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Thursday, June 22, 2017 12:08 am

Restoring the Marbold farmstead

Saving a piece of Greenview history

An exterior view of the Marbold mansion as it appears today.


To see the old Marbold Farmstead is to want to see more. The imposing brick residence on Illinois Route 29 20 miles north of Springfield dates to the 1850s and has been uninhabited since the 1960s. Passing by its grand edifice, tattered but majestic, you want to pull over and see it up close. If you see it up close, you want to see inside. And if you happen to see it inside, you want to know what it was like during its heyday in the late 19th century.

Thanks to the efforts of The Historic Marbold Farmstead Association, visitors will soon get a chance to do just that.  The association purchased the mansion and its surrounding 10 acres in 2012 and is actively working to stabilize and revitalize the site in the hopes of creating a late 19th-century living history farm.

“Marbold Farmstead has an important story to tell to new generations about how people lived and worked on a 19th-century farm,” said Lisa Schnell, a Marbold volunteer. “Knowledge of crops, animal husbandry, plant lore, harvesting, food preservation are now all but lost on the modern grocery shopper.”

The restoration plan is ambitious. Decades of neglect have taken their toll on the house and its grounds and outbuildings. Vandals stripped the house of fireplace mantels and trim. The roofs of the carriage house, smokehouse and laundry were caving in. The surrounding property was used as a dumping ground for unwanted farm machinery. Yet when members of the association and their supporters look at the Farmstead, they don’t see decay and deterioration; they see the magnificence of what the place was, and the potential of what could be. 

The Marbold mansion as it appeared in 1891. H. H. Marbold added a new porch, restroom, and conservatory in 1880.

“Marbold’s value to the community cannot be overstated,” said Charlotte Wohler, president of the association’s board of directors. “From an architectural standpoint, there are no other farmsteads left in the area that have as many remaining outbuildings: ice house, wash house, dairy room, smokehouse, pump house, boiler house, summer kitchen and carriage house.”

From an interpretive standpoint, Marbold Farmstead offers rich opportunities for exploring multiple facets of the past, including farm history, immigrant history, community history and the history of technology. The story of the Marbolds, immigrants who built an agricultural and banking empire before losing it all on the eve of the Great Depression, is a story of triumph and tragedy. The story of the Marbold Farmstead, in which a group of volunteers have come together to restore the house and grounds, is a story of redemption and promise.

Marbold in the 19th century

The history of the Marbold Farmstead began in 1847, when Johann Marbold emigrated to America from Germany with his son and two daughters (his wife and three other children had died years earlier). Marbold was a wealthy man by the standards of the day; sale of a family estate in Germany had netted him $10,000. After living in Petersburg for three years, Marbold purchased 200 acres of land near present-day Greenview.

Almost immediately, Marbold contracted with a local architect for the construction of a substantial, two-story farmhouse made of bricks fired on site. The house boasted a parlor, sitting room, dining room, kitchen and five bedrooms inside and a smokehouse, wash house and barn outside. The estate, known as “Elmwood,” was one of the largest and most prosperous in the area. John Marbold sponsored several immigrants from Germany who came to work on his farmstead. Today, many Greenview residents can trace their ancestry to one of these German immigrants.

When Marbold’s son, Henry Harmon Marbold (known as H. H.), came of age, he assisted his father with the management of the estate.  H.H. had been a boy of twelve when he had arrived in America. After receiving an education at Jubilee College, west of Peoria, he spoke flawless English without a trace of an accent. In 1860, H. H. married Margaret Hackman, daughter of his father’s housekeeper. The couple had six children, three of whom (Anna, Harmon and Benjamin) lived to adulthood.

Under Johann and H.H. Marbold’s oversight, the Marbold Farmstead expanded to nearly 4,000 acres of farmland, much of which was used for grazing livestock. The house expanded too. In 1880, the main house was updated and enlarged to include a two-story front portico with walk-out balcony, a glass conservatory, an indoor bathroom with zinc-lined bathtub and a detached heat plant that sent hot air into the house by a system of underground clay pipes. Across Route 29, Marbold built a race barn and a ¼-mile track to indulge his son Harmon’s love of racehorses.

The Marbold mansion’s interior shows the effects of decades of neglect. The Association plans to address the house’s need for security and climate control before any interior restoration work begins.

Despite its ornamental appearance, the Marbold estate was very much a working farm during its heyday. Work started at dawn and concluded after dark. Margaret Marbold managed the household tasks of cooking, cleaning, washing and sewing with the help of two hired girls. Five or six hired men assisted H. H. with the operation of the farm. In addition to cultivating crops and raising cattle, hogs and sheep, residents of the Marbold Farmstead butchered and smoked their own meat, made their own butter and cheese, and harvested their own ice.

“Marbold was a self-sustaining farmstead,” said Wohler.

Marbold in decline

Johann Marbold died in 1893, Margaret Marbold died in 1903 and H. H. Marbold died in 1915. Subsequently, the housed passed to H.H’s youngest son, Benjamin, who was president of the Greenview Marbold Bank (started by his father in 1877). Benjamin moved his young family into the house and undertook a few updates, including building a modern stockyard across the road from the estate in 1922. However, Benjamin’s fortunes faltered; the Marbold bank failed in 1927 and his cattle business suffered devastating losses. To cover his debts, the Marbold estate was divided into tracts and sold at public auction.

The house and its surrounding parcel of land were purchased by a man named Carl Miller, who housed his tenant farmers in the old mansion and leased the land out for cultivation. Eventually, the house ceased to be used at all, and fell into disrepair. 

The Farmstead’s “north annex,” including the summer kitchen and wash house, were recently rebuilt at a cost of $90,000.

After Miller’s death in the 1970s, the property was purchased by a Lake Zurich history teacher named Bruce Hansen and his brother, Bob, who had plans to restore the mansion and grounds and open it to the public. Bob, who eventually became the sole owner, replaced the windows and roof and added a new porch, but later realized that the old house required more money and attention than he could give it.

Still, “the repairs Bob Hansen did essentially saved the house,” said Wohler. “I credit him for that, even though he couldn’t fulfill his dream. If he hadn’t replaced the roof and windows, the house wouldn’t have survived.”

New life for the old property

The Marbold Farmstead has always meant something to its local community. During its heyday, it was a showplace and a gathering place for Fourth of July celebrations. During its declining years, children would pedal their bikes over to investigate the house and its grounds. Residents of Greenview would drive by and wish that the old place could be saved. In 2004, with Hansen’s restoration work at a standstill, a group of local citizens decided to step in and do what they could to save the house from further deterioration. They formed the Historic Marbold Farmstead Association and began holding annual ice cream socials and events to raise awareness of and funds for the property.

 When the Marbold property came onto the market in 2011, the association took action to acquire it. They incorporated as a 501(c)3 and coordinated an aggressive fundraising campaign to raise the funds to purchase the house, outbuildings and surrounding 10 acres. More than 50 “founders” gave $1,000 each towards the $78,500 asking price. The association acquired the deed to the property on March 27, 2012.

In April of 2012, Landmarks Illinois added the Marbold Farmstead to its list of the Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois, reflecting the effects of decades of neglect.

Marbold Farmstead’s Fourth Annual Primitive Antique Show and Farm Fest takes place June 23-25.

“It was in a significant state of deterioration. The interior had been gutted and several outbuildings were near collapse or in ruins,” said Frank Butterfield, Landmarks Illinois’s Springfield field office director.

Facing challenges from water, insect and animal damage, vandalism, looting, crumbling plaster, and rickety outbuildings, one of the association’s first tasks was to secure and stabilize the property.

“We had to tear down and clear the remains of the carriage house, pigeon coop/chicken house and the roof of the wash house for safety reasons. Old farm equipment littered the property to the east of the house so we had it removed and sold for scrap iron. We fenced and gated the property for security reasons. And, most importantly, we rebuilt the soffits, gutters and downspouts on the main house to stop further erosion of the foundations,” said Wohler.

“It wasn’t very exciting or aesthetically pleasing work, but it had to be done,” added fellow association board member Diane Masters. Association members are aware of the desire within the community to see a “pretty house” fully restored with carpets, wallpaper and furnishings.  For the moment, however, they have their hands full with the decidedly less glamorous process of clearing out, hauling away and raising funds to purchase vital improvements to security, lighting and climate control, without which the “pretty house” would soon molder away.

The Marbold Farmstead Association has been active in its outreach to the public, hosting school groups, antique fairs, 19th-century craft demonstrations, and tours.

Potential for Discovery

The Historic Marbold Farmstead Association has their work cut out for them. The house, while structurally stable, is cosmetically a disaster. Plaster is falling off the walls. Bird excrement splatters the floor in the kitchen. Debris litters the floors of the bedrooms. The house has no functional HVAC or plumbing system, and only limited electrical wiring.

The grounds and outbuildings are in similarly rough shape. The chicken coop needs to be rebuilt. The boiler house is currently a roofless and boilerless shell. The barn, long since gone, is little more than a weed-choked foundation, and the grounds are overgrown and strewn with debris.  

Still, there is a unique appeal to the Marbold Farmstead, even in its current state. The place is teeming with opportunities for discovery: when the foundation of an out-building is reclaimed from the underbrush, when shards of pottery and rusted metal unearthed during an archaeologist-led excavation of the former privy, or even when tattered remains of century-old wallpaper are observed on the walls of a bedroom.

It is that sense of excitement and discovery that has drawn a cadre of dedicated volunteers and donors to the task of restoring the Marbold Farmstead. Schnell was recruited by her friend Evelyn Smith, who asked her to come out one weekend and clear brush. A few weekends later she was back, hauling dirt out of the cellar of the washhouse. She has loved every minute of it.

“With every bucket load of dirt scraped away, with every square foot of underbrush cleared back, the farm structures uncovered and restored, we learn more about the daily work and specialized knowledge that might otherwise be lost to time,” said Schnell.

With so much community involvement, “the leadership of the Historic Marbold Farmstead Association has consistently made progress at a remarkable pace,” said Butterfield. The association was ultimately able to pay off its mortgage three years ahead of schedule, meaning that all its revenue is now put directly back into improving the property. Recently the “north annex” – including the summer kitchen, smokehouse, wash house and carriage house – has been rebuilt, and plans are underway to replace the slate roof of the ice house. Motorists passing by now see scaffolds and sawhorses where there was once only neglect.

“We hear it so often from people in the community: ‘I’m so glad you’re saving this place,’ and ‘It looks so much better,’” said Wohler.

The Association has also been active in its outreach to the community. Tours are offered on the first and third Sundays of June through September and by appointment. Each May, students from Greenview Elementary attend Farm Day at the Homestead to learn about 19th-century household objects, grind corn, churn butter and do a hands-on surveying lesson. And, since 2013, the Homestead has hosted an annual antiques show featuring period demonstrations of 19th-century crafts (see sidebar).  

Butterfield believes that the association is doing all the right things. “My advice is to continue to build upon the remarkable support of the community and to celebrate their success!” he said.

More help is needed

The Historic Marbold Farmstead survives today because of the dedication and enthusiasm of the volunteers who have come together to donate their time, energy and financial resources to save the site from ruin. Its future depends on the willingness of these volunteers to stay engaged, and on the willingness of others to join them.

There is plenty of work to go around. The Farmstead needs help with the physical labor of clearing the grounds and hauling away underbrush. It needs people with research backgrounds to dig into the documents and history of the Marbold family and estate. It needs people with fundraising experience to help keep the donations rolling in. It needs people with architectural and historical expertise to provide advice. It needs people to give tours of the site. And, of course, it needs financial contributions.

“It really does take a community and its resources to realize what they have and to work to preserve it,” said Schnell.

There are no monetary rewards for the work involved in saving Marbold. The association’s membership and board of directors are all unpaid, and the volunteer laborers earn nothing more than the occasional blister for their work. Yet there are rewards all the same: in the opportunity for making discoveries about the past, in the pride that comes with contributing one’s efforts to a larger cause, the satisfaction that comes with watching progress unfold and the meaning that comes with making a difference to people in the community.

“When you see the faces of kids light up as they do 19th-century farm tasks and learn something they didn’t know before at Marbold – there’s nothing better in the world,” Wohler said.

The Historic Marbold Farmstead is located at 21722 State Highway 29, approximately 20 miles north of Springfield near Greenview. To schedule a tour, make a donation or learn about volunteer opportunities, call Diane at 632-3144, email Charlotte at charlottewohler@live.com, or visit www.historic-marbold-farmstead.org.

Erika Holst is a lifetime historic house enthusiast. As Curator of Collections at the Springfield Art Association, she oversaw the restoration of historic Edwards Place to its antebellum appearance.

Marbold farmstead primitive antique show and farm fest

Visitors curious about The Historic Marbold Farmstead will have a chance to check it out during the fourth annual Antique Show and Farm Fest on June 23, 24 and 25. This family-friendly event will feature country primitive antiques offered by 12 dealers, displays and demonstrations of vintage agricultural equipment, demonstrations of 19th-century crafts, nature walks, live music, tours of the house and grounds, food and drink and a children’s tent with family activities. Admission is $5 daily or $12 for a 3-day pass. All proceeds benefit the further preservation and restoration of the Farmstead.


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Friday Sept. 20th