Historic log house falls into neglect

Wednesday, June 7, 2006
Dr. Stephen Hoffman, director of the Historic Preservation Program at Southeast Missouri State University, discussed the status of the Hunter House that stands near Old McKendree Church at Jackson. (Fred Lynch)

The house, donated to Southeast Missouri State University in 1981, was once called priceless.

Nestled in neglect, a pre-Civil War log house stands amid knee-high grass and weeds in an out-of-the-way corner of the Southeast Missouri State University farm.

A wooden sign along Bainbridge Road west of Interstate 55 proclaims the "Historic Preservation Laboratory." But the log home only a short distance from historic Old McKendree Chapel has been anything but a laboratory for years.

When it was donated to the university in 1981 by Mr. and Mrs. Handy Moore of Sikeston, Mo., university officials described the log house, built in 1854 with slave labor, as "priceless." But the university has long since ignored the cypress log structure. The school's historic preservation program has done nothing with the house in years.

Local historic preservationists worried that the two-story dogtrot house with its open-air center breezeway might be razed to make room for the East Main Street extension and interchange project. But Jackson Mayor Paul Sander and state highway officials say the road project doesn't threaten the log house. East Main Street will connect with Interstate 55 farther north, Sander said.

The university plans to develop a life-sciences research park on the university farm property at the new interchange. Ironically, the research park might offer the best chance for saving the log house.

The Hunter house was built near Sikeston in 1854 and was moved to the Cape Girardeau area 130 years later.

A village instead of a park

Dennis Roedemeier is the chief executive officer of the Missouri Research Corp., a not-for-profit entity set up by the university to develop the technology park. He thinks the historic structure might be saved in a park-like setting complete with an old-fashioned garden.

Roedemeier wants to develop a technology village, not just a standard business park. The village is to include housing, offices, restaurants, shopping and open space.

"You don't have to forsake the past to gain the future," said Roedemeier, who has made several trips to the log house. "I still take time to go over there and walk around the building."

He doesn't want to see the house torn down, but he's realistic, too. He knows money and a plan will be needed to keep the log house from rotting away. "What the building needs is a champion," he said.

Dr. Steven Hoffman, who directs the historic preservation program at Southeast, would like to see the structure saved but isn't sure if it's feasible. "The reality is we don't have the resources to do anything with it," said Hoffman.

The house originally was home to Benjamin F. Hunter, a successful Scott County farmer. According to government records from 1876, he had nine horses, three mules, 25 cattle, 50 hogs and three tons of hay. He also owned a steam-powered mill valued at $14,000 in 1870.

The neglect of the house frustrates retired history professor Dr. Art Mattingly, who helped relocate the historic structure from its original location near Sikeston in the early 1980s. Mattingly said he and then-regional history center director Dr. Robert White wanted to create a living history farm around the old log house.

"We were trying to develop a living history experience for schoolchildren so they could see what farm life was like in the 1850s and 1860s," he recalled.

The farm also would have given historic preservation students hands-on experience in building restoration as well as allow them to wear period costumes and interact with tourists. "To me it was a teaching tool," Mattingly said.

But university administrators never embraced his vision. "I feel like they have turned a blind eye to it," he said.

He said his requests for funding from the university were ignored. His frustration was one of the reasons he retired from teaching in 1992. "It absolutely exhausted me," Mattingly said.

Not for the faint of heart

Mattingly and his preservation students dismantled the log house near Sikeston and reassembled it at the university farm. Much of the work was done in the summers over four years.

The work wasn't for the faint of heart. "We ran into nests of black snakes in the house," Mattingly recalled.

Two of the massive foundation logs had deteriorated to the point they had to be replaced. Mattingly convinced a Charleston, Mo.-area farmer to donate a couple of cypress trees growing on swampland. A Jackson man volunteered his labor and equipment to cut down the trees and haul them to Cape Girardeau. A Fruitland-area sawmill operator cut the trees into logs. Mattingly and his crew of volunteers then cut the logs down to the proper size and notched them.

Volunteers also rebuilt a chimney using 19th-century bricks from a structure torn down in Pocahontas. They put on a new roof with wooden shingles like those that would have been used in the 1850s. "Everybody did whatever job needed to be done," Mattingly said.

Mattingly no longer visits the log house. He can't stand to view the structure in its current state of neglect.

"It breaks my heart. All of the sweat and tears and anguish of doing this. It is just too hard," he said.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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