Chesterton Tribune

Historical Society hears of town's oldest homes

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It wasn’t unusual for Chesterton’s early settlers to move --- their homes, that is --- to the growing community from more rural, mosquito-prone areas like City West, a development that never really took off near Lake Michigan.

According to local historian Nancy Vaillancourt, “People here thought nothing of moving houses. They moved them everywhere. They were a box --- no plumbing, electricity. Now, (moving houses) is quite a production.”

Some homes originally built along the first blocks of Broadway and Calumet later were moved when it was clear that area would be part of the new town’s business district and the land would be more valuable for commercial use. Others, however, still dot the downtown.

Early settlers also recycled lumber for homes from other buildings, like one of the Northern Indiana Hotels. There was a lot of confusion about Chesterton’s hotels, said Vaillancourt, several of which at one time were called Northern Indiana Hotel. Later in the 1930s, some houses which still survive were even built out of empty boxcars, while some houses hide a log cabin as their original structure.

Local brick was plentiful and many Chesterton homes are made of it. And if they had enough land, families built in-town settlements with several members living in houses grouped together.

Chesterton, known as Coffee Creek and Calumet until the town was formed in 1870, was growing. In the 1880’s Broadway, a wide dirt lane, almost reached Fifth Street. At the turn of the century trolley tracks on Calumet Road ran between here and Valparaiso.

Some Chesterton streets were not paved until the 1930s. Town streets weren’t even numbered until 1919, said Vaillancourt.

One hundred thirty years ago, as it is today, Chesterton was a desirable place to live and raise a family. Many of the homes town pioneers built survive today, some much as they looked a century ago, others disguised behind modern siding, new windows and room additions.

Vaillancourt took approximately 100 members and guests of the Duneland Historical Society on a slide tour Thursday of Chesterton’s historic houses. The addresses were contained on detailed downtown maps prepared by Hugh Hopkins, who also took the slides.

Frank Gavagan, long-time town postmaster, and his wife Celia lived at 411 Broadway, the two-story frame house now a vivid green. Behind them across the alley on Indiana Avenue lived Emily Sherwood, who wrote a column in the Chesterton Tribune under the pen name Aunt Em. Vaillancourt said Emily wrote a touching column in memory of her friend when Celia died.

C.O. Hillstrom’s house, built in the 1880s at the corner of Fifth Street and Broadway, was torn down in the 1970s. At one time a car dealership, a dance studio is now located on the lots. Vaillancourt said Hillstrom’s Queen Anne home had turrets, lovely windows, beautiful gardens and an iron fence. “This was society for Chesterton. Mrs. Hillstrom entertained lavishly. She had parties for 50 people.”

The home was across the street from the Hillstrom organ factory. On Fourth Street between Lincoln and Porter avenues are seven homes. “They were all basically the same, built for (Hillstrom’s) Swedish workers and he wasn’t about to make them fancy,” said Vaillancourt.

Another house well-heeled in social circles was the White-Love Funeral Home at 525 S. Second St. “It was one of the nicest houses in town. It had a tower, very elaborate and pretty,” said Vaillancourt.

The original house on the southwest corner of Calumet and Indiana, once Bailly Furniture, was built by a lumberman who had 14 children, moved to Valparaiso and became Porter County sheriff. Francis Brown later lived there; he was instrumental in building the first Catholic Church and Brown Street is named for him, according to Vaillancourt.

The Catholic rectory, the home west of the site of the former St. Patrick Church on Indiana, was built in the 1870s. Vaillancourt said the rectory house had a beautiful front porch and it was surrounded by beautiful gardens; a piece or ornate iron fence survives.

She also said one of the oldest and largest downtown homesites was the northeast corner of Calumet and Morgan Avenue, now a commercial building with wide porches and the separate former Katie’s Ice Cream building. Another was the Nickle homestead, 10 acres in 1887 on the east side of Calumet near the new post office. A wire fence fronts the property, which once had a log cabin on it that probably pre-dated 1845.

In the same area was the LaHayne house, now Shady Lawn Florist. Vaillancourt said the original nursery, which had a greenhouse attached to the house, had fruit trees. “Children remember going to pick strawberries or buy bouquets for their Mom.”

Another large parcel of several acres, and still is today, is the Ruge land on the southwest corner of Porter Avenue and 15th street. It had been the Oscar Peterson farm, and Arthur Bowser lived there.

Some homes were well known not because of the structure, but because of who lived there. The red house at Lincoln and Calumet was home to the Kelly family in the late 1880s. Mr. Kelly went to a local saloon and got drunk. “Mrs. Kelly met the train and took off after the saloon owner with a whip,” said Vaillancourt. “He ran for his life. It was front-page news.”

Another instance was 126 W. Lincoln. George Williams wanted to settle here and his wife desperately wanted to live in Hammond. Said Vaillancourt, “The letters she wrote to her family and school chums would break your heart.”

Vaillancourt showed a black and white post card depicting the early home at 201 Indiana built in 1908, now painted white with lavender trim.

Nathan DeMass was one of the early builders who left his mark on the community. Vaillancourt said his homes generally were chunky, sturdy and not particularly pretty. DeMass’ own home and office were at the northwest corner of Third Street and Morgan Avenue. “Nathan was a really fanciful guy,” said Vaillancourt. His house was pea green and turkey red with green trim. DeMass’ brick livery stable, once Don’s Camera Shop, is just to the north.

Dentist Harry Ruge lived at 222 Morgan, one of Chesterton’s popular set. “He was always pictured riding around in someone’s Model T,” said Vaillancourt. The town’s first hospital, she added, was Dr. Wallace Parkinson’s clinic. He lived at 120 S. Seventh St.; his office was downtown.

Despite what some may think, the unusual home at 424 S. Eighth St. is not from the Chicago World’s Fair, said Vaillancourt. Its colorful plaques on the porch and chimney came from a terra cotta factory where a homeowner once worked.

Several of the homes shown, like 116 W. Porter, at one time were corner grocery stores, and some buildings now serving as garages like at 403 Lincoln were originally carriage houses. The stone step between the sidewalk and street at 202 Jefferson was a step to alight from one’s carriage, said Vaillancourt.

She noted the home at 401 Lincoln Avenue is the only one on the block that doesn’t sit on two lots but it does have “wonderful decor; the fish-scale (siding) is great.” Yet why the home at the southeast corner of Morgan and Second Street is built into the road easement forcing Morgan to take a jog may never be known.

Vaillancourt said Westchester Public Library has prepared a list of resources including books and web sites to help identify American architecture, a home’s age and its history. The information is available at

 or at either Thomas or Hageman libraries.


Posted 4/28/2003