Historic Sublette home ‘traces its roots’

The former Methodist Episcopal Church as it looks today. Photo submitted

SUBLETTE - Old homes have many stories to tell. Anyone who has lived in a home that is over 100 years old has surely wondered what hidden tales their historic dwelling would share if it could talk. But in many cases, those stories have been partially or completely lost over time. 

Such was the case for Bob and Betty Jones of Sublette. As a young couple, they were living in Franklin Grove when Bob was given the opportunity to manage the Shrock/Tuloma/Standard Oil fertilizer plant in Sublette. Having grown up in Sublette, Bob was excited to return to his home town, but Betty had reservations about the move. 

In Franklin Grove, they had lived in a newer, ranch style home right in town. Betty explained that she had a fear of living in the country and was concerned that her fear would be realized if they made the move to Sublette. 

But Bob assured her that would not happen, promising that they would live in town. 

“But there was only one house available at the time - a big Victorian with very little paint and a partial bell steeple, which made it look like a ‘ghost house,’” Betty recalled. 

The couple met with the realtor, Gerald Leffelman and the home’s owners, Carol and Harold Bonnell, Jr. who gave them a very friendly welcome. As they entered the home for the first time, Betty remembered seeing a dining room with painted wainscoting, a kitchen with cabinets that went floor to ceiling with one big door, and what she called a hog trough sink (now called a farmer’s sink). 

As they went into the living quarters of the home, its appearance was more impressive. They saw ornately trimmed golden oak and cherry woodwork that had never been painted, a beautiful golden oak and marble fireplace, and pocket doors between the rooms.

Betty still remembers Bob saying at the time, “I think we can work hard and make it into a beautiful home to raise our kids and make some beautiful memories.”

Betty admitted there were a few tears shed, but the couple bought the home and moved in on Oct. 19, 1967. At the time, they were told that the home had originally been the Methodist Episcopal Church, the first Methodist church to be built in Sublette. Constructed in 1870, the church was completed in 1871. This was an interesting bit of history for the couple but questions remained. Given its current layout, they wondered how church services could have been held in that space. 

As the years went by, Bob and Betty made some changes to the house, both inside and out. Most importantly, they were able to build many fond memories in the home. 

“Times with family and friends, the births of our five children and one angel in heaven, a tree fire, boys climbing to the top of the roof (unbeknownst to us until later in life), Barbies, and soldiers who protect the upstairs,” Betty noted. 

By 2019, it was again time to paint the exterior of the house but finding a painter proved somewhat difficult.

 “In today’s world, not many painters can be found who will take on the challenge of this unique Victorian house,” Betty explained. 

By chance, a nurse at Saint Paul Medical Center in Mendota told the couple about a painter, Gary Mason of Rochelle, who did a great job painting a friend’s home. They contacted Mason and when he came to give them a bid, Betty said he seemed as excited about painting the home as they were. 

“We learned that Victorians are his favorite type of house to paint,” Betty recalled. “Gary has a real talent for bringing out the details of a home and as he says, ‘It is only paint.’ But it is more than that; it is his heart and talent. He has a real feel for the home and cares how it looks, and he passes that passion on to his crew.”

But when Mason learned that the home was originally the Methodist Episcopal Church, he became just as interested and passionate about the history of the home as he was about choosing paint colors. As a historian and member of the Lee County Historical Society, Mason went searching for more information on the 148-year-old structure. 

In his research, Mason was able to uncover some additional information and historical records that helped answer some of Bob and Betty’s questions about their home. 

Through that research, they learned that at the time of construction the interior had 20-foot ceilings and a large open space for placement of the pews. After the church was sold, it was reconstructed and made into a two-story residence with 10-foot ceilings. 

“This gave us some answers we never had,” Betty said. 

When Mason was hired to paint their home, Betty said his vision was to give it a welcoming, warm and inviting feeling and she felt it was a job well done. But by taking the initiative to do some research, Mason also gave the couple an unexpected bonus. 

“Now our home has so much more meaning and we have an understanding of certain designs in our home - for that we will always be grateful,” Betty said. “Our home has provided warmth, love and many memories over the years, and we are blessed to be part of the history.”

More questions

Although Mason was able to answer some questions about the former Methodist Episcopal Church in Sublette, other questions remain unanswered. 

The Methodist organization had been in Sublette Township for about 25 years meeting in various locations before they were finally able to build a church. So why did the church disband less than 10 years after the new building was dedicated? 

Although the records Mason researched at the LCHS gave various details about the church and how it developed over the years, he found no answer to that question. In fact, the historical writings stated that, “The records of this group of Methodists are few and scattering and do not agree on date and places.”

A paraphrased version of the historical records Mason found follows.

Written history

The first Methodist organization within the limits of Sublette Township was held at the house of Levi Camp at Knox Grove in about 1846. Early members included Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Pratt, Mr. and Mrs. John Skinner, Mr. and Mrs. Vertrees, Joseph, Mariam and Sarah Vertrees, Mrs. Levi Ellsworth, Mrs. Dr. Heath, Mrs. John Clink, Joseph Knox and his family, Mr. and Mrs. John Barnes, Albert Linn and his wife, Skinner Pratt and his wife and Mr. and Mrs. Wood. They were all living near Knox Grove and nearly all of them were the first members of the congregation. For quite a number of years, the church was supplied by circuit preachers with meetings held in private homes and at Knox Grove school.

In those days, roads and transportation were very bad so there were many classes held throughout the area. The classes were not held too regularly but they were a place where families could go to study the gospel. 

The classes also served another purpose. Many children learned to read and write at such classes because there were no public schools. There were many different classes in the circuit - Knox Grove, LaMoille, Arlington, Mendota, Bellnafs, North Prairie East, North Prairie West, Winder, Elliotts and Ivanhoe. In August 1855, Knox Grove had 37 members.

These groups worked together sharing expenses and preachers. The first church was built in LaMoille in 1852-53. The Mendota group was too small in the 1854-55 conference to erect a building and the community was too small to finance another church at that time. Both the Presbyterians and Baptists were trying to build churches at the time and a seminary building was to be built as well.

The last piece of history found concerning Knox Grove was from October 1855; the first record of the church being moved to Sublette was not until September 1857. At first, meetings were held at Sublette’s new town hall, which was built in 1856. Rev. W.H. Smith was one of the first pastors at the hall. When the new school was built in Sublette in 1861, meetings were held at the school.

In April 1863, the pastor of the Baptist Church died so they had a church but no pastor; meanwhile, the Methodists had a pastor but no church. The two congregations agreed to begin meeting together at the Baptist Church with the Methodist minister, Rev. Lowe, preaching. 

Over time, the Methodist church grew in numbers and in 1870, two lots were bought on the north side of Main Street (306 Main St.) in Sublette from Henry and Marianna Chapman for $300. Construction of the church was started that summer and was completed in April 1871 at a cost of $7,000.

The original structure had a center tower and bell. A wing on the west side had three rooms to use as classrooms and for socials. The main church was 26 feet from floor to ceiling and was furnished with circular pews that could seat up to 192. It was heated by a furnace in the basement. 

There was an ornamental gallery with two folding doors opening into the lecture room to accommodate part of the congregation if needed. The altar piece was made of black walnut, and the other interior woodwork was oak. The church had stained glass windows, a 75-foot spire and was lighted with kerosene lamps on the side walls. It was furnished with ingrain carpets, upholstered chairs, an Esty Organ and a clock on the wall.

The contractor was William Van Vliet of Mendota who was said to “show excellent taste in his workmanship, his gentlemanly manner and upright dealing.”

On Sunday morning, April 16, 1871, the church bell announced the opening of the new church. Rev. N.H. Axtell of Mendota offered a prayer at the morning services and Rev. J.M. Read of Chicago read the scripture. Dedication services were held in the afternoon and the Sunday evening sermon was preached by Rev. Axtell.

Unsolved mystery

No records have been found to know how large the membership was at the time the church was built or what happened to the congregation over the next decade. However, less than 10 years after the church was dedicated, the property was turned over to the Board of Extension of the Methodist Church of the State of Pennsylvania and the church disbanded. The building sat vacant for a few years before being sold to George Malach in the 1890s. The church’s spire and bell were removed and the interior was remodeled to turn the church into a residence. 

Unless additional information is unearthed some day, chances are the reasons behind the Methodists’ decision to disband will always remain a secret.

Ownership

A list of the former and current owners provided by Betty Jones:

•Tracey Reeve sold the parcel of land to Henry C. Chapman (1856) for $100.

•Henry C. Chapman and Marianna Chapman sold to trustees of Methodist Episcopal Church (1870) for $300.

•Trustees of Methodist Episcopal Church, Charles R. Millson, George Lewis, and L. Scharimonlorman, sold to J. George Malach (1893) for $500.

• J. George and Catherine Malach sold to Lizzetta Lauer (1899) for $300.

• Lizzetta Lauer and Anton H. Lauer sold to Catharine Malach (1902) for $3,400.

• Catherine Malach passed and to settle estate, property was sold at public auction to Naomi and Ed Jones (1961) for $1,600.

• Ed and Naomi Jones sold to Harold E. Bonnell, Jr. and Carol Bonnell (1963).

• Carol and Harold Bonnell, Jr. sold to Robert and Betty Jones, present owners (1967).

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