What a Difference a Year Makes

This time last year I was enjoying my favorite season and the gorgeous view of fall foliage along the brick road of West Main. That reminds me of all the controversy that brick street caused on the city council. Some were against it because they thought the money should be spent elsewhere. Others of us were for it because we believed it would bring revitalization to the historic neighborhood. Has it paid off? That would be a good topic for another article but today my memories of that street are somewhere else.

This time last year, I was visited the Millikin Homestead for a fall open house and tour. It was a beautiful fall day and I was excited to see the inside of the house I’d never seen before.

The house had been completed in 1876 by James and Anna Millikin, who of course founded Millikin University. Behind the property of the Millikin Homestead are homes built in the Frank Lloyd Wright architectural tradition. Wright didn’t personally design any of the homes but his assistant(s) did.

The Millikin Homestead itself sits on a large grassy lot, making for an even more impressive sight. It’s about a mile or so east of Millikin University. There’s an old tree sitting at the front entrance of the house with a large reached out limb that hangs low, like an arm flexing its muscle. It seems so fitting for the house. I hope that tree lives a long, long time.

The house has a bit of that haunted house Scooby Doo vibe going on from the outside but on the inside much of it is light and welcoming. It doesn’t feel like a 150 year old house. In fact, some of the stained glass panels inside looked almost mid century in style. They looked like something designed a hundred years later.

As fascinating as the house is, it was the tour that knocked my socks off.

It was a history lesson of Decatur, of its movers and shakers, and some regular folks too. A few of the names that were mentioned would be recognized by longtime Decaturites such as Fairies, Powers, and Culver.

Fairies had many different business ventures in Decatur but is most known for manufacturing lighting fixtures. He had made a fortune selling fixtures for gas lanterns, including ones that could be pulled down from a ceiling by chains.

Another powerhouse during this time period was Orlando Powers who settled in Decatur in the mid-1800s. He would go on to be a very wealthy individual who had his hand in shaping downtown Decatur. While he was very successful at business, misfortune seemed to also be a running theme in his life.

Powers himself had survived a shipwreck at the age of 16 and survived 11 days floating around in the Atlantic Ocean. Too bad he couldn’t bottle up a lot of that water and use it to extinguish the many fires that would burn down the impressive structures he built, including an opera house located downtown which burned down, not once, but twice.

Doesn’t that sound like Decatur’s luck?

An entire city block in downtown Decatur which had been referred to as the Power’s Block would also burn to the ground. The Hotel Orlando, built by the Power’s family, is still standing in downtown Decatur as apartments for seniors. Let’s hope it has a very good water sprinkler system.

Before cars made bedroom communities and outlying suburbs popular for the middle-class and well-to-do it was generally only the wealthy who were within walking distance from downtown. You can find many of the homes of the most influential residents of Decatur during this time period sprinkled nearby the Homestead.

The tour guide also painted the picture of Central Park which apparently had been intended to be the ideal spot to entice the railroad to locate in the heart of the city. That never materialized and instead the land was given to the city for public use and we still enjoy it today.

The Millikin Homestead was probably one of the first, if not the first home in Decatur, to install indoor plumbing for a bathroom. Hey, that’s important! I’m very thankful for indoor plumbing. It doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

I also remember admiring the stained glass since I dabble in creating various stained glass pieces myself. It’s impossible not to appreciate the craftsmanship throughout the house. Even if one had an unlimited budget it would be difficult to find craftsmen who could recreate it today.

The upstairs of the house reminded me of Lincoln’s home in Springfield in that the bedrooms of James and Anna were connected but separate, just like Abe and Mary’s was.

How many marriages today would be saved if couples just didn’t spend time together? Millions. Before you know it it’s been 50 years that you’ve been married to what’s his face in the other room.

But beyond all that, the most memorable story of the tour was one that I have thought about often over the course of this year.

Nearly exactly 100 years ago the house would become a temporary hospital for an influenza pandemic. I remember wondering what it must have been like to live through something like that. How did people go about their lives?

Only a few months after the tour I would find out. Thankfully, Covid-19 isn’t as deadly as the Spanish Flu but it’s still a major threat for some and so far 41 Macon County residents have lost their lives to it. I don’t think anyone is looking forward to the long winter months ahead and what they may bring.

Actually, there’s now been 46 deaths. I began writing this article last week and 5 more Macon County residents have died—in just one week.

So how do people go about living during a pandemic? If human behavior hasn’t changed any, and it hasn’t, I have a good idea of the thoughts that went through their minds.

I do think that the Spanish Flu placed more fear in people’s hearts. It killed the young and healthy, more so than the old – the exact opposite of Covid 19. It’s horrible to lose a grandparent before their time but it’s beyond any words to describe the loss of a child or young parent. There’s just a deep feeling of unfairness in that they didn’t even get to live a full life.

675,000 Americans would die of the Spanish Flu, including millions worldwide. World War I was just ending. It wasn’t exactly the best of times. 2020 has a lot of competition for one of the most difficult years in history.

It’s not too hard to picture the Homestead as a hospital for flu patients. There would have been the sound of horse carriages and cars as they were becoming much more common, maybe the smell of horses from the nearby carriage house or coal burning in homes throughout Decatur, the flicker of gas lanterns possibly, though electricity was probably in the home at that time, the sound of footsteps up the grand stairs and the clanking of pots from the kitchen.

That house has seen a lot of technological change.

I’m sure there were people in Decatur who rolled up their sleeves and did what they could. There were people who denied it was even a threat. Some claimed the government was acting in an authoritarian fashion with its call for mask wearing. Yes this happened back then too. And I’m sure there were just a lot of people who got by day by day because that’s really the only way you can.

It reminds me of the first surgical instruments used on a Covid-19 patient were brought to my department. They sat in a red biohazard bag for about 5 hours while we made sure we found other things to work on.

I can picture it still so clearly. The bag was placed close to a garbage can that we all hoped it would jump into.

We took wide circles around it whenever we had to go into the decontamination room. Was the job even worth it, I thought? I don’t have to pay my bills. It’s not like there’s debtors prison anymore but how would I get the latest iPhone or eat? So eventually, one of us bravely handled the bag (not me) and we’re still alive. So there’s that.

And that’s how you get through a pandemic. You do what you have to do and hope for the best. I’m sure I wouldn’t think as much about the Homestead if it didn’t have a connection to another pandemic that Decatur endured.

I think moments like these underscore how important it is to preserve our old buildings. They connect us to people who lived here before us. Whenever I get discouraged I go downtown and walk along those old buildings and they reassure me. But there’s also empty lots where old buildings I walked through years ago once were. Their absence is sometimes louder than what remains.

When things get back to normal, I would very highly recommend taking a tour of the Millikin Homestead. Hopefully, you’ll get a tour guide as good as the one I had the pleasure of listening to. It’s about much more than a house.

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