September Save TOH Update

Hiram Hunter house, Henry, IL
That second-floor walkout porch tho (Photo: Ryan Blackorby)

I was thrilled the other day to learn (via Zillow) that the property featured on the September 2017 Save This Old House page of This Old House sold! Truly hopeful that this means it sold to folks who are willing to take on a renovation. In the scheme of Save This Old House-houses, this one is kind of a gimme: You could probably live in it while you worked on it, the main structural expense would be a new roof, and the majority of the interior work is cosmetic.

The interior is what really blew me away with this property. It’s one that I stumbled across while searching for potential Save houses, and I contacted the realtor rather than the other way around. It’s got awesome curb appeal (it would have even more with a tricolor Queen Anne paint job, IMO), but the interior is amazingly well preserved.

In particular, the woodwork is outstanding. It has all kinds of millwork, spindles, and carving pretty much everywhere you could put such things. My favorite detail is the flooring. It’s a parquet of cherry and oak, and each matches one of the two gorgeous parlor rooms (each of which has a large fireplace complete with tile, mirror, fireback, you name it these still have it). In one parlor, the casements, mantel, etc. are all cherry; in the other, everything is oak. The floor complements both–I mean how cool is that!?

interior of Hiram Hunter house, Henry, IL
Details you didn’t see in the magazine (or online)! Photos: Ryan Blackorby

So it wasn’t too surprising to find that the house’s original owner was, hmm, I suppose it’s not inaccurate to call him a lumber baron. I found most of my info on Hiram Hunter in Past and Present of Marshall and Putnam Counties, Illinois, Together with Biographical Sketches of Many Prominent and Leading Citizens and Illustrious Dead. (It’s from 1907; I accessed the full text via HathiTrust which is a fantastic resource for this type of research. If you’re not familiar, they aggregate the online resources of a large number of public, educational, and other digital collections, making it a one-stop site for all sorts of public domain ephemera.)

Hunter wasn’t the most fascinating dude (I mean, he’s no H.G. Goll), but here’s his deal. He was born in 1837 in New York state, and his family moved to central Illinois when he was about nine years old. He started out as a farmer, like his dad, then in 1858 he got hitched to Miss Adelia C. Stevens. They have two children, Elmer F. (he’ll come back in a minute) and then another son who “died in infancy.”

Past and Present etc. etc. then immediately goes into, “For his second wife, Mr. Hunter chose Philena Stevens.” They have five children but hold up! What happened to his first wife? Also his second wife had the same last name before marrying him?! (And then having the same last name again, but that one makes sense.) We’ll assume he wasn’t a bigamist and the first wife maybe died in childbirth. So Wife 1, Adelia, is born in New York state in 1838, but then her family moves to central Illinois when she was 18. Wife 2, Philena, was born in central Illinois… oh gosh. In 1862. Time to do some quick genealogy research.

Okay, the plot thickens! I found their grave… which has Wife 1’s name as Azelia, not Adelia, and her birth year as 1837, not 1838. But even more eyebrow-raising, why do I say “their grave”, not “her grave”? Because they are buried together and share a monument. Her death date is 1882, his is 1920. Plus he gets his name on there twice, because her epithet is “Wife of Hiram Hunter.”

So what’s the deal with Wife 2, Philena? Well, the memorial website thinks she’s their daughter—but that’s because wear-and-tear has made the dates engraved hard to read. She wasn’t born in 1882, as that site thinks; she was born in 1862. But besides the incorrect date, what’s the other reason one might presume Wife 2, Philena, is the daughter of Hiram and Wife 1, Azelia? Because she is ALSO buried in the same spot.

Well, except that careful [tombstone] readers will note that her side of the obelisk (I think that’s what you’d call it?) likewise gives Philena the epithet “Wife of Hiram Hunter.” She doesn’t have another name beneath hers, because, well, he wasn’t dead yet—Hiram outlived Philena by 10 years.

I’m getting so far away from the house! But I’ve got to get to the bottom of this… and yet I can’t. I’ve gone to town with this research, but I just can’t find good enough information about Adelia/Azelia’s parents (who are named in Hiram’s biographical sketch) to suss out the names of their children. And seriously, I mean names, since I also found Philena (Wife 2, in case you forgot) as Philenda. She may have been a Philomena. It’s just hard to say, people played pretty fast and loose with names back then. So did Hiram trade in the departed sister for a newer model (who was about 25 years her—and his—junior)? I guess we’ll never know.

Either way! He and Wife 2, Philena, have five children, and after a bunch of false starts Hiram finally becomes successful with a lumber yard that’s a joint venture with his only son from Wife 1—Elmer F., who having been born in 1861 was pretty much exactly the same age as Wife 2. I’m sure that was never awkward.

Their firm, H. & E.F. Hunter, grows to fifteen lumberyards, and per Biographical Sketches:

They handle lumber, coal, lime, cement, sash, doors, blinds, mouldings and other building materials and the firm are also interested in farm lands in Scott county. Their business has thus constantly increased in volume and importance until has reached considerable magnitude, making the firm one of the most prominent in commercial circles in central Illinois.

Hiram Hunter put all these resources to work when this home was built circa 1890. (Finally! We’ve made it back around to talking about the house!) It doesn’t give a first name for Mrs. Hunter, but date-wise it has to be Wife 2’s house.

I found a truly endearing little writeup about the house’s construction in the Henry Republican from Thursday, 1/9/1890.

Many handsome and tasty [note: tasty!!] homes have been added to our city during the past year. Among them is the truly beautiful structure recently finished and occupied by Mr Hiram Hunter, senior member of the lumber firm H. & E. F. Hunter. The house is large and roomy, and is of the most recent architecture and finish.

It then goes on to give shoutouts to some of the men who worked on the house.

The carpenter work was in the hands of A. V. Gotra [sorry this name is her to read!], who has applied everything in the way of ornamentation, within and without, that could possibly add to the superb attractions of the building. The mason work and plastering were in the hands of A. S. Jones, who has finished up everything in excellent style, the parlor being ornamented with handsome rosettes and mouldings, finished up in plaster, that add much to the beauty of the room.

Some of the plasterwork is 100% still intact and original! But not so much for the painting, despite how much the newspaper loved the house’s painter. I’m cutting them off on this guy, because they really go on and on.

But the last strokes that complete the whole in the highest style of art were laid on by the brushes of the superb and artistic painters, H. W. Ruggles. The exterior is finished in a handsome and fashionable shade of terra cotta, while within is completed in the latest and most approved designs.

Can you imagine this house painted terra cotta? It’s funny: You see so many Queen Annes painted white, but that’s probably the one color Victorian-era homeowners would have avoided. At the time, true white paint wasn’t a possibility (you’d always still have a tinge of color, usually yellow), and really, the Victorians just adored sublimating their various urges into OTT decorating and color schemes.


This lovely structure cosily sits upon a beautiful lot at the corner of Richard street [sic] and Western avenue, and will compare favorably with the finest residences of our county Its cost can not have been short of $5000, and Mr and Mrs Hunter may well feel crowned with joy in this their new and beautiful home.

Five thousand dollars! Somebody fetch my smelling salts, I feel a swoon coming on! Kidding, but it really does make you wonder at inflation. And whether its first owner really did consecutively marry two sisters (which the more I think about it—I mean why else would they not bother to state Wife 2’s parents’ names?), I hope the Hiram Hunter house has a bright future.

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