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The brief history of ‘a splendid home’

a splendid home

You can learn a lot in a library.

I spent a few hours yesterday in the genealogy section of the Shelbyville-Shelby County Public Library. There, with the help of Barb, a woman with the heart and mind of a detective, I learned enough about the modest home we’re renting for Sharon and I to piece together a timeline of its history.

A bittersweet slice of Americana has played out inside these walls.

For one thing, we learned that our home and the entire neighborhood around it are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can look it up; it’s Shelbyville’s “West Side Historic District”.

(Curiously, the city doesn’t seem to promote this designation, or that of Shelbyville’s “Commercial Historic District” centered on the city’s Public Square. You’d think a town with about 525 buildings on 1,465 acres recognized as nationally significant historic places would be shouting it from the gabled, dormered, and crenelated rooftops. But I digress.)

Our home was built in 1916 by Albert LeMar, a 34-year-old man who grew up on a farm in Shelby County west of Shelbyville. The house appears to have replaced a home on this lot occupied by Clarence Wertz in 1913, a home that wasn’t included in the city directory published in 1915. Wertz had moved to a home down the block and around the corner.

It’s possible that the Wertz home fell victim to the Great Flood of 1913. The Big Blue River rose to historic levels in Shelbyville in late March of that year, although damage here paled by comparison to the horrific loss of life and property along rivers elsewhere in Indiana and Ohio.

Whatever the reason, Bert LeMar’s new house was later described by the Shelbyville Republican as “a splendid home”, and it certainly was.

Sadly, Bert and his wife, the former Farnie Blankenbaker, enjoyed their new home for only two years before he became ill and and then died in less than a week’s time. His obituary in the Republican attributed Bert’s death to pneumonia, but considering the date — December 7, 1918 — it’s very possible that Bert LeMar was one of central Indiana’s first victims of the Spanish flu.

Update: A bit more research revealed that Bert was, in fact, a victim of what the Shelbyville Democrat called the “dread influenzal pneumonia”. About 100 residents of Shelby County died of the disease between October, 1918 and May, 1919.

After her loss, Farnie moved to Indianapolis to live with her sister and brother-in-law, Oliver and Elizabeth Burgess. Bert’s parents, George and Alice LeMar, relocated from their farm in Hendricks Township to their late son’s home in Shelbyville, where they lived out their remaining years. George died in January of 1932, and Alice lived here at least through 1939.

Our historical narrative grows a little sketchy in the 1940s due to gaps in the records at the public library. We should be able to clear this up with a visit to the county courthouse. We know only that the home was occupied in 1946 by a man who may be the founder of a law firm in Indianapolis that’s still active today.

We pick up the thread of our splendid home’s story in 1949, when we find the home occupied by 75-year-old widower Oliver R. Burgess, brother-in-law of Bert LeMar’s widow, Farnie, who died at Oliver’s home in Indianapolis in 1937. Oliver’s wife, Elizabeth, had followed her sister in death in 1938. Since the home was back in the family in ’49, it’s possible that the home had been rented out for a time during the ’40s.

Oliver was joined in Shelbyville by his unmarried sister-in-law, Faye, around 1956, and they lived in the home until their deaths in May, 1966. They were killed when Oliver hit a truck head-on while driving on State Route 3 near Spiceland, Indiana. (The driver of the truck suffered only minor injuries.)

From 1967 through ’71, the home was owned by a man who may still be an active local attorney. Curiously, the home’s address changed in 1967, shifting up by 2. Don’t know why.

It sat vacant for at least part of 1972, according to local records, but was occupied by another couple, Olice and Ada Stephens, by the following year. Olice died in 1984 at the age of 80, and his widow stayed on in the home through 1996, although she lived until 2001, passing away at the age of 87.

The history of this splendid little home is actually harder to trace over the last decade than is it in its early years, but it appears to have fallen on hard times as the 20th century came to a close. We know of only two years for certain in which it was occupied, although it’s likely that the publishers of the city directory were simply unable to verify the names of those who lived here.

We do know that it was on the REO (Real Estate Owned) list of a major mortgage lender by 2007 (i.e., the bank had foreclosed on the home), and that our landlord apparently picked it up to flip it or rent it after some quick fix-ups. We found it online at at the end of last year, and now we’re here and in the process of deciding whether to make this our long-term address.

The home has its charm, there’s no doubt, although one consequence of being occupied for so many years by elderly people is that much of the maintenance and repair work appears to have been done expediently rather than properly. That’s understandable; I’m only 46, but there are projects I have no desire to tackle any more because of the physical demands.

For example, the windows and interior doors have been painted in place several times, leaving the windows barely operable and the doors shedding paint from their hinges. In addition, the long driveway needs to be replaced, the front porch has settled quite a bit in the middle, and the landscaping has been neglected for a long, long time.

Still, it’s a classic example of the American bungalow, and the location is wonderful. It sits on a wide street of much larger homes representing a wide variety of styles, from Victorian to Italianate, and it’s not every day one has an opportunity to own a home listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And there’s a lot to be said for living in a neighborhood where one of the most popular family activities is an evening walk on a double-wide sidewalk under a canopy of oak and maple leaves.

It also helps that this splendid home is only 9/10 of a mile from work. That helps with a problem that Bert LeMar surely didn’t anticipate in 1916 — paying $3.80 for a gallon of gasoline.

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