During the summer of 2002, while others my age were spending their days by the pool with their girlfriend/boyfriend, working on their tans…I was scouring the countryside of Henderson County, Illinois for clues as to when my grandparents old farmhouse was built. This project arose from a family gathering earlier in the year in which the subject of “How old is this house? Who lived here?” was debated once again. I started researching my family tree four years earlier and thought “Hmmm….I bet I can figure out how to do that.” Armed with “House Histories” by Sally Light in hand, I started tracking down any and all records pertaining to the house.
Working on the house history project introduced me to a wide array of records, as well as the history of Henderson County. By the end of summer, my stack of records had grown to a good size and I had a time frame of when the house was probably built narrowed down- but I needed more and wanted to really picture what it was like “back in the day.” Probate records were highly recommended in Light’s book so onto the “To Get Next Time We Visit Grandma” list it went. I had not yet actually ever looked at a probate record, keep in mind I was only 17 at the time. The only problem was that prior to 1900, only one of the owners of the property died while the property was still in their possession. With fingers crossed, I went to the Henderson County Courthouse to inquire about probate records for Joseph S. Mekemson who died in 1875.
The index for the probate records were held in the nicely light and air-conditioned clerk’s office. The actual file- with the good stuff- was downstairs in the basement. The only light I could find was a single light bulb that flickered in a manner that seemed to be right out of Stephen King novel. I was certain at any instant a mouse was liable to run out in front of me. Fortunately, the file boxes were all very clearly labeled so locating the right one was a quick task. Once I opened it and held 150+ year old documents in my hands, a mouse could have run up my leg and I wouldn’t have noticed. I had discovered a treasure trove.
At this point in my research, I was not only strongly emotionally attached to the house but the families that had lived there especially the Mekemson family. Joseph supposedly went west to California in 1850 where he made a good amount of money by selling goods to miners. I knew Joseph lived at the home with his second wife, Mary McClinton (the daughter of the next door neighbor), that they had four children, and of these children died at a young age while the family lived in the farmhouse. One of their surviving daughters, Luna, made it to adulthood but never married and died at a relatively young age. I felt a strong connection to her in particular as she had suffered from a variety of health problems, something I could relate to. The Mekemson’s other surviving daughter, Elvina lived a long life, but also never married.
Joseph’s probate file provided an incredible snapshot of life in 1875. He died intestate- meaning without a valid will. A thorough assessment of his possessions, land holdings, and debts was subsequently conducted. From all of this I was able to learn what type of furniture was in the house, the types of tools they had, what they grew in their garden, the types of and how many animals they owned, how many acres they owned- of that how much was planted with corn, how much cash they had on hand, who Joseph owed money to, and much more. While the Mekemson farm was certainly not the largest in the county, it appears that they did rather well.
The piece of paper that was the cherry on top pertained to the insurance policy taken out on the house. It had been long suspected that the house may have been built in two sections, but I had no idea when the second section was added. On this paper the house was described as a “2 & 1 story” house. Now, I knew- prior to 1875.
Now, if only I had written down all of the information needed for a full and proper citation!