Homes: New life for a family homestead
New life for a family homestead
A lengthy restoration preserved one of Piatt County's oldest homes
Story: Jodi Heckel
Photos: Heather Coit
When Jeff Harshbarger bought the property where he now lives, the house standing there was in ruins. Restoring the original house and building an addition to it has created a new chapter of family history.
Harshbarger and his wife Grace Giorgio Harshbarger are living on property in rural Atwood that has been in his family — owned by either direct Harshbarger descendants or more distant relatives — since 1837. The original portion of his home was built in 1848 by his great-great-great-granduncle, Daniel Harshbarger. “To the best of our knowledge, it’s the oldest remaining brick home in Piatt County,” Jeff Harshbarger said.
Daniel Harshbarger and Jeff’s great-great-great-grandfather, Samuel Harshbarger, moved by covered wagon in 1837 to the Atwood area from Crawfordsville, Ind., according to a genealogy book Jeff has that details the family history. Daniel Harshbarger bought a 40-acre homestead, with paperwork signed by President Martin Van Buren, that included the property where Jeff now lives.
Daniel Harshbarger built a log cabin, where he lived until building a four-room brick home in 1848. He donated eight of his original 40 acres for the church and cemetery for the new settlement. He eventually amassed more than 1,000 acres of farmland, and he served as the first justice of the peace in his section of the county.
Seven generations of Harshbargers lived on the property continuously from 1837 to 1944. The original four-room house had a number of additions, including a wood-frame wing built in the 1880s.
Jeff Harshbarger grew up in Urbana but occasionally visited the family homestead, mostly for funerals. His parents moved back to the property in 1988, buying a house next door that was also built by Harshbargers in 1914.
Jeff Harshbarger bought 12 acres in 1999 that included the ruins of Daniel Harshbarger’s brick home and the wood-frame addition. It seemed like the right thing to do, buying part of the original family homestead.
“It was in worse than deplorable condition,” Jeff said. “If it didn’t have the family history that it has, I would have brought in a bulldozer and pushed it into a big pile.”
Instead, he decided to rebuild the original house. But just two weeks after buying the property, a fire burned the wood-frame addition to the ground. The brick structure was saved, though.
Jeff spent the winter cleaning up the mess from the fire. The next fall, he ordered a semi-load of mason sand, mixed the mortar and began tuck-pointing, a process that took two years.
In the meantime, he met his wife, Grace. The two were married beneath 300-year-old oak trees on the property, and they moved into the home next door on April 1, 2002.
The fire that destroyed the wood-frame addition had badly damaged one of the walls of the brick home, and it had to be removed and rebuilt. Jeff and Grace gathered all the bricks they could find on the property to use, many of which had numbers stamped on them. When the original portion of the house was built, the bricks were sold by the hundred and the numbers tracked how much was owed for them.
The Harshbargers also used bricks from a former school building that had been demolished near St. Joseph, and they bought bricks matched in size, color and texture to the originals.
A new roof was put on in 2004. The Harshbargers weren’t sure how they would use the house once it was restored. They considered using it as a yoga studio (Grace is a yoga instructor as well as a course director in the University of Illinois Department of Communication) or a retreat center, but during the winter of 2005 they decided it would become their home.
While Jeff put in new steel lintels and headers to support the brick, he was unsure how much weight the original walls could bear. He decided to build new load-bearing walls inside, with the original brick walls as a veneer.
The Harshbargers hired contractors to pour a new concrete foundation, dig a basement and frame the walls for the new portion of the house they would build. Contractors also installed the mechanical systems, including a geothermal system. Otherwise, Jeff did nearly all the work himself, with the help of friends he worked with through his job as a construction project manager and salesman for Illini FS.
He had to remove a walnut tree to make room for the addition, and he built mantel pieces for the home’s three fireplaces from the tree’s wood.
In the original portion of the home, a living room features a photo of Abraham Lincoln over the fireplace and the year 1848 — the year the original house was built — over the doorway. The Harshbargers call it “The Room of the Past.”
Next to it is the dining room, with a photo of Barack Obama over the fireplace and the year 2008 — the year the work on the house was essentially complete — over the doorway. It’s “The Room of the Future.”
The upstairs portion of the original home is the Harshbargers’ bedroom, a sitting room/office space and a small bathroom. The trusses used for the roof allowed the ceiling to be vaulted so it wouldn’t be so low, but as a result, Jeff had to raise the chimneys on the roof.
The new addition includes the great room, with kitchen and living area separated by an opening with arches that are echoed in the curves in the fireplace mantels. Grace said she wanted something to soften the right angles in the home. The low vaulted ceiling in the great room matches that in the bedroom.
A master bath off the kitchen includes a vaulted ceiling as well, a whirlpool tub and shower, and a walk-in closet. The brick in the bathroom and kitchen is that of the original home, with a portion of the rebuilt brick wall in the bathroom. Grace said she and Jeff wanted as much exposed brick as possible in the house. The house has hickory floors, cabinets and trim. Jeff said he wanted to use wood like hickory and walnut that would be in keeping with what would have been used when the original house was built.
A window opening in the original house now holds a set of custom-built shelves. The basement is Grace’s yoga studio.
Jeff said the couple “recycled” the original home into one that’s energy-efficient, with the geothermal heating and cooling system, well-insulated walls and high-efficiency wood stoves in each fireplace.
When Grace looks around their home, she sees signs of the decisions she and Jeff made about what they wanted it to be.
“It’s something we created together,” Grace said.
The couple moved into the home on April 1, 2006 — exactly four years after moving to the house next door. Jeff recalls the first night they spent there, with a full moon shining through all the upstairs windows in that original brick home.
“That’s when it hit me,” he said. “My ancient relatives experienced that same thing. There were no lights on, no electricity. We were seeing something my great-great relatives had seen. And it makes you aware, you don’t own it as much as you think. We’re caretakers.
“It’s a great old house,” he added. “It’s nice to breathe new life into it.”
The PACA Heritage Awards recognize outstanding projects and individuals who have contributed to historic preservation efforts in east-central Illinois, including especially noteworthy residential rehabilitation projects.
Jeff and Grace Harshbarger won a 2011 PACA Heritage Award for the restoration of their rural Atwood home.
“The award acknowledges the restoration of one the oldest homes in Piatt County,” wrote the Heritage Award committee, citing “the long process of cleaning up and restoring the house” by the Harshbargers. It noted the new roof and additions to the home, and the interior work based on original designs.