The James J Eldred House was at one time considered the pinnacle of high style and regarded as one of the most elegant residential structures in the region. This impressive limestone structure served as the home for the Eldred family and a gathering place for the region’s elite and laborers alike. Its two and one half story grandeur stands amidst the limestone bluffs and bucolic surroundings as a reminder of the wealth and influence that was once linked to the name Eldred.
The Eldred family is a very ancient English family, and one of only a few that can trace their lineage back to the early Saxon settlers from the European mainland and through records, ancestors can be identified as far back as twelve centuries. Although members of the family can still be found in England, they have also migrated to every corner of the world. Eldred was the name of several kings of Saxon in the eighth and ninth centuries including Eldred, King of Chester 951 A.D. An Eldred was also Saxon Archbishop of York and Canterbury, and according to the historian Thiery, he cursed William the Conqueror. They held lands in Wilts, Dorset, Somerset, Devon, Gloucester, Shropshire, Yorkshire, and other counties during the time of the Domesday survey in 1085 A.D. and before that, in the time of Edward the Confessor.
Perhaps the most notable of all the Eldreds was John Eldred the Great who at one point was a clothworker in London in the 1560’s. He was sent by Sir Edward Osborne and Richard Staper on a pioneering voyage to the Middle East upon the ship Tiger in the year 1583. After travelling for five years and setting up trading posts across the region, John Eldred the Great returned to London in 1588 with a vast cargo consisting mainly of cinnamon and nutmeg. The importance of this voyage had made Eldred an extremely wealthy man and his fame had reached such a level that Shakespeare had alluded to him in Macbeth, (Act 1, Scene 3: “Her Husband’s to Aleppo gone, Master o’ the Tiger.”) He received a Grant of Arms in 1592 and in that same year became the Treasurer of the Levant Co. He was responsible for the first voyage of the East India Company whose Royal Charter dated Dec 31st, 1600 gave them the sole right of trading with all countries beyond the Cape of Good Hope and the Straits of Magellan. He was later appointed to His Majesties Council for the Virginia Company of London.
The Eldreds had made a name for themselves in England, so it is not clear why they decided to swap their comfortable lives for the unknown territories of the New World, but their sacrifice helped shape the heritage and history of the East Coast, Greene County and beyond. Two brothers, Robert and William, direct descendants of John Eldred the Great, were the first two to arrive in the New World landing at Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts. Once here, many Eldreds served in high profile posts such as Constable, surveyor of highways and overseer of public lands. Most in the direct line of descendants were wealthy men and owners of large quantities of land. One such man Jehosaphat Eldred III moved his family to Winfield, New York in Herkimer County in 1805. His family would later become the first generation of Eldreds to call Illinois their home.
Jehosaphat and his son Ward Eldred had their sights set on Illinois when it was still merely a territory. Ward and his cousin Swift were sent on foot from New York’s Mohawk Valley to Illinois in 1818 for the purpose of surveying land in Northern Madison County, (presently Greene County). In the months leading up to Illinois being granted statehood, the Eldreds made the treacherous trek back to New York to relate to their families the beauty that was the Illinois prairieland.
Although enticed by the landscape and the quality of the farmland to be had in the new territory, the Eldreds would not commit themselves to moving West until assurances that Illinois would not enter the Union as a slave state. During their original visit, they had made an acquaintance in Madison County resident George Churchill. In a letter dated 1818, Churchill informed his new friends that during the State’s Constitutional Convention, they had “decided against slavery in general”, but were not quite sure how to handle the existing slaves in the area, who were considered property as opposed to people. Churchill also expressed his optimism for the prospects of “Yankee-Fashion” ballot-based elections and the possibility of ridding the new state of any remnant of slavery that persisted.
Ward married his first of four wives in 1819 and promptly returned to West Central Illinois with his brother Elon and a herd of sheep that they had driven from Ohio. In March of 1820, his father Jehosaphat and a clan of twelve family members journeyed from New York to Illinois on a flatboat. Jehosaphat’s youngest son Silas, who was ten at the time, told the rest of his family that he would not travel with them and decided instead to care for himself in New York. His father agreed assuming that when he saw them leaving he would follow suit. Unfortunately for them, he didn’t and they had to double back a considerable distance to retrieve the stubborn child. Once there, they settled west of Carrollton awaiting the creation of a new county with newly surveyed land.
Greene County was created early in 1821 when the Illinois legislature decided to divide Madison County into seven distinct counties. Before the land sale, an agreement was reached between the purchasers that they would not outbid each other and instead would allow first choice to whoever was first to arrive in the county. According to the 1879 Greene County History, Eldred arrived to the land sale late and had an abundance of money. It is said that when they made the trip, the saddle bags on their team of horses were so laden with gold and silver that coins could be heard falling to the ground. After a dispute between Jehosaphat and Robert Hobson about who was first to arrive, a bidding war ensued. Eldred stretched his financial muscle and won the treasured tract of land, spending much more than he originally intended but leaving an indelible impression on his new neighbors.
Jehosaphat and his sons William and Ward purchased large portions of Greene County land in January in Carrollton Township. Some of this land still belongs to members of the Eldred family to this day. Ward’s son and builder of the iconic limestone home, James John Eldred, was born in 1828. With the passing of his wife, Jehosaphat moved to Galena Illinois during what was known as the lead mining excitement and went into extensive operations. He also established a stock farm at the mouth of the Big Sandy Creek in Scott County. After his death in 1842, he left his vast holdings to his children.
After extensive excavations on the future site of the James J Eldred home and the surrounding areas, the Center for American Archaeology suggests habitation as early as the 1820’s based primarily on domestic debris that was unearthed. However, records indicate that the school board commissioner did not sell this property until 1833 meaning any occupants located here would have been squatters without title to the land. This particular tract of land was originally sold in 1823 to Richard Robley who was one of the first settlers in the region. He apparently deferred payment and in turn sold out to Hiram R Brown in 1836. During this time, Ward and his family lived across the road and in the year 1838, the two families constructed a unique limestone fence that ran for approximately seven miles along the Bluffdale road. Road widening in the 1930’s destroyed the majority of this fencing.
Ward purchased the land from Hiram Brown in April of 1840 and by this time his first two wives had died. He would marry twice more in the coming decade and all four would pass away due to complications during childbirth. The widower lost his own life in 1851, succumbing to erysipelas (acute skin disease) while driving cattle during a flood in the Illinois River bottom. After his father’s death, James John Eldred bought out his older brother’s stake in the family’s land and married Emeline Smead, who was the sister of his father’s fourth wife. The four story limestone and wood frame barn on the property was completed in 1851. In addition to raising cattle and growing crops, the Eldreds also produced cheeses that would be sold in nearby St. Louis and their prosperity grew leading up to the Civil War. By 1860, James and his wife had four children and he began planning the construction of the limestone home that would grace the landscape and remain as a vestige of the influence that James and his family held in the area.
The James J Eldred house in its Greek Revival glory was completed in 1861. It combined the stylistic values of neoclassicism and traditional materials that were found locally. Evidence of their prosperity could be found in the workmanship of the home including the square cut and dressed limestone quoins that line the corners of the structure. Also the use of windows was especially unique as there were over thirty of them including two large Palladian windows that adorn the upper side gables. Each window was surrounded by square cut and dressed lintels and sills. The wide cornices and dentils that line the eaves lend to its impressive view from the road. A large hand-carved lintel over the second floor door is inscribed with “J.J. Eldred 1861” and both first and second floor doors are set in elaborate doorways that feature sidelights and transoms. Two additions to the main portion of the house were added at a later date to the north and west wings and a limestone privy could be found on the east side. An artist’s rendering of the property shows the attention to detail that also existed in the limestone sidewalks and gardens. The 1851 four-story barn and corral complex sat adjacent to these formal gardens located between the stables. There was a private lane that bisected the property. An arbor on the west side and an orchard between the rear of the house and the hilly terrain beyond added to the charm of this country estate. The home would become the hub of social life during the 1860’s and 1870’s.
However life for the Eldreds was not all gaiety during these years as all three of their daughters would pass away inside the walls of the home. Alma age 4 died of unknown causes in 1861. Alice and Eva both died at the age of 17 from tuberculosis in 1870 and 76 respectively. After several years of agricultural hardships and failed crops, James began to feel the strain of maintaining his vast holdings. He began to defer on several payments and faced lawsuits from multiple sources. Eldred’s 38 year old cousin, Albon E Wilson, a teacher at Columbiana School, discussed purchasing his land as early as 1880 to settle a debt. However, Eldred was not ready to sell, but his financial turmoil continued to build. Wilson eventually purchased the majority of Eldred’s land in April of 1883 for $8,000 and the next day married the wealthy Cassie Robertson. The remainder of his land and the home would be sold to Wilson in 1901 for $12,000 but Eldred and his family would remain in the home until his death in 1911.
Before Albon Wilson’s death in 1912, he signed over the right to his holdings to his wife Cassie who maintained ownership until her death in 1936 when the property went up for sale and was purchased by Robert H Levis for $27,000. Levis utilized the land for his agri-business that he named Bluffdale Farms Inc. but the home was not resided in except for two families seeking refuge from the floods of 1943 and by archaeologists during the Koster site excavation in the 1970’s.
The great flood of 1993 advocated the creation of an information center and scenic byway. After three years of negotiations, a non-for-profit historic preservation group, the Illinois Valley Cultural Heritage Association (IVCHA) was granted custodianship of the home. After decades of deferred maintenance and being used as a repository for farm equipment, the home was in extreme disrepair. Most windows were broken and the front porch had collapsed. The kitchen area to the rear of the home had also collapsed into the basement and many rooms were missing a floor. The roof had large portions that had been blown away by the wind and allowing rain to damage much of the interior of the home. Despite the repairs that needed to be completed the structure itself was sound and work began immediately.
Stabilization commenced and several clean-up days were scheduled at the house. On any given weekend, people from across Illinois and Missouri could be found working from the early morning hours until late in the evening. This is a tradition that IVCHA has kept alive with its Annual Clean-Up Day that occurs every spring. The property was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999 and on the Landmarks Illinois Top Ten Most Endangered Buildings List in 2004.
The Illinois Valley Cultural Heritage Association is a small group that is supported primarily through its membership dues and private donations from local business and private citizens. Through the generosity of friends, neighbors, volunteers and business partners, IVCHA has continued to work tirelessly to save the James J Eldred house for future generations to utilize and enjoy. The roof was replaced recently and most the exterior areas have been tuck-pointed. The interior of the kitchen was reframed. Floors and windows have also been repaired. Although this is a project that is ongoing, the progress that has been made is a testament to the dedication of the many people that are involved.