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Archive

The Landmarks of Barb City - Part 24C

The Little House, when brand new, in August 1891. Provided photo
The Little House, when brand new, in August 1891. Provided photo

The building on the Ellwood House grounds that attracts almost as much attention and interest as the mansion itself is the children's playhouse, known as the Little House. Oral tradition has long held that it was modeled after the frame house of John and Mary Ellwood Lewis, at 430 N. First St., across from Ellwood House. The Lewises' house was demolished around 1969. Its colorful history dates back to the summer of 1891, when a new manufacturing facility opened on the southwest edge of town. Organized in Chicago in May 1891, the Leonard-Atkinson Shoe Co. opened a plant in DeKalb in August. A gala parade through the business district was planned to commemorate the event. Research indicates that the Patten Manufacturing Co. of Sycamore - whose president was Frank Patten - commissioned DeKalb contractor Sam Peterson to design and build the small structure as the company's "float" for the occasion. The earliest photograph from the time of the parade shows three men standing by the small house. On one side of the wagon upon which the structure rested there hung a banner reading "Patten Mfg. Co." On the day of the festivities, Will Ellwood - Isaac's oldest son - is said to have stood along the parade route, and when this "float" came by on a large wagon, the idea popped into his head that perhaps his daughters, Jean and Elise, who were 6 and 8 years old, respectively, might enjoy having it as a playhouse. What it cost to build, in addition to how much Will paid to obtain it, is unknown. Beatrice Gurler of 205 Pine St., who was a playmate of the two girls, recalled how they were spoiled rotten growing up and, believe it or not, did not especially care for the playhouse. Little House moved often Other Ellwood granddaughters who had the playhouse for their own were Louise Lewis at 335 College Ave. and Patty Ellwood on the Ellwood House grounds. Patty was apparently the last of the female members of the family, and three of the grandsons - James Ellwood Lewis, Edward L. Mayo Jr. and I.L. Ellwood II - are never mentioned in conjunction with the Little House. The building was a girls' domain. Grandson John Ellwood - baby brother of I.L. Ellwood II and Patty - was mentioned in regard to the building, however. It is said that John used the playhouse for, of all things, a doghouse. While it was long believed that Perry Ellwood sold the structure around the time of World War I, if his son John had it, it would mean that it had this use sometime during the mid- or late 1920s at the earliest, since he was born in June 1919. Oral tradition also alleges that the structure found its way to between eight and 12 other places before locating at 217 Annie Glidden Road, where it reposed from 1934-1973. Perhaps the Ellwoods were simply lending it out for different uses, or to friends of the family for their children to enjoy. The roots of oral tradition can certainly get stretched every which way. In 1922, the playhouse functioned as the only real building in a farm show of "false fronts," commemorating the 10th anniversary of the DeKalb County Farm Bureau. It was billed as the ideal model for a farmhouse of the time. Other locations where it spent time include the Pierce farm on Route 23 between DeKalb and Sycamore, the Tweed property in the Meadowlands addition to DeKalb, and even Hopkins Park around 1930. The lengthiest stay for it was from 1934-1973, when the Burt Oderkirk family had the playhouse at their home in the 200 block of Annie Glidden Road. (The Oderkirk house itself dated from 1902, when it was erected for John Glidden, a nephew of Joseph. John's sister, Annie, a niece of Joseph, lived there between 1909 and 1934.) The Oderkirks had three daughters, Ellen, Ida and Lila, who just adored the playhouse. Sisters Ida and Lila are remembered for conducting a summer nursery school in it around 1953. Little House returns to Ellwood House I met Mrs. Oderkirk in the spring of 1973 when she came over for a tour of Ellwood House once. She was a charming lady with a quintessential Southern accent, and she invited me to drop by for a visit. Wasting little time, I accepted her offer, and that was my first visit to the playhouse. The building occupied a spot southeast of her residence. It had long been painted white, with green doors and window trim. Not long afterward, it was announced that Mrs. Oderkirk would be donating the playhouse to Ellwood House for relocation to the museum grounds. As she was getting older, it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to keep watch over it, and there also was the ever-present threat of vandalism to contend with. The move wound up costing the Ellwood House Association $1,500 and required very few, if any, overhead power lines to be disrupted in the process, due to the structure's small size.

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