not likely. He mentioned my name to the homeowner as one who could provide some consulting advice on features of restoration and on the history of the home. We talked and scheduled a meeting. Soon the house began to unfold its 177 year old history before my eyes. Indeed....the oldest documented house that I am aware of in the county, and much of this part of the state.
I wrote about another slightly later house in LaPorte County called the Ames House on this blog before. The Ames House has New England construction traits in that it has corner column construction-meaning on the interior of the house the outside corner columns project into the room. This simply wasn't a practice in Northern Indiana. But here it was again in this house from 1837, built by William Parker. And furthermore, the owner unrolled a lengthy letter in which the owner, John Lemon, spelled out the specifications for his home with Mr. Parker. This included a floor plan/elevation drawing. The document was dated 1837.
Major Lemon, who presumably gained his rank in the War of 1812, purchased land along this new plank road near its crossing with the Kankakee River. The crossing, which had been used by Native Americans for centuries, formed a natural ford in the great marsh of the Kankakee. At first a ferry was used at this site, then the first bridge was constructed in the early-1830s by John Dunn. Lemon made an agreement with the county to operate the bridge as a toll bridge, which he later reconstructed in the mid-1840s. Through this time the southern part of LaPorte County actually was part of Starke County and in order for people to conduct business in Knox, the county seat, they had to travel a considerable distance northeast to cross at Lemon's bridge in order to again go southwest to Knox. The settlers of this area petitioned to come under LaPorte County, which occurred, but the traffic across Lemon's bridge continued at a good clip. Even after several subsequent replacements, the bridge on 104 is still known as "Lemon's Bridge".
The two-story portion of the house dates to 1837. It was constructed as a Federal Style home with chimneys on either end, 15-lite windows (meaning-not double-hungs), doors with transoms and side-lites, and specified dimensions for walls and ceiling heights. It appears that during the mid-19th century the house was also used as a lodge for travelers and hunters of the marsh. At that time a summer kitchen was added to the back of the house. Still later, in the early 20th century, stone porches and other Craftsman details were added to the home. While I could tell that there was an old house under the changes, I would have never guessed 1837. Sometimes you just never know.