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A home for the ages

Renovation of 200-year-old Hickman House awakens memories
Monday, January 2, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:44 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 9, 2008

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The Hickman House is believed to have been built in 1819. It is now on MU’s 665-acre Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center in New Franklin. (By BEN FREDMAN/ Missourian)

NEW FRANKLIN — Dexter Slagle glanced one last time at the rolling hills he knew as a boy before turning to pass through the normally padlocked door and into a memory: the Hickman House that his family owned many years before.

Much of the house has changed since his footsteps last echoed off the hardwood floor, almost 60 years ago. “This place has weathered a lot of winters,” said Slagle, now of Versailles.

“That goes to show you how they built them back then,” said Ray Glendening, manager of the MU research center where the Hickman House stands.

As he scrutinized every corner of the house, Slagle pointed out the changes he could see. Two of the home’s four fireplaces had been filled in, while the others were restored. A hole in the floor revealed recent foundation work, and it was clear the ceiling of the house had been lowered at some point.

After about 20 minutes, a floodgate of memories opened. Slagle spoke of his parents, the history of the area and the time he spent at the home.

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The Hickman House is believed to have been built in 1819 by businessman Thomas Hickman. Constructed in the Georgian Cottage style, it is one of the oldest brick homes still standing west of the Mississippi. The house is now on MU’s 665-acre Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center.

Slagle’s parents owned the farm and house in the 1940s. He recalls hunting for arrowheads and rabbits on a nearby hill as a teenager. After graduating from high school, Slagle enlisted in the Army. While he served, his parents sold the house because they were offered $12,000, double what they had paid.

“It’s a big part of our history,” Slagle said. “I’m glad they’re going to save it.”

Over the past decade, substantial progress has been made to restore the house to its original condition. The foundation was stabilized, the two fireplaces and one of the west windows were restored, and the roof was re-shingled and straightened.

Much of the work was paid for with a $100,000 donation in 1996 by James Weathers, who had also lived in the house as a boy. The restoration will likely pick up steam, thanks to $500,000 secured in November by Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., from the 2006 Transportation-Treasury-HUD Appropriations bill.

“My plan is to restore the house completely,” said Gene Garrett, superintendent of the center. “Restore the stepping stones, put a wrought iron fence around the old cemetery and put the headstones back on display where the cemetery is actually located.”

The history of the Hickman House and of the area is as rich as the soil that Hiçkman came for. The house is just two miles from the beginning of the historic Santa Fe Trail and about a quarter-mile from Fort Hempstead, one of three forts built in Howard County to protect pioneers from possible attacks by American Indians. Many people who have come into contact with the area and the house hold it close to their hearts.

“The house is a tapestry of history that has lasted 200 years,” said John Shopland, former superintendent of the research center. “There are so many little stories that live in that house.”

Tom and Doris Markland of New Franklin remember the Hickman House. As they played bridge at the Silver Liners Senior Center, the Marklands said they were pleased with the restoration project.

“I think that it is wonderful that they are going to restore the house,” Doris said.

Hickman built the house after moving from Bourbon County, Ky., with his wife, Sarah Prewitt Hickman, and their children. He built the 1,800-square-foot, 1 1/2-story brick home on a rock foundation. It has four rooms, each with its own fireplace. Three of the rooms open onto an 8-foot hallway through the center of the house. When Hickman lived in the house, the attic was unfinished, and it still is today.

Historians are unsure where bricks for the house came from. Some believe clay was brought to the site and fashioned into bricks in kilns near the house. Others say the bricks might have been made in one of the brick factories near the Missouri River.

Hickman died in 1849, leaving his wife to take over the land and the house. The property has since passed from one family to another, and each altered the house in some way.

Irene Biesemeyer and her husband, Herbert, lived in the house for eight years, during which they added the south door.

“We lived in the two south rooms of the house and turned the hallway into two bedrooms,” said Irene. “It was a very exciting time living there.”

Irene’s uncle Adolph Rohlfing owned the property and farmed it with Herbert until Rohlfing sold the land to MU in 1953. Herbert was made superintendent, and the Biesemeyers remained in the house with their two children, John and Linda. Later, after the Biesemeyers moved into a new house on the property, their daughter Gina was born.

“I can remember cutting wood for the house,” said Herbert. “It took two days of sawing to heat the place.”

Other changes are evident just by looking at the house. Vertical bricks mark the heights and locations of the original doors and windows. The front door, for instance, was originally on the west side, with a fan-shaped window above it.

Garrett said plans call for converting what once was the master bedroom into an early 1800s period room. One room will serve as a reception area, and the other two will showcase the center’s research, the history of the farm and the house, and a history of agriculture from 1819 to the present.

There are also plans to create gardens around the house, displaying flowers and plants typical of the early 1800s.

In 1997, MU students on an archeological dig found evidence of a summer kitchen constructed several yards from the house, on the northeast side. The students uncovered the kitchen’s foundation and other artifacts, such as a bone-handled fork, nice china and patterned glass. Garrett believes Hickman also built the kitchen, and he plans to restore it as well.

“The idea is to create a teachable moment,” Garrett said. “I want individuals to come out here, walk into this setting and feel like they are back 200 years.”

Garrett said that, given all the changes previous owners have made, the $500,000 Bond secured will cover only about half the cost of the restoration. An advisory board will eventually oversee the center and the restoration, which will begin as soon as possible with the new federal money. Garrett hopes to raise the additional dollars needed to finish the inside, the summer kitchen and the graveyard.

“The question now is, How long is it going to take us?” said Garrett. “With enough money, the project could be done in two years.”

Garrett plans to apply this year to have the home placed on the National Register of Historic Places. With the effort and donations of many people, it appears this window to the past will be around for years to come.

“It needs a lot of work doesn’t it?” Slagle said as he walked out of the house. “But they can save it. It’ll always be a big part of my memory.”

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