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Jasper County mansion moves 6 miles ahead of renovation

11:50 AM, Feb 20, 2013   |    comments
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JASPER COUNTY, IA. - Nearly 150 years and more than 100 tons of history were spared from the wrecking ball Tuesday thanks to a momentous three-hour, six-mile journey past the barren cornfields.

The morning rush hour tends to be nonexistent in rural Iowa - except when you squeeze a house 38 feet and 8 inches wide down a county highway and narrow gravel road at about 5 miles per hour, through a gauntlet of utility poles and culverts.

Several road signs were temporarily felled in the process. And Mid-American Energy snipped a series of power lines to let the 37-foot-tall home on wheels avoid a dangerous game of limbo.

Yes, the third time was a charm Tuesday for Billy Bell of Colfax, whose house-moving crew had planned to haul the 1865 mansion twice in the last two weeks, only to be thwarted by soggy ground.

Luckily for the unflappable Bell - and unfortunate for shivering spectators - the frigid ground was firm on a day that dawned with temperatures in the single digits and a prairie gale that never let up.

This allegedly haunted Italianate mansion on the National Register of Historic Places, with 2,640 square feet and a two-story porch, sat vacant for more than two years before a Des Moines native now living six hours south in Missouri stepped forward to claim it.

Known as Maple Grove Hill, the house has been credited as a stop on the Underground Railroad, although no evidence of a tunnel was discovered during removal.

Sherri Meeker, a 1976 graduate of Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, is the crusader in question who first caught the historic preservation bug as a childhood TV fan of Bob Vila and "This Old House."

She has family roots in Jasper County and also envisioned herself living on her grandparents' farm near Elliott in southwest Iowa - and still might end up there. She's been renovating that 1898 home and rents it out, while her cousin continues to farm the family ground.

"We need to look beyond the broken windows and failing foundations and peeling paint and the cracked plaster and see the beauty that's hidden within," Meeker preached Tuesday.

"I just couldn't see it going into a burn pile," she said of Maple Grove Hill.

The structure's $2,000 purchase price was a fraction of the $88,000 or so it cost to relocate it with Bell's crew, the fleet from Mid-American, a new foundation, sewer hookup, etc.

If she could afford it, Meeker might have moved Maple Grove Hill all the way down to Stockton, Mo., where she lives with her husband, Walt, and their 13-year-old home-schooled daughter, Amanda.

Walt runs an archery and gun shop and stayed home this week. Meeker, an accountant and Mary Kay salesperson, brought Amanda and a video camera to help chronicle the move.

"There are times I think I'm going to fly away!" was wispy Amanda's reaction to the fierce Iowa wind.

Maple Grove Hill began rolling at 9 a.m. Tuesday. It's quite a way to introduce yourself to your new neighbors: Drive your home past their doorsteps.

It became rural spectator sport: Robert and Donna Thomason parked their pickup in a driveway and gawked. Donna Thomason explained that she had been fresh out of high school in the 1950s when she worked in the house as kitchen help for what was a miniature rest home; the owner at the time cared for four elderly residents.

J.G. and Regina Long originally built the house in 1865 after moving here from Pennsylvania. They raised cattle and planted the maple trees common to their native state.

The home's reputation as haunted seems to stem from the fact that J.G. Long's brother and oldest son both committed suicide (neither in this house), and that J.G. himself briefly was committed to the "insane asylum" in Mount Pleasant as an old man in his 70s and later returned home to die.

One of Bell's workers, Mark Grimm, was ready to verify the rumors. One night during prep for the move, all the doors were closed; the next day, all of them were open again.

And one Saturday when he was working in the house with just two other guys outside, he heard a door slam.

"You guys messing with me?" he shouted. "Somebody slammed a door in here!"

Meeker bought the house from Adam Johnson, who had purchased it and its four acres a year ago out of foreclosure. He plans to build a new home for his growing family (a 2-year-old son with another baby due in March). He's a mechanic for Newton schools who restores classic cars on the side and understands how a hobby can spiral out of control.

"I restore old cars, and (Meeker) restores old houses, I guess," Johnson said.

So Johnson was sympathetic to the cause and wanted to see the house saved and moved. He helped Meeker scramble to find a plot of land when a first site nearby fell through.

To preserve the mansion's spot on the National Register, Meeker had to arrange a topographically similar site on the north side of an east-west road.

Johnson's grandmother "heard through the grapevine" about 2½ acres located 6 miles west where a one-room schoolhouse (called Rabbit Ridge) once stood.

Tuesday's turn north from the paved County Road F70 onto the gravel West 86th Street South on the way to Rabbit Ridge was a squeaker. The roofline grazed a utility pole, and Bell was elated to clear it as he scurried alongside the house and flashed hand signals to his Mack truck driver.

Meeker and Bell were thrilled when the house arrived at Rabbit Ridge, where it will remain parked until a fresh foundation is dug. Tuesday's three-hour journey will be followed by a restoration that could take three years.

Not even Meeker thinks that everything about her historic home is beautiful. She sighed over all the "layers of hideous wallpaper" yet to be removed.

"Sorry!" she added - because at this point, we were sitting in Goldie's diner in Prairie City, where the man at the next table had just mentioned that his uncle had lived in the house in the 1940s.

Meeker is obsessed: While in the hotel Monday night with her daughter in Newton, she browsed her way to yet another historic Iowa home online that's being offered for $1 by a city that needs it moved.

"Don't tell me you're rescuing that one," Amanda rolled her eyes.

Don't worry, Amanda: Your mom said she's willing to help launch a letter-writing campaign, but with Maple Grove Hill, she has enough vintage Iowa real estate for now to keep her busy.

Des Moines Register

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