HISTORIC PLACES

Where the lumber baron lived

2014-02-16T04:45:00Z 2014-02-17T04:39:48Z Where the lumber baron livedAlma Gaul agaul@qctimes.com The Quad-City Times
February 16, 2014 4:45 am  • 

They saved the best for last.

That's what you might think while walking through Frederick Weyerhaeuser's House on the Hill in Rock Island.

While there is much to admire about the ornamented brick exterior, the leaded-glass entrance doors, the oak paneling in the foyer and so on, it is the dining room — the last place a guest would reach — that is the piece de resistance.

Here, the wood — the raw material that Weyerhaeuser (1834-1914) spent a lifetime buying and selling — positively bowls one over.

Wood ceiling, wood walls, wood floor, wood furniture. And not just wood, but wood that is hand-carved with so many apple blossoms and leaves that they are beyond counting. (Someone once calculated that a small section under the dining room arch contains 2,450 leaves, 75 large flowers and 54 small flowers.)

Weyerhaeuser is one of the Quad-City area's giant success stories, a man of vast power and influence who changed the lumber industry, and with it the nation. In his time, he was to lumber what Rockefeller was to oil and Carnegie to steel.

And his legacy continues today with the Weyerhaeuser Co., based in Tacoma, Wash., one of the world's largest private owners of timber lands and one of the largest manufacturers of wood and cellulose fiber products. 

Weyerhaeuser wasn't born here, but this is where he began his ascent to industrial greatness, operating a sawmill with his brother-in-law, Frederick Denkmann.

During the years after the Civil War, when vast tracts of land were opening to settlement and completion of the transcontinental railroad made that settlement easier, Weyerhaeuser saw a great opportunity in lumber. Vast quantities would be needed to build the nation, and he moved to supply it.

The home he shared with his wife Sarah is now on the campus of Augustana College at 3052 10th Ave. The house and surrounding land were donated to the institution in 1954, after the death in 1953 of the couple's daughter, Apollonia Davis, the last family member to live there.

The college maintains the showy ground floor for receptions and meetings while the back of the first floor and the second and third floors contain apartments for 12 students.

Weyerhaeuser did not build the home, but the family made it its own through major changes. The house was built in 1860, and Weyerhaeuser acquired it in 1869 along with a small, 26-acre farm that included vineyards, orchards, vegetable gardens and animals.

The house was a two-story brick structure. Its front door faced north, with a staircase ascending from the small entryway.

In the early 1880s, the Weyerhaeusers changed and enlarged rooms on the east side, added rooms on the west side and in the back, and built an entire third floor. In so doing, they moved the main front entrance to the west side, where visitors could alight from their carriages under a new roofed driveway.

A tour

Through large entrance doors, one steps into a foyer with quarter-sawn oak paneling, Brunschwig & Fils wallpaper, a substantial armoire with a mirror, and a large oak staircase, the new route to the second floor.

To the left are two large parlors, furnished with what have been described as very good 19th-century reproductions, meant to be used and enjoyed.

The delicate Belgian lace curtains that hung at the windows when the Weyerhaeusers lived here have been replaced. Through time and numerous washings, they literally wore out, said Kai Swanson, the executive assistant to Augustana's president.

Beyond the two parlors with mahogany woodwork is the original front entrance, then the library, or Walnut Room, which takes the name from its primary wood. It is here that Weyerhaeuser worked into the night on two large tables.

Features today include elaborately carved window trim, a fireplace with a portrait of Denkmann above it and a large bookcase.

Finally, one comes to the dining room with its apple blossom motif carved in cherry wood. The carving was done by company workmen during "down" time to keep them occupied, Swanson said. In time, their carving filled the entire room.

Adding color to the otherwise dark, brown room is a stained-glass window above the fireplace. It was created by John LaFarge (1835-1910), who also made windows for Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.

"The story is that when Tiffany wanted really good glass, he bought LaFarge," Swanson said.

While a kitchen is a major, spare-no-expense feature of today's grand homes, it hardly figures in a tour of the Weyerhaeuser residence. In his day, kitchens were useful, not showy.

Weyerhaueser and his wife lived in the house for about 20 years, from 1869 to 1891 when they moved to St. Paul.

For much of that time, though, Weyerhaeuser was gone during the winters, stomping through the forests of Wisconsin to check out timber tracts. Sarah stayed behind, keeping the home fires burning and nurturing their seven children.

The couple last visited the house in 1907 for their 50th wedding anniversary, a large celebration.

At the time, their daughter, Apollonia Davis, and her family were living there. Not only did Apollonia hire the cooks for the event a year ahead of time, but she also arranged it so that everyone visiting — 26 family members, three maids and one nurse — could sleep in the home.

In 2007, family members met in the Quad-Cities for an unpublicized reunion. The three-day gathering included visits to places of significance, among them the family gravesite in Chippiannock Cemetery and, of course, the House on the Hill.

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