Feature Stories

At home with history

Settlers looking toward future at Swinney Homestead

By LauraMarie Carmody
Col. Thomas and Lucy Taber Swinney
Cheerful yellow walls and hand-laid tile floors greet guests visiting the Swinney Homestead on Jefferson Boulevard. (Photography by Neal Bruns)
The fireplace in the Edwardian/Victorian-style main parlor, one of two parlors on the homestead’s first floor. (Photography by Neal Bruns)
An upstairs bedroom boasts "89" Parisian flocked wallpaper in a rich red, along with period antiques (Photography by Neal Bruns)
The Swinney Homestead’s National Register of Historical Places plaque (Photography by Neal Bruns)
The Edwardian/Victorian-style parlor is where the family entertained guests. (Photography by Neal Bruns)
A photo of the historic view from the front door, looking east toward downtown
Intricately hand-carved posts on the front parlor’s Edwardian fireplace highlight the attention to detail (Photography by Neal Bruns)
Thomas Swinney’s portrait hangs above the fireplace in the Federal-style back parlor that served as his office (Photography by Neal Bruns)
A photo of the entrance to Swinney Park, the land for which was donated by Col. Swinney, hangs upstairs
An "888 German rosewood “coffin piano,” one of only a handful in existence, graces the Edwardian/Victorian front parlor. Rhesa Swinney’s portrait hangs above it (Photography by Neal Bruns)
A painted transom recalls the days before central heating and cooling systems. (Photography by Neal Bruns)
The Swinney Homestead. It’s a familiar sight to anyone who regularly travels into or out of downtown Fort Wayne via Jefferson and Washington boulevards. Motorists entering the city on Jefferson are greeted by green space and manicured bushes stating “Welcome to Fort Wayne.” Tennis courts, an outbuilding and a stately brick house are all part of the scenery as well.

A log house, another view of the main residence and an extensive herb garden are visible when exiting the downtown area on Washington. The sprawling stretch of land known as Swinney Park, located on the opposite side of the street, completes the scene.

The history of the Swinney Homestead can be traced back to 1826. That’s the year Thomas and Lucy Taber Swinney moved their family, including six daughters and an adopted son, out of the town’s fort and into a log house on the vast property. Eighteen years later, the family moved into its newly constructed brick mansion. That structure is standing today and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also part of the West Central Historic District.

When Thomas Swinney died in 1875, he bequeathed the house and 240 acres to the City of Fort Wayne. It was to be designated as a park and remain “open and free to the public.” His forethought guaranteed that the green passive space Fort Wayne residents enjoy today as Swinney Park would exist.
In addition to his wishes regarding the park, Swinney’s will had one proviso — any daughters still living at home at the time of his death would be able to remain there until their own passing. The last of the children died in the early 1920s, and the city assumed ownership of the property. Shortly after that, the house became the home of the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society. It served as a museum until 1980, when the historical society relocated to the old city hall building.

Enter Settlers, Inc., a nonprofit organization founded in 1971 and dedicated to preserving and teaching early American hand arts and crafts, politics, history, folklore and elements of daily living. Members dress in period clothing and share their knowledge in a variety of settings. In 1980, the group’s members moved into the Swinney home and began teaching classes and offering demonstrations onsite, an addition to their existing obligations.  

“We focus on preservation and education,” explained Linda Huge, president of Settlers, Inc. “We want people to come and learn about our history and then carry it on. If we don’t know where we’ve been, we don’t know where we’re going.”

The group’s volunteers also spearheaded a restoration of the house, a somewhat atypical task for the organization. They enlisted the help of many willing participants and continue to raise funds to help maintain the property, which is still owned by the City of Fort Wayne and cared for by the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation department. A caretaker lives in an upstairs apartment and assists Settlers, Inc., in caring for the interior.

“The house was fixed up with the help of donations from lumberyards and the hard work of master craftsmen, plumbers and others who cared enough to help,” said Huge. “Women in Construction also helped with a lot of things in the house. Even the Boy Scouts have helped with needed projects over time.”

The Swinney home, built in 1844 as a one-and-a-half story structure, reflects the Federal style of architecture. Its simple brick façade features symmetrical windows, hunter green shutters and a low-pitched roof. Four narrow brick chimneys jut out from the roof in various locations. The bricks used in the home’s construction were actually made and fired onsite, according to Huge.

The exterior also reveals elements of Italianate architecture incorporated during the home’s renovation in the mid-1880s. The remodeling project was initiated by the Swinneys’ remaining daughters after their father’s death. It added another floor to the house, as well as a front porch and a central dormer with three narrow windows.

The home’s interior is a study in different architectural styles as well. The front doors open to reveal an entryway with a staircase hugging the wall on one side and open on the other. A sturdy, square, intricately carved newel post with a round finial sits at an angle. The stair rail curves gently in as the steps begin their ascent to the second floor. 

The foyer, which extends past the staircase toward the back of the house, boasts terrazzo tile flooring installed during the mid-1880s renovation. The rooms on each side of the entryway still feature the original green poplar flooring of the 1840s.

The spacious rooms to the left of the main entrance feature fireplaces with the original, simple Federalist-style mantels. A portrait of Thomas Swinney is centered over one of the mantels, while Lucy Swinney’s likeness hangs over the other. In contrast, the rooms to the right of the front door were updated with ornately carved mantels complete with posts. The surrounds nearly reach the ceiling and have large mirrors.

The kitchen was originally located in the basement before being relocated to the main level. A bake oven and fireplace along the limestone walls of the basement conjure images of a maid making meals and then transporting the food to the first floor dining room.

The second floor of the house includes a sitting room just beyond the top of the stairs and open hallways that lead to four spacious bedrooms. The third floor, added to accommodate guests, as well as provide space for dress fittings and clothes storage, is accessible by ascending a back staircase.  

The home’s furnishings, most of which are not original to the house, are appropriate for the period, as are the colors of the wall coverings, which range from shades of warm yellow to pink to olive green and even red. The chandeliers, which are both gas and electric, date back to the 1880s. Some rooms still include push button light switches. Others still have the original transoms above the doors.

“There are all kinds of things here that you won’t see other places,” said Huge. “We have taken care to insure that the room colors and décor are historically appropriate. Whatever we do is historically correct.”

In addition to the main residence, there is also a log house on the property. Built in 1849, the house was relocated piece by piece from Huntington County. It is similar to the one the Swinneys lived in and is used for early Indiana living presentations. Plants from the nearby herb garden are used for Settlers’ activities.

The Swinney Homestead has served as a venue to help Settlers, Inc., members share early American history, as well as the history of the Swinney family, for more than 30 years. There is an annual program series, special classes, tours of the house and grounds, school presentations and even luncheon and dinner events. Plus, the Settlers’ Gift Shop, located in one of the bedrooms on the second floor of the Swinney House, offers a selection of handmade crafts.

But that is just one aspect of Settlers, Inc. The organization is also an integral part of the annual Johnny Appleseed Festival, sharing authentic foods and crafts with thousands of attendees. In addition, a group of musicians known as the Hearthstone Ensemble teaches and performs early American music, entertaining in period attire at festivals, schools and other locations.

Money raised through the Settlers’ many activities and membership fees is used for maintenance of the Swinney Homestead. And it is all accomplished by a board of directors and a core group of only 72 volunteers.

“We don’t have nearly enough people to do all that we do,” said Huge. “We would like more people to appreciate what the past has done for today and the future and lend a hand. The challenge is that many women are employed and raising families, so they don’t have time to dedicate to Settlers. We do the best we can with the best we’ve got.

“People put time into making where we live what it is, and we owe them,” said Huge. “Without the past, we have nothing. We can’t have today without yesterday, and we can’t have tomorrow without today. And we can’t save history if we don’t pass it on.”

To learn more about Settlers, Inc., and to support the Swinney homestead and its programs, go to settlersinc.org.

Posted: Thu, 06/14/2012 - 2:45 pm
Last updated: Thu, 06/14/2012 - 2:46 pm