By HARRIETTE BRAINARD
BRANDON — The Brandon Chamber of Commerce and the Lake Dunmore Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution have joined forces to try to raise money to restore the birthplace of 19th century American statesman Stephen A. Douglas and turn it into a visitors’ center as well as a historic exhibit.
The chamber recently received a $25,000 grant from the Walter Cerf Community Fund — the first step toward funding the project. The plans include a public restroom and needed meeting space for Brandon-area residents.
Blaine Cliver, a local architect who has worked on historic buildings, toured the home and informed the owners that it is likely one of the oldest houses in Brandon. Douglas’s mother was from the well-known Arnold family, some of whom built the original house.
Kellie Patten of the DAR, which has owned the Stephen A. Douglas Home since 1917, approached the chamber about taking part ownership of the building and joining in the landmark’s restoration. Joining forces was necessary, Patten said, as the Dunmore chapter of the DAR includes only four members. In addition to Patten and her mother, Sheila Martin, chapter members include Kim Nelson and Jeanne Barnard. Patten is the ninth generation of her family to live in Brandon and her children are the 10th generation.
Patten, along with other members, has wanted to restore the historic landmark as well as make it more accessible to the public. “It is a wonderful, rich part of the town’s history which has been underused and most of the public is unaware of its significance,” she said during a tour of the house last Thursday.
The chamber has become increasingly active in Brandon over the past several years, helping with the restoration of the Town Hall, establishing the Brandon Concert Series, and helping with the establishment of the artists’ guild. Bernie Carr, president of the chamber, said he was excited about the new project, and looks forward to having a more significant visitors’ center available.
“One of the focuses of the chamber in the coming year will be the construction of Route 7 through Brandon,” Carr said, noting that the focus will be on lessening the impact on businesses in town, and locating alternative parking as the expanded road tries to accommodate the 12,000 or more cars that go through Brandon every day.
“We have never owned property before, so this is exciting,” Carr said, adding that the “dual ownership will serve the landmark well and provide needed community meeting space for the town.”
While there will be a good deal of disruption for area residents and visitors with the reconstruction and rerouting of Route 7 as it goes through Brandon, the Douglas House will end up with a new driveway on its north side, providing access to a parking lot directly behind the building. Visitors will be able to gather tourist information inside, use a public restroom, and tour the historic landmark. The porch on the north side of the building will be modified to provide wheelchair access, as well as a place where visitors can get information when the building is closed.
“The two front rooms will remain as they are,” said Patten, adding that “they will be a showcase for the abundant historic artifacts that the DAR owns, including a crib, rocking chair and a chest of drawers that was made by Douglas himself.”
Although most of the house will remain the same, there will be space added in the back for two meeting rooms. “The town of Brandon,” Carr said “is sorely lacking in meeting space and this will be a great addition.”
Stephen Douglas was born in the Brandon house on April 23, 1813. His family sold the homestead when Stephen was a young child, soon after his father died of a heart attack at an early age. Stephen Douglas himself died at age 48 in 1861, three years after engaging Abraham Lincoln in a series of famous debates in Illinois that were part of a race for a U.S. Senate seat.
The house remained privately owned until the DAR bought it in 1917.
“Douglas was not going to be a farmer and had to earn a living,” explains DAR member Kim Nelson, “so he apprenticed as a woodworker in East Middlebury.” A chest he made sits on display at his birthplace. When Douglas left the area he first moved to western New York and eventually went on to Illinois.
Nelson moved with her husband to Brandon in 1979 and joined the DAR in 1981 after becoming interested in the history of the house and its restoration. Nelson and her husband at one time portrayed the characters of Douglas and his wife, Martha, for events in town, including the Brandon Fourth of July parade.
“My husband had memorized volumes of the Douglas-Lincoln debates for the re-enactment as he was a huge history buff and Lincoln fan … Our pastor at the Baptist Church (next door to the Douglas House) at that time was very tall. Sharing similar interests he would dress up as Lincoln, and the two of them would walk along and debate for great lengths of time to the enjoyment of many in town.”
One of the architecturally interesting features of the house, Nelson said was the historic matting in the attic floor, which hasn’t been disturbed since the house was built. The matting, Nelson said, was used “for a very short time in history and is extremely rare.”
Executive Director of the Brandon Chamber of Commerce Janet Mondlak said she also looked forward to getting the house opened more hours and having a visitors’ center. “The chamber is absolutely pleased to be a catalyst for this exciting project,” Mondlak said. “We’re looking forward to seeing this gem of a building open to the public on a consistent basis for the first time and becoming a useful space for the town.”