Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A small house with an (almost) hidden past

On the face of it, this pleasant bungalow at the intersection of South 14th Street and Armory Avenue in southwest Chariton seems to date from the 1920s --- and it does, kind of. But appearances can be deceiving. What you see actually is a fragment of what once was one of Lucas County's grandest homes.

My friend Diana asked a few days ago about the house, which has changed hands recently and is being refurbished. Friends of hers are the new owners and someone had told them that the house had been built in 1900 and that it once was larger.

I was able to refer her (and the new owners) to this photo of the house intact and under full sail, which appears in Lucas County's 1978 history with a brief account of the family that built it, the Blakes. As you can see, the house as built --- probably during the 1880s --- had an additional two stories and a tower, too. The printed version of the photo didn't preserve too much detail but it does convey the general idea.

A fire, which according to the 1978 history occurred during 1923, heavily damaged everything above  first-floor level and, as a result, the second and third floors --- and the tower --- were removed. The low gabled roof characteristic of the 1920s then was installed as the first floor was remodeled into a much smaller dwelling.

If woodwork and other interior features of the house remained, these were removed during subsequent remodelings and the interior now is very plain. Chimneys in the old photograph suggest there once were fireplaces, but no signs of them remain.

The only traces of the original house in its recycled version are a few exterior features and the stone  basement.


The builder of the house was George W. Blake, but the date of its construction isn't known. It appears to date from the 1880s, but could have been constructed somewhat earlier, during the lifetime of George's first wife, Caroline, nee Edginton, who died Dec. 31, 1880. Seven years after Caroline died, during 1887, George married Tamar Arabelle "Belle" Chickering and the house might have been constructed about then, too.

It is located in the Edginton Addition, an area of Chariton platted and developed by Caroline's father, Edward T. Edginton. I've written about the Blake family before because George W.'s heirs built the Blake Building, now home to Ben Franklin, on the north side of the square during 1901.

The elaborate frame of the original Blake front door, which must have been doubled and topped by a transom.

George was a native of Brewster, Maine, where he was born on July 7, 1841. He arrived in Ottumwa at age 17 and was working as a clerk there when the Civil War began. Enlisting in Co. K, Second Iowa Volunteer Infantry, he was chosen to be second, then first, lieutenant, then was wounded so severely at the October 1862 Battle of Corinth that death seemed likely. He beat the odds and recovered to serve honorably until discharge during 1864. George came to Chariton the following spring.

Shortly after arriving, George opened Chariton's first hardware store on the site of the current Blake Building. And in September of 1866 he married Caroline Edginton, a native of London. Her father, Edward T. Edginton, was among the most prominent of Chariton's residents at that time. 

Shortly after the marriage, however, it became evident that Edginton had disgraced himself by playing fast and loose with county funds while serving as county treasurer during the war years. Although he never was prosecuted, a bounty was placed on his head for a time and he was looked upon as a fugitive.

Edward had evaded angry Lucas Countyans, however, by accepting a state appointment that took him back to his native London to recruit more English settlers for Iowa and he apparently remained there until the excitement in Chariton had died down and he was able to arrange a settlement.

Although Edginton never regained his reputation and apparently lost many of his assets in that settlement, he eventually returned to Chariton and was allowed to live out his remaining years in peace --- with his daughter and son-in-law --- until death claimed him during February of 1881. Although buried in the Chariton Cemetery, his grave is not marked.

George and Caroline Blake had three children before she was felled by tuberculosis, dying a month before her father. Of the children, Harriett married Thomas R. Drummond and moved west, first to Utah and then to California, and Charles A. did not marry. 

George Clarence Blake (1879-1956) remained in Chariton, where he operated a clothing store in the Blake Building for many years. He married first Eva May Graves, then after her death, Mabel Nobel. His children --- Charles F. Blake, Elsie (Blake) Johnson and Caroline (Blake) Shelton --- and their descendants represented the famiy in Chariton during the 20th century.

George W. Blake died Dec. 20, 1900. Although his widow, Belle, survived until 1931,  Clarence and his family were living in the old Blake home during 1923 when it burned.

The most obvious traces of the original house are under the roof of the front porch --- two paneled bay windows with incised brackets above that flank the elaborate frame of the original front door, which must have been doubled and topped by a transom.

That door most likely led into a central stair hall flanked by two rooms on both sides, classic four-over-four construction. The bay window at the northwest corner of the house also is original equipment, although now topped by a gabled roof of its own that is supported by graceful brackets.

The stone basement also is original to the house. It also appears that the sidewalks served both the original house and its diminished version. One of these winds around the southeast corner of the building, then just ends, apparently once having led to a now-vanished door or porch.

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