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VIEWPOINT: All these years, little progress at John Deere mansion
VIEWPOINT

VIEWPOINT: All these years, little progress at John Deere mansion

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After 23 years, the frustration is forgivable.

The many indignities to befall Moline's "most important property" are harder to understand. It is, after all, an actual home of John Deere, and this is John Deere country.

The mansion on the bluff at 12th Street, known in its day as Red Cliff, was John Deere's final home. After he bought it in 1875, he spent about five years adding on until it reached the 9,000 square feet contained there today. He made it his home in 1880, and his body lay in repose in one of the mansion's grand rooms during the wake that followed his death at the house in May of 1886.

At one time, the home seemed to have died, too.

I toured it in the early 1990s, when Moline took over to try to find a buyer who was willing to bring the mansion back.

The only thing remarkable about the home in those days was that people lived there. Divided into more than a dozen low-income apartments, the house was a disaster of filth and falling plaster.

But a pack of volunteer bulldogs was unleashed on the property, and they invested thousands of hours, hauling out garbage and clearing the way for a major rehabilitation.

Enter Roger Colmark: The Sterling, Illinois, accountant paid 100 bucks for the house in 1996 and made considerable progress — until he didn't. He spent four or five years and more than $1 million putting on a slate roof, copper gutters, floor joists and period windows. But he had too many beefs with the city over missed deadlines and messed-up building codes, and work stopped.

The mansion went into foreclosure in 2009, and a new owner bought it from a bank in 2011 for $100,000.

Hopes were high again.

Chris Baker, a Moline native, hasn't exactly ignored the property. But he has been elusive to neighbors and to Moline Preservation Society members whose sweat equity in the early days made it possible to even recognize the Deere home might be worth saving.

"That property is historically significant beyond belief," said preservationist Barb Sandberg. "Every farmer — and many who aren't farmers — are going to want to see that house. It was our baby. We really wanted to see it happen, and I now try not to look when I drive by."

But all hope is not lost.

"He (Baker) has put time and money into it," Sandberg said. "His secrecy has been puzzling to us since day one, though. It can be frustrating to us, because we've asked for updates many times, and he hasn't extended the courtesy of a response."

After nearly eight years as owner, Baker has made a couple of meaningful investments. He accepted money a few years ago from the Preservation Society (Sandberg declined to say how much), which was donated by people who wanted to see the mansion brought back. The funds helped pay to have it repainted.

"He (Baker) went to the effort of finding the exact right color," Sandberg said. "Roger (Colmark) hired an expert to scrape down to the original paint color years ago, so it would perfectly match the original.

"It was some big-bucks specialty paint that came from Holland, but it didn't last."

In addition to the good-looking paint job, Baker finished the porch and worked on dormers, Sandberg said. But the inside remains basically gutted, and the woodwork for the entire house will have to be rebuilt from scratch one day, because Colmark kept all the original.

Such problems have plagued the mansion. For example, Sandberg said her group was thrilled when Colmark found an original pocket door behind a mansion wall. He took it to a woodworker to have a matching door made. Before he could fetch the finished panels, she said, a workshop fire destroyed them.

Then there are little bits of encouragement: Deere's granddaughter's house is next door. The previous owner of the Skinner-Cady Mansion reportedly had a less-than-friendly relationship with Baker, which prevented him from using the main entrance to the two mansions, because that piece of ground belongs to the Skinner-Cady. So, any contractors had to access the Deere mansion from below the big bluff.

When real estate partners Adam Bain and Blake Humphrey (the guys who bought the Scottish Rites Cathedral, now Spotlight Theatre) bought the Skinner-Cady about a year ago, they reached a "common ground agreement" with Baker, Bain said.

For their part in the trio of mansions that occupy one whole block of the area once known as Millionaire Row, Bain and Humphrey have turned Skinner-Cady into five upscale apartments. Unfortunately, the old place is practically new construction now, Bain said, because a fire several years ago destroyed so much.

The owner of the third mansion on the block, the Ball-Rosborough House (built by a nephew of Deere's), couldn't be more invested. Jolene Keeney has been living in and restoring the home for 10 years.

I sent an email, text message and Facebook messages to Baker, seeking an update on his mansion. About a week later, a reply came: "I’m not interested in talking at this time."

As the owner of the Deere house, Baker has the right to do what he wants and to take his time doing it. But it's such a shame to see it just sit there after all these years and to find him utterly uninterested in revealing his plans for a private property with so much public interest and enthusiasm. And all those people who invested so much of themselves in it two decades ago aren't getting any younger.

"I don't think he's in any big hurry," Bain said of his neighbor's plans. "We'd love to see that thing get completed, too."

Added Sandberg: "We hope the situation will improve with the coming of spring."

Yes — always the season of promise for a Deere.

Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or bickes@qctimes.com

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