The story of this house, known for years as the Gillespie House, begins with Joshua Atwater who is the first recorded teacher in Madison County. Atwater came to Illinois from Massachusetts before 1808 and, after teaching for a few years, went into the mercantile business. He lived to be 90 years old and died a wealthy man.
In the original town of Edwardsville, Atwater owned Lot 118 which is where 606 N. Main Street is located, but it is doubtful that there was a house on the lot at the time of his purchase. Court records indicate that in the early 1830s he made a contract with his sister, Dolly Ann Stearns, whereby if she erected a house on the property in a specified amount of time he would deed the lot to her. An 1846 Quit Claim Deed confirms that she met the terms of the contract.
Mrs. Stearns was widowed in 1833, at which time she returned to teaching. Her building on Lot 118 functioned as both her home and a school. An advertisement in August 1841 indicated that she “has built onto her building” so she can “accommodate an additional number of scholars” including boarding students who lived too far from the school to commute. Tuition was $.50 per week with an additional $1.75 charged for boarding students (laundry included). There was no free public education when Mrs. Stearns was operating her school but there was an Edwardsville Academy. Mrs. Stearns’ school proved so popular, offering entertaining spelling bees in the evenings and other activities, that she soon drew so many students that the academy closed. Even with the additions made by Mrs. Stearns, the house at that time did not resemble the home we see today.
In 1846 Mrs. Stearns sold the house to Matthew Gillespie. Over the course of the next few years, Gillespie would also purchase the lots on either side of Lot 118 giving the family room for an orchard and a number of outbuildings.
Gillespie was born in New York City in 1807 but at the age of 12 moved with his family to Madison County. He was an avid reader with an informal education, but Matthew, as well as his son David and his brother Joseph, all became judges in Madison County. Matthew also held positions in state government and Joseph, an attorney, was elected to the state House of Representatives and later to the Illinois Senate. This was at the same time that Abraham Lincoln was active in Illinois politics and the brothers became friends of the future president.
At one of Lincoln’s most widely reported visits to Edwardsville in 1858, a dinner was served for him at the Matthew Gillespie home. Lincoln is reported to have bumped his head on a low door frame in the house when entering the dining room. This story is confirmed by many first person accounts in the newspapers including that of Mary Rollins, an African American woman who helped serve the meal. Another account is related by Mary Barnsback Byron, a relative of the Gillespie family. Byron’s grandmother, Mary Orsina Smith, was a 12-year-old child in 1858 and present for the meal. She often related the story to family and friends before her death in 1935.
The 1882 Madison County history by W. R. Brink says, “The house of Mr. (Matthew) Gillespie, when Lincoln was stopping in Edwardsville, was one of the latter’s favorite places of breaking bread,” and “where the family and friends enjoyed the rare treat of listening to the fun-loving anecdotes so peculiar to Mr. Lincoln.” This observation was written less than 20 years after Lincoln’s death by the husband of Matthew Gillespie’s daughter, Nellie Gillespie Brink. Joseph Gillespie’s home at that time was nearby at 901 N. Main Street on property that now serves as a parking lot for Eden Church.
Matthew Gillespie died in March 1861, just a few months after his friend Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. His widow continued to live in the home until her death, after which the home was sold in 1873 to another person with connections to the family, Rev. H. William Fiegenbaum. Fiegenbaum was the father-in-law of Matthew Gillespie’s granddaughter, Julia and he owned the house for ten years before selling it to Julia and her husband, Dr. Edward Fiegenbaum, in 1883.
Julia died in 1886, at which time Edward sold the house to George Richmond, a mill manager who lived in Edwardsville for only a few years. In 1892 the house was purchased by John B. Bates and his wife Maggie, who are responsible for the architectural style of the home as we know it today. In 1892 Bates was hired for the second time as Principal of the First Ward School in Edwardsville. The First Ward School was later replaced in1911-1912 with a new Lincoln School at the same Main Street location.
Bates was an African American professor who attended Oberlin College where he met his wife, Maggie Blair, of Edwardsville. Bates became a community leader in Edwardsville and Alton where he served on committees for the erection of a monument to Elijah Lovejoy and for celebrations on the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Shortly after purchasing the house, the Bates family started renovations. The newspapers reported regularly on the progress of contractor Charles Tyndall as he “practically rebuilt” the house at a cost of $1,300, the equivalent of a new six-room house at that time.
Sanborn Insurance maps in 1892 and 1897 document the changes to the home. In 1892 the home consisted of one room on the south side of the house with a string of three small rooms, one in front of the other, on the north side. There was only a small porch in front of the door on the north side of the house. The 1897 map shows that the front wall on the north side of the house was bumped out by 6-8 feet and the bay windows added. The long porch on the south side of the front of the house was also added. At the back of the house, one of the small rooms appears to have been removed from the north side of the house and a generous dining room added to the southeast corner of the house. It is also likely that the full second story of the home was added at this time. When work was completed, the style of the home had been changed to Victorian. Much of the ornate trim on the 1892 porch no longer exists, however it can be seen in a photo taken by the Schwartz family in the late 1930s.
After making these extensive renovations and improvements to the house, Bates sold it only a few years later when his family moved from Edwardsville in 1896. There followed a series of owners, most notably Ivan and Emma Zurkuhlen, who divided the lots purchased by Matthew Gillespie. The Zurkuhlens sold two of them, including the lot with the Gillespie House, and then built a new home for themselves on the lot south of the Gillespie House.
In the early 1920s, after a series of short term owners, the house was purchased by pharmacist Leonard Schwartz as a home for his widowed mother, Lucy Schwartz. After her death in 1935, Leonard’s family moved into the house. His son Robert was a second generation pharmacist in Edwardsville until his retirement. Although they had numerous pharmacies over the years, most current residents will remember the venerable Schwartz Drugstore at the corner of Hillsboro and N. Main Street.
The Schwartz family owned the house at 606 N. Main Street until it was sold to Elizabeth Allen in 1980. Many Edwardsville residents stopped by Liz’s Shirt Shack over the years, a business that operated out of the northwest parlor of the home. The house was recently sold and the owners plan to eventually restore the house.
This house history uncovered an excellent example of the many connections between Edwardsville families in those early days. A family tree of early Edwardsville families includes Joshua Atwater, his sister Dolly Stearns, the Gillespie family, the Fiegenbaums, and the Schwartz Family as well as a number of short term owners of the property, all related by marriage. It is also another example of how houses changed over the years. Because this house was located only a few blocks south of Edwardsville’s original commercial district in what was then called “Lower Town,” it was included on the early Sanborn Insurance maps of commercial businesses. These maps provided invaluable clues to its architectural history.
This article was first published in May 2015 as part of a series recognizing National Historic Preservation Month.
Photo caption: The Matthew Gillespie home at 606 N. Main Street in the late 1930s. Photo courtesy of Robert and Sandi Schwartz.