Saturday, December 07, 2013

White Cloud, a mansion and the Poulets

The Poulet mansion was built by Alexis and Rebecca Poulet on a hill in White Cloud, Kansas, about 1880. It can be yours for $90,000. All photos are from the Realtor, via Zillow.

None of this has anything to do with Lucas or Wayne Counties, unless you count an elusive uncle (some generations removed), Joseph Francis Dunn, who managed to end up six feet under over at White Cloud in Doniphan County, Kansas. Uncle Joe died a pauper back in 1912 at the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Solders (Midwest version) in Leavenworth.

Joseph married Mary Rhea, sister of my great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Rachel (Rhea) Clair, on July 2, 1856, in Cedar Township, then they took off for northwest Missouri and northeast Kansas. I've had a heck of a time tracking them down and still haven't found Aunt Mary, perhaps laid to rest in an unmarked grave in St. Joseph, Missouri, some time during the late 1870s. 

When her mother died during 1888 in Lucas County, neither Mary nor her family had been heard from in 15 years. I think you could safely say they weren't close. But that's another story.

The link here is that while tracking down Joseph Dunn I got interested in White Cloud, a tiny village along the Missouri River upstream from St. Joe and just south of the Kansas-Nebraska line. The village is named for James White Cloud, son of Chief White Cloud of the Ioway, and it remains the seat of government for the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, former owners of --- Iowa.

Poking around the other day, playing the Zillow game, I discovered that the Poulet mansion in White Cloud is on the market for $90,000 --- and has been there for some time. The photos here are from the Realtor site and I'm not going to complain about them, although perhaps they could have been more carefully thought out.

Alexis Poulet, who built the house, was an interesting guy, a key figure in White Cloud history. And I like the building --- the Poulets managed to die out after intriguing lives, so the old house is their principal built legacy. Even the White Cloud bank that Alexis founded in 1883 closed this fall.

All of this got me tangled up in trying to find out more.


Somehow, the misinformation that the Poulet mansion was built by a French aristocrat whose father had died during the French Revolution has crept into lore surrounding it. Not true, but it's a great story.

Alexis, born Sept. 2, 1831, in the Haute-Saone region of France, actually was a son of bourgeois parents, Pierre and Francoise (Monin) Poulet, and his father seems to have died of natural causes when Alexis was 2. After receiving his education in France, Alexis came to the United States at age 16, in 1847 with his mother and two siblings and they settled somewhere in Missouri.

From 1850 until 1856, Alexis lived and worked in New Orleans. Then, after Kansas opened to EuroAmerican settlers, he headed north and launched a general store during 1857 at a place called Iowa Point, also in Doniphan County but downstream from White Cloud.

While in business at Iowa Point, Alexis married Rebecca Acton, daughter of Osborn and Rachel (Hetrick) Acton, on Oct. 14, 1860, in Holt County, Missouri, just across the Missouri River. Rebecca's mother had died before the family moved west from Ohio, so she was living at the time with her father and stepmother.

Iowa Point did not live up to expectations, but as it declined the upriver city of White Cloud took off. So after the Civil War, the Poulets moved there and Alexis opened first a hardware store, then a general store.

The White Cloud site had been acquired by speculators Enoch Spaulding and John H. Utt in 1856, two years after the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened what had been Indian Territory to EuroAmerican settlement.  The White Cloud Town Co. was formed in 1857.

The location was selected because it offered an ideal landing site for riverboats, then the principal means of commercial transportation.

The village grew to include a population exceeding 2,000, a steam ferry connected the town to the Missouri shore and it was thought for a time that White Cloud would grow into a major  city. That was not to be, however, after railroads replaced river transportation.

Today, after declining gradually for more than 100 years, White Cloud is a village of under 200 people. Downtown is a National Historic District and several buildings, including the Poulet mansion, are listed individually on the National Register of Historic Places. But challenges would be involved in living there.


Alexis and Rebecca Poulet had at least three children --- Nellie, born ca. 1864; Jennie, born ca. 1872, who died young; and finally a son, Acton, born Jan. 21, 1876.

From Poplar Street, the Poulet house appears to be two-story, but all three floors are evident when viewed from the southeast. Note the wrought iron railing on balconies, reportedly imported from New Orleans.

The Poulet mansion --- and mansion is a relative term although it certainly was the most impressive house in White Cloud --- was built about 1880 on Poplar Street, dug into the bluff that rises northwest of  Main Street with a second public facade that faces southeast across the business district and offers distant and somewhat sideways views of the Missouri River.

From Poplar Street, the house appears to be two-story; From Main Street looking up, however, it is a full three stories in height.

The building is restrained Italianate with a mighty tower over the front entrance, built of brick. Brickyards were a major industry in White Cloud during its early years, so most likely the building material was produced nearby. Each exterior opening is capped by a three-piece arched stone lintel and the interior reportedly is finished at least in part in black walnut.

Although the tower certainly is impressive, the three-story southeast facade is remarkable with its three tiers of generous windows and doors. A balcony with wrought iron rail runs the full length of the second floor; a partial balcony with identical rail, fronts the third. By some accounts, the iron work was imported from New Orleans.

I really like the old house, but some haven't. Architectural snobbery surfaced when "Kansas: A Guide to the Sunflower State" was published in 1939 by the Federal Writers Project. Here's the description of the Poulet house, written by an anonymous author who seems to have been having a bad day: "On the side of a hill overlooking the business district one block from Main Street is the Poulet House, a pretentious three-story structure of red brick built in 1880 by White Cloud banker Alexis Poulet. It is a garish blend of Victorian and French architecture ...." Ouch!

Here are a few of the Realtor's photos of the interior of the Poulet house in its current incarnation.

Garish or not, this is where the Poulets raised their two children. Alexis, however, was not quite a banker when the house was built. He organized the State Bank of A. Poulet on May 1, 1883, and remained at its helm until retirement. That bank proved to be remarkably long-lived, surviving various consolidations.

The most recent owner was Girard National Bank, owner of Hiawatha National Bank, which just this fall announced that the White Cloud bank, which it had operated as a branch of Hiawatha since 2007, would close, taking out another piece of the Poulet legacy.

Rebecca Poulet seems to have died at White Cloud during 1911, although I'm not exactly sure of that. Most likely she was buried in Olive Branch Cemetery, principal White Cloud burial place and the location of her father's grave.

Alexis Poulet then moved to Chicago, where he died on Nov. 9, 1919. Cook County death records state that his body was returned to White Cloud for burial, but the usual online sources failed me when I tried to come up with a tombstone. It seems likely, however, that Rebecca and Alexis and their daughter, Jenny, rest not far from old Uncle Joe Dunn in Olive Branch.


There's no indication that either Alexis or Rebecca Poulet aspired to exalted social status, but their two children achieved it --- by the time all was said and done, Nellie and Acton had established distinctive we're-not-in-Kansas-anymore-Toto records for themselves.

I have no idea how they met, but during January of 1887 in the Methodist Church at White Cloud Nellie married Horace Edward Dickinson (born 1858 in New York City), described as a "New York traveling man," but soon to be a rising New York businessman and importer of textiles.

They settled in Manhattan and soon were swept into New York's social whirl. Various reports of their social activities can be found here and there online.

By 1897, the Dickinsons were deemed eligible for inclusion in Lyman Weeks' Prominent Families of New York, and Weeks tells us that during that year, Horace was a member of both the New York Athletic and Knickerbocker Riding clubs, as well as the Sons of the American Revolution.

The occasional breathless report surfaces, too, describing Nellie as among New York City's most beautiful and accomplished society matrons.

The Dickinsons seem to have lived principally in New York City until Aug. 9, 1922, when Horace unexpectedly dropped dead at his desk, leaving Nellie an affluent widow. Her residence at the time was on Central Park South. Children are not mentioned in connection with the couple, so my impression is that they had none.


If Nellie pushed the status bar for Kansas natives high, baby brother Action knocked it up a notch or two farther as the years passed.

After completing his studies at White Cloud High School, he enrolled at Kansas State College, then during 1894 entered Yale, earning his bachelor's degree there during 1897.

Acton worked in banking in New York City for a time and appears frequently in New York society reports, quite the eligible young bachelor about town.

Then in 1909, he went to work for the Standard Oil Co. as assistant to the treasurer, stationed in Haiphong, Vietnam.

In 1916, he became manager of Standard Oil interests in all of what now is Vietnam, then after moving to Saigon in 1921, was named general manager of Standard Oil operations in Cambodia and Laos, too, a position he filled until retirement in 1930.

Conflicts of interest were perceived differently back then, so Action also held a variety of consular positions with the U.S. State Department in Southeast Asia, as time away from his business responsibilities permitted. He served as vice consul in Saigon from 1922 until 1929.

A confirmed bachelor, as they say, Acton apparently was quite the dandy and a couple of published reports survive of the Kansas boy, clad in immaculate tropical whites, including a gleaming pith helmet, ascending gangplanks to greet dignitaries visiting the region. He became widely known as the go-to guy when elaborate entertaining was required, including guided tours in the region.

Sister Nellie joined Acton in Saigon during 1923, after Horace Dickinson's death, and stayed a couple of years. They would live together, off and on, for the remainder of his life.


After Acton retired in 1930, he and Nellie established a joint home on the French Riviera, at 57 Boulevard Victor Hugo in Nice, and lived there until his unexpected death, of a heart attack, on Aug. 10, 1937, age 61. His remains were cremated at Marseilles.

Nellie returned to the United States during 1941, as war spread across Europe, arriving on Aug. 18 in New York aboard the Exeter, which had sailed from Lisbon on Aug. 8. She gave her age as 69 at the time, although she was pushing 80, and her U.S. address was in care of Chase National Bank, New York.

By some accounts, Nellie died two years later, during 1943. I suspect she had found refuge in Oklahoma, where Acton cousins lived, but have no information about her final days or the ultimate disposition of her remains.


CBB said...


CBB said...