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‘Stone City’ seeks to preserve its heritage

Staff writer

Limestone houses were popular not only for downtown businesses but also for homes in the early years.

Several homeowners are now trying to preserve the structures.

The John Wheeler family is working to preserve the historic Billings house south of Main and Walnut Sts. after purchasing the property in 2014 from Will Meysing.

It was built by original settler W.H. Billings in 1869. Sitting along the north bank in a bend of the original Cottonwood River channel, it is in an area known as Billings Park because settlers gathered there for social events, including Fourth of July celebrations. A wood addition was added in 1890.

The building had been neglected for many years before Meysing bought it in 2006. He cut down trees, tore off a porch, and put a new roof on it 10 years ago. Three years ago, the Wheelers righted a wall that was falling down and braced it.

The house is stabilized, according to John’s son, Morgan. The family learned it would take a considerable amount of money to bring the building to where it could be restored, but they are proud of its place in Marion’s history.

Wheelers were among early settlers of Marion Centre, as the town was known. Morgan is the seventh generation to live in Marion.

“We’re pretty protective of that property,” he said.

The Marion County Record reported on April 11, 1879:

“All of our carpenters and stone masons are as busy as bees. Numbers have been imported from other towns, and even Kentucky has sent her quota. Still we want more.”

A week later, it reported, “Thus far this spring in building operations a decided preference is shown for stone houses.

“A stone house costs more than a frame building—though there is little difference. Yet when you get a good stone house erected, you have something solid and substantial.

“Several years ago, Marion Centre was named the stone city. It seems that the name is destined to become more and more appropriate.”

Six years before that, in 1873, when Marion Centre was only 13 years old, R.C. Coble built a two-story stone house on the hill. That was the year work began on a new stone high school now commonly known as the hill school. At that time, most buildings were in the valley.

The house at 129 N. Lincoln St. is surrounded by wood-framed houses. Aaron and Lanell Hett have owned it since 1987. They bought it from former county engineer James Meisner.

At some point, an addition at the back included a kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom.

The Hetts tore down a garage attached to the kitchen and built a two-car garage.

They remodeled the kitchen, exposing a stone wall and walkway, and updated plumbing and wiring.

The year 1879 saw construction of several stone houses in Marion.

William Kellison built a stone house at 202 E. Santa Fe St.

The Marion County Record reported on May 9, 1879: “Many think Mr. Kellison’s new building will be, when finished, the handsomest residence in town. The body of the building is constructed of a peculiar kind of yellow stone and the corners of a beautiful white stone, making a striking and happy contrast.”

Kellison appears to have been a prosperous businessman on Main St. He constructed several other stone houses, including an identical one in Cottonwood Falls.

Ornate stone carvings accent windows and doors, and a later addition to the house includes a wrap-around porch with pillars.

Andy and Staci Hansen purchased the house from Pam Varenhorst in September and gave it fresh paint. They gutted the entire house and installed new bedrooms upstairs and wood flooring on the main floor. Andy used reclaimed lumber for trim.

“I thought it was fun,” Andy said. “Staci thought it was a lot of work. She put a lot into it.”

The Hansens rent out the house for family reunions. Andy is a hunting guide, and he puts up hunters at the house.

The house is associated with the Elgin Hotel across the street, so guests can book their stay at the house there and can use Elgin facilities, such as the exercise room.

Other historic stone houses in Marion include the Youk residence at 500 Willards St., a house for sale at 404 E. Santa Fe St., and a two-story house at the south end of Cedar St.

Many other stone houses are scattered throughout the county, including several in Florence and Peabody, as well as in the country.

Last modified July 2, 2019

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