Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Land of 10,000 choices: Benjamin House

Honey, do you want to go to that auction in Shelbina for the Benjamin House?  The first of many choices, and the answer was yes.   For three years we had been looking at old homes in search of one that we could decorate and enjoy.  For many reasons (or destiny), we found the Benjamin House to be exactly what we wanted.  The fireplaces caught our eye immediately as well as the majestic mirrors in the parlor.  Several pieces of original furniture were available to be purchased separately (choice 3) and a nice lady from the local historical society (Kathleen Wilham) provided a booklet with a brief history of the home.  This could be the one! Questions # 4,5,6,& 7 were my wife's hand in the air and we were on our way.  Shortly afterward, my wife's main question was where could she find a working bathroom in which to "toss her cookies".  The excitement had begun as the water lines had frozen and burst in several places during the previous winter.   That evening we reviewed photos that we had taken and ate ice cream to recover from "buyers remorse".

     If you have children or have hunted deer, you understand that after the fun there is a lot of work.  We wrapped up our child  at the title company and a new life began.  Choices like new furnaces, roofing, and paint were obvious, but plaster repair was a tough question.  Lime plaster is very durable, but 100 years of expansion and contraction loosens the bond between the lathes and the hair bound plaster.  Do you wait for the ceiling to fall, or replace it first?  Do you find a really heavy duty wallpaper to apply over the existing 70 year old paper and hope that it hides/holds the cracks that were visible?  Then, if you choose to search for the rare lathe plaster artist, do you tear out the false ceilings that were used to hide past mortar avalanches?  We picked plasterers for the same reason that you keep a three year old.  They are worth it in the long run (I hope).  New ceilings, repaired medallions, huge plaster cornices were rebuilt and a lot of knowledge was gained. 

      Not all questions or discoveries were negative as we did find an energy efficient "green friendly" heating system original to the house.  We call it "stairs".  There are 54steps in fact and they take you all the way to the Belvedere!  As a note, Belvedere is a more accurate term in Italianate style architecture for the little room at the very top.  The meaning is beautiful view;  whereas, cuppola sounds like someone ordering two pounds of hamburger.
So where does that leave us? My wife has recovered fully and you may view pictures of the work on our website(shelbinamansion.com).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Congressman Shot! --- in Shelbina late 1800's

The recent tragedy in Arizona has captured the attention of the world and will likely alter many aspects of political life.  The media is reporting many details and a host of testimony from people involved.  It makes me wonder how the shooting of John Forbes Benjamin outside the post office in his home town would be treated by the media today and how it was reported in the press of the 1870's.

As a public figure and civil war general, Mr. Benjamin was known to have been supported by some and vehemently opposed by others.  Case in point, his shooter.  News of the incident was no doubt of interest to the community and spread quickly.  Perhaps even more headlines would have been garnered when the shooter was acquitted of the public shooting inspite of the presence of witnesses.  Did the fact that Mr. Benjamin survived being shot in the chest make the incident less serious in those times?  After all, this was post civil war and a time when Jesse James was on the prowl with his gang.  Whatever the situation might have been, the man who shot Mr. Benjamin seems to have ultimately slipped from the history books. His fame was very short-lived without the media to repeatedly broadcast his face and the accompanying backstory complete with motive.  Perhaps he was weak and easy to influence, as many criminals are today.

Though not much is known about his shooter, we can take a look at the life of John Forbes Benjamin. From New York originally, like many others of the time, he heeded Horace Greely's words to "go west young man."  He may have initially went a bit too far (ending up in Texas) but stories of good land in Missouri soon sent him packing!  This is a well known beginning to his story in Shelby county, but it should also be the beginning of our understanding of the man.  Mr. Benjamin's drive allowed him to  accomplish so many things after starting as a homestead farmer in Shelby county. Unfortunately, it wasn't without controversy.  If you were in his neighborhood at the time how would you have handled the news, rumors, here-say regarding this "Republican from East Coast". If a person were to convey unsettling news, would you question not only the truth of the news but why the person was so willing to share it?  Should we fault Mr. Benjamin if, amidst his long list of accomplishments, some of his actions were advantageous?  Hamlet once answered a question about his character with, "Sir, you confuse the man with the deed."

To own the grandest house in Shelby county was just one of his goals and he accomplished it not once, but twice!  In addition to the Benjamin House, he owned a home in Shelbyville (destroyed by fire long after his death).  Ironically he had not foreseen, that for the completion of his grand vision, the county would tax him the "Grandest Amount".  This taxation, along with the shooting outside the post office, was the beginning of his personal frustration with life in Missouri.  His rise to prominance as a politition, civil war general, and mansion maker no doubt put him in the position of lightening rod.  But a driven man is driven by some need.  We do not know of Mr. Benjamin's early family life or insecurities, but there was a reason that he was compelled to achieve.  This need for adulation or recognition also may have made him vulnerable to the charms of the "Big City Girl" by the name of Guy Allen.  Needless to say, at that time in his life a perfect storm was forming... and there would be no time to recover from its' effects.  If nothing else, John Forbes should be thanked for leaving a structure that has generated so many property tax dollars for the county through the years. 

Looking back, one might be inclined to wonder. Would children have helped ground John Forbes' ambition?  Did being a Union general in an area with strong southern sympathies place him on a path to rejection in the county? What if he had been more involved with the community?

That opportunity is history, but perhaps we can take from Mr. Benjamin's story something that we can apply to our own situation today.  Fostering improvement in ones own community might be as simple as supporting someone in need or moderating someone else who is too easily influenced.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Not So Humble Beginnings

Shelbina itself is a small town located in northeast Missouri.  For a small town, it has had several noteable residents.  Many people would recognize former resident Sam Walton of Wal-Mart fame, but perhaps the most enduring historical figure is actually a gentleman by the name of John Forbes Benjamin.  My introduction to this man was not with a handshake and a conversation but an equally personal experience... my wife Marilyn and I now walk the floors of the mansion he once called home.

Mr. Benjamin was no run-of-the-mill Shelbina resident.  His colorful history is paralleled by this ornate structure he built in the late 1800's, originally known as Vesper Place.  In search of a peaceful setting for he and his wife he commissioned the build but continued to travel to and from Washington, D.C. where he served in Congress.  The peace he enjoyed was short-lived as only two years after the homes' completion he passed away.  To add a bit of intrigue, his passing occurred just after having rewritten his will and his wife, who spent more time in the home, passed away shortly after.  But that's not all... the estate soon fell into a long and colorful probate due to the interest of a beautiful young "girlfriend" of Mr. Benjamin's from (you may have guessed it) Washington, D.C.  This story still echos through Shelby County today and pre-dates current Washington political scandels by over 100 years!

As for Marilyn and I, what we thought to initially be the purchase and restoration of a beautiful home turned into a wonderful chain of stories from former owners and the community that has grown to love what they call "The Benjamin House".  As these facts come to our attention, the sometimes overwhelming task of restoring/maintaining the residence becomes even more dear to us.  If life has shown me anything, it's that important work is rarely easy!

Technology has changed since the times of Mr. Benjamin.  I imagine a blog written by him would have been an avidly read site!  Our desire in starting this one is to share the story of this great home.  We hope that it will lead to a better understanding not only of its past but the Benjamin family as well.  Stay tuned for more tales of the home built by the 49er, civil war general, congressman, lawyer, philanderer, and survivor of several brushes with death!

For more photos and information feel free to visit our homepage at http://www.shelbinamansion.com/!