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Verdurette: Group works to preserve one-of-a-kind Illinois farmstead dating to 1855
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Verdurette: Group works to preserve one-of-a-kind Illinois farmstead dating to 1855

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Drive south of the Quad-Cities for a little over an hour, jogging left and right on black-topped roads, through small Mercer County towns until, after your last turn, you come to a "road closed" sign.

You've arrived.

This is the place you've been looking for, a site like no other in the Quad-City region, a farmstead called Verdurette, an extension of the French word verdure, meaning lush, green vegetation.

The farm's elegant brick house was built in 1855 in the Gothic style of architecture, embellished with gables, windows that look like they belong in a church, ornamental iron headers and lots and lots of elaborate wood trim. Across the front is a full-length porch built in the Colonial Revival style sometime before 1909.

This house and surrounding buildings were constructed by William Drury, a pioneer who staked a claim in the region in 1833 at the age of 25, coming from Indiana.

That was just a year after the end of the Black Hawk War, with Sauk and Meskwaki still in the area, their fertile open land up for settlement.

Now, 165 years later, the farmstead is under the direction of a nonprofit 501(c)3 trust whose members, particularly Steve Willits, whose family bought the property in 1920, are trying, one project at a time, to restore it as best they know how with the funds available to them.

They hope to get the 2.6-acre site and buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places and make it an attraction for visitors, maybe even a bed and breakfast or a hunt club. "It would help the economy in the area," Willits said. 

The house hasn't been occupied for 25 years, and the historic farm buildings have been vacant, except for storage, even longer. The road to the property dead-ends because flooding in 1993 damaged the bridge over the nearby Edwards River, and it's never been fixed.

Willits lives on an adjoining property and continues with the robust farm operation that includes Angus cattle, corn and soybeans. But he, like his dad, wants to save Verdurette. 

Walking around, one might say that members of the trust have a ways to go with restoration, but what you don't see is how far they have already come.

The home's grand front porch, once sagging and weathered, has been rebuilt. Synthetic slate shingles protect the home's roof. Windows have been replaced. The brick has been tuck-pointed and the extensive wood trim commonly called "gingerbread" has been restored.

An adjacent bank barn, also built in the Gothic style with shutters and fancy trim, has a new poured concrete foundation. This was accomplished by hiring house movers to jack up the structure, remove the failing brick foundation, pour the concrete, then set the barn back down on new wood sills atop the concrete, Willits explained. It also has a metal roof that, while not in keeping with the 1800s, makes water stay out.

The barn's hand-hewn oak beams and mortice and tenon joists are in place, as is the original concrete floor that contains mussel shells from the button factories of Muscatine. "It's solid shells on the bottom," Willits said. 

What the site looks like

In addition to the house and bank barn, the other historic buildings are a second barn, a brick summer kitchen (a building used for cooking and canning in the summer to keep the main house cool), a brick carriage house, an octagonal brick windmill tower that was once three stories tall with blades at the top for pumping and supplying water to the farm and a brick chicken/pigeon coop.

Pigeons? Yes, carrier pigeons, Willits said. "To send messages. It took time to get to Galena on horseback." Willits mentions Galena because in the early 1800s it was the largest city in Western Illinois and where deeds were recorded. For a time, Drury was the county recorder, so he had to go there to file them.

Across the lane from the house is a pasture with an oxbow of the Edwards River that Drury stocked with deer and elk. At one time he also kept exotic animals. An article in the July 18, 1883, Aledo Times Record reports the presence of a tiger, monkey and ant eater. The story is he bought out a bankrupt circus.

Willits also points to a tall brick chimney in the pasture, all that is left of an electrical generating plant designed by Thomas Edison.

Verdurette "was the first place in the Midwest to have electricity," Willits said. "The house was wired for D.C.," or direct current, as opposed to today's alternating current. 

Surrounding the front and side of the house is a decorative iron fence — cast iron, not wrought iron, Willits tells you — with spindles in the shape of oak tree branches entwined with leaves.

At one time, two zinc statues stood on either side of the fence entrance, but they now are in storage for safe-keeping. Two cast iron lions still guard the steps to the porch, though, and buried in the snow covering the lawn are the remains of fountains, planters and walkways.

Step into the home's foyer, and straight ahead is a three-story walnut staircase, built with switchbacks so severe that, standing on the first floor, you can see all the way to the third floor and vise versa.

The wall of the staircase originally was feather-grained (painted with feathers) to look like marble.

Two parlors are on either side of the foyer and in back are the dining room and kitchen.

The dining room contains three built-in china cupboards and the wood floor has a border created by inlaying different kinds of wood in a pattern.

A large addition in the back had bedrooms for the hired help and Drury's office, accessible from a set of stairs separate from the main house.

The home also had hot and cold running water, bathrooms, a sink in every bedroom, steam heat (replacing the original Franklin stoves in every room) and light fixtures that ran first on kerosene, then acetylene, then electricity.

More about Drury

When Drury first moved to the area in 1834, he established a trading post in New Boston, then began amassing land and becoming a pillar of the community.

He was county clerk, county recorder and the first commissioned postmaster of the village of Millersburg, according to written accounts.

He and his wife's cousin started a small dry goods and grocery store in New Boston that bought pork, grain and other products from farmers in the county and shipped them to St. Louis, according to research compiled for the property's National Register nomination. 

In 1872, Drury helped organize Farmers National Bank of Keithsburg, the second bank in Mercer County, and became its president.

On his farm were raised horses, cattle, hogs, rye, oats, hay and corn, but he hired help to do the hands-on work. Drury was a "gentleman farmer."

As Willits leads a tour, he drops stories about Drury, family lore that is not documented but that is plausible.

One is that Drury knew Abraham Lincoln, who was hired to survey the town of New Boston in 1834, and the other about Drury's friendship with the Sauk warrior Black Hawk.

It's also said that Stephen Douglas stayed in the house after his debate with Abraham Lincoln at Knox College in Galesburg when both men were running for the U.S. Senate. The seven debates occurred between August and October of 1858. "Both men wanted Bill Drury's support," Willits said.

These are stories Willits heard riding in the car with his grandfather. "When you're eight years old, you love to go with your grandfather," he said.

Another story — documented in journals of chiropractic — is that Drury and Daniel David Palmer, the founder of chiropractic, visited each other during a time that Palmer lived in Mercer County within a few miles of Drury.

Both were Spiritualists, an informal religious movement based on the belief that the spirits of the dead exist and have both the ability and inclination to communicate with the living.

Some writings have suggested the Verdurette was the site of seances, Willits said.

Two days after Drury died in 1897, an obituary appeared in the New York Times describing him as a "millionaire land owner" who "was the largest individual land owner in the United States, having hundreds of thousands of acres in Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas, besides 6,000 acres of the richest farming land in this county."

The obituary did not document the claims.

From Drury to Willits

In 1920, the farm was auctioned, purchased by W.A. Willits, who is Steve Willits' great-grandfather.

The proceeds from the sale went to establish a college in Aledo that was called William and Vashti College, for Drury's first name and that of his wife. It opened in 1908 but closed in 1923, done in by World War I, according to some written accounts.

It later was home to two military schools, with the last one closing in 1973.

Over time, the buildings fell into disrepair and were deemed hazardous so several years ago the city purchased the site of about one square block and demolished the buildings, Christopher Sullivan, city administrator, said.

Public donations paid for a memorial that incorporates salvaged building materials such as limestone and brick and includes panels with pictures and text explaining the site's history.

On another portion of the property an apartment building called Vashti Village was built that is operated by the Mercer County Housing Authority.

As for Verdurette, before Steve Willits' dad, William, died in 2015, he set up the nonprofit trust and endowed it with funds to work on preserving the site and its buildings that also is known as the Drury-Willits Home & Farmstead.

To be accepted onto the National Register, a property must meet one or more eligibility standards. Verdurette has been nominated on the bases of two — its distinctive architecture and its association with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of history.

Application paperwork is still being updated and Andrew Heckenkamp, with the state historic preservation office, said in an email that he hopes to "have this situation clarified over the next few months, and it will get officially listed this year."

Willits is doing what he can to make sure that happens, and that the property will not only be listed, but be lasting.

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