Owners of historic Howard County mansion find mysterious ways to revive the past

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 | 11:07 a.m. CDT; updated 7:17 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Donn Upp and Joe Ely now host guided tours and operate Rivercene Mansion year-round as a bed-and-breakfast. The construction of Rivercene Mansion was started in 1864 and completed in 1869. 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the property. The mansion is 12,000 square feet and has 10 bedrooms. This fall, Rivercene will temporarily be transformed into Ridgecliffe Manor. Upp plans to take the setting from his horror novels and intertwine it with actual events from the Kinney family history.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that portraits of the Kinney family by George Caleb Bingham are currently hanging in Rivercene Mansion.

COLUMBIA — Matilda Kinney died of grief.

Six of her children died before the age of 7, most succumbing to diphtheria. Her husband died suddenly from a stroke after a midday horse ride through their property.

But the death of her son, Noble, at the age of 26 was too much to bear.

One night, as Matilda sat in her chair knitting a scarf, he fell over the second-floor handrail, landing on the hard walnut staircase below, snapping his neck.

When Matilda died in July of 1896, Rivercene — her three-story Victorian-era mansion on 640 acres in Howard County — was divided among her four surviving children.

Over the years the estate went through a cycle of neglect and repair, until 2011, when a horror writer Donn Upp and a biology professor Joe Ely teamed up to purchase the property.

Upp and Ely now host guided tours and operate the New Franklin mansion year-round as a bed-and-breakfast.

They have also begun renovating the property; their goal is to preserve Rivercene as much as possible.

"I would like to see it restored back to its 1869 condition," Ely said.

Using documents and photographs returned by Kinney family descendants, they are painting the interior and exterior in the original colors. They plan to install hardwood floors, walnut beds and elegant draperies in the five second-story bedrooms. Upp has searched antique shops and online websites for antique oil lamps and light fixtures.

A childhood wish

As a child, he would visit his aunt and uncle, who lived next door to Rivercene.

"I can remember peeking through the trees and looking at this house, and I just said, 'Some day, that will be mine,'" he said.

As an adult, he has fictionalized the mansion as Ridgecliffe Manor, writing and self-publishing "The Murderess of Ridgecliffe Manor" under the pen name Donathon Devereaux Upp. He is planning to release a second novel, "Ridgecliffe Manor: The True Story," this year.

This fall, Rivercene will temporarily be transformed into Ridgecliffe Manor. Upp plans to take the setting from his horror novels and intertwine it with actual events from the Kinney family history. The intent is to stage a murder-mystery-type event, during which something "very realistic" and "very grisly" will happen, he said.

The partners are also dreaming up candlelit tours for ghost-hunting enthusiasts who want to investigate the paranormal stories about the mansion.

Other ideas being developed for Rivercene include a museum tour aimed at school children, holiday tours and a 150th anniversary celebration on New Year's Eve to relive the elaborate masquerade balls that are such a vital part of the mansion's storied past.

During the Civil War, steamboat captain Joseph Kinney made a fortune delivering cargo from St. Louis to St. Joseph. At the height of operations, he had 21 ships and employed more than 250 local workers.

The dream house

In 1864, he gave his second wife, Matilda, $50,000 to build her dream home. She hired an architect, and together they designed what would one day become Rivercene — a 12,000-square-foot mansion that once overlooked the Missouri River.

Seven Swedish architects and 42 servants labored for five years to complete the project. In the end, half of the budget was spent on construction and half to furnish it.

The Kinney family owned several other homes in the state and beyond, and their primary residence was just across the Missouri River in Boonville. Upp said they considered Rivercene a "party house."

Capt. Kinney would load his steamboat with friends and socialites and deliver them to the mansion. According to family diaries, guests would congregate in the parlors, feast in the dining hall and waltz to music being played by live orchestras.

Sometime during the 1880s when Joseph Kinney retired, the party house became the family home. When he died from a stroke in March of 1892, his son, Noble, took over as family patriarch.

Noble Kinney had graduated from MU with a degree in agriculture and afterward established a successful farming operation on the property, including a nut and berry orchard.

Surviving disaster

After Noble and his mother died, the house was passed down to various Kinney descendants until 1992, when it was sold to Ron and Jody Lenz. The following summer, Rivercene was nearly destroyed in the Great Flood of '93.

Local historian and filmmaker Wayne Lammers captured the devastation in his documentary, "Rivercene on the Missouri."

Inside the mansion, water was waist-deep, covering the first five steps on the grand staircase and ultimately reaching a depth of 42 inches. When the muck receded, the full extent of damage was revealed.

A thick grime coated the walls, and 4 inches of mud covered the floors. The original carpeting was gone, as was a shed that contained all the shutters for the windows, which was washed away by the raging current.

The Lenz family spent months cleaning up. They drilled holes in the hardwood floors to drain standing pools of water. Mud was scooped up and shoveled out of the house, and walls were repainted.

They eventually converted Rivercene into a bed-and-breakfast and kept the property until 2004, when they sold it to former Missouri State Sen. Bill Alter and his wife, Merijo.

Despite the ravages of time, the Victorian-era home has retained much of its splendor. At the door, an original crank doorbell still works. There are 11 fireplaces throughout the mansion, nine with marble fronts that were quarried in Carrara, Italy — the same place where Michelangelo mined material for his sculptures.

The lady's parlor on the first floor holds most of the surviving Kinney family possessions —  a rusted typewriter, dog-eared family letters and journals, furniture Matilda acquired in China and Civil War relics.

For Upp, buying the mansion was serendipitous. "I always knew I would live here," he said.

Ely agreed. "When Rivercene came up for sale," he said, "we had to go for it."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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