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Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008 02:50 am

A house full of heartache

Revisit Rochester history in weekend events

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Rochester's Old Stone House.

It was the early 1830s and Samuel Stevens was a young businessman seizing opportunity in the Northwest Territory frontier. He'd journeyed to what is now the Rochester area from New Hampshire to buy land and build a home for himself and his fiancée.

However, his fiancée, Lucetta Putnam, was from a well-to-do family. "We believe her father had high standards and didn't look forward to his daughter coming and living in a primitive log cabin," says Carolyn Moore, a founder of the Rochester Historical Preservation Society. So, Stevens built what became known as the "Old Stone House," which survived and has been reconstructed next to Rochester's Village Park.

The house has 1,404 square feet. Its lower level has a fireplace, a separate baking oven, and built-in well. The main level has a fireplace and the upper level is a loft. Originally, it was located three miles outside of Rochester on what was called the Buckhart Road, but was recently renamed the Lincoln Van Buren Trail.

With a proper house finished, Stevens went back to New Hampshire, married Lucetta in 1836 and brought her back. He was 24 and she was 19. While their home seemed isolated, it was on the stagecoach route between Springfield and Terre Haute, Ind., according to Moore. "Abraham Lincoln used this route on his (legal) circuit. It was a major highway, like Interstate 55 today, so there would have been people traveling by."

Two years later, Samuel and Lucetta had their second child (the first died in infancy). When the baby boy was just seven months old, Samuel died, leaving Lucetta destitute. At that time, the law stipulated that a husband's estate passed to his oldest son; the wife received nothing. To make matters worse, her husband's estate had "massive debt," because Samuel had borrowed heavily from family. "He was quite a speculator," Moore says. "He was buying a lot of land."

Lucetta married her husband's business partner, who helped her successfully sue for a portion of her husband's estate. Their attorney was Abraham Lincoln, according to Bob Church, a founding member of RHPS who researched the matter.

But Lucetta's problems weren't over yet. In order to pay off her deceased husband's creditors, she and her second husband had to sell all of Samuel's possessions. In an ironic twist, "Lucetta bought a pair of pantaloons at the sale," Moore says, in effect buying her own family's clothes back.

She died of typhoid fever in 1859 at the age of 42. Afterward, Lucetta's second husband married her widowed sister, Zilpha. Such arrangements were not uncommon at the time.

Lucetta is buried in the Rochester Cemetery, near the Old Stone House. Her second husband, Samuel West, is buried next to her, not Zilpha, his second wife.

The Old Stone House was last occupied in 1954. It was dismantled stone by stone and reconstructed at its current site a few years ago.

The House was a traditional New England design, according to Floyd Mansberger, a Springfield archaeologist and owner of Fever River Research. Since central Illinois was mostly inhabited by people who had migrated from the upland south (a region including Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia), this New England style home was uncommon here. "Most of the homes of that period in central Illinois did not have built-in wells, but New England is a very cold region and they didn't want to go outside to go to the well. They'd freeze! So building an inside well was common to them," he says. "(The house) would have contrasted dramatically with the other housing of the upland south people, who built smaller, log structures."

But, according to local lore, that was exactly what Lucetta's father wanted.

This Sunday, Sept. 21, from 1 to 4 p.m., you can visit their graves during the Rochester Historical Preservation Society's annual cemetery walk at Rochester Cemetery. During the walk, locals will portray veterans from several wars (as far back as the Revolutionary War) who are buried there. The same day you can also tour the Old Stone House, next to the Village Park, during Rochester Heritage Day. That event will be held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Activities include a Civil War encampment, period crafts, tours, a performance by the 10th Illinois Cavalry band, food and games. Admission is free for both events, but donations are accepted.

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