The Locust House
Pine Grove Twp. estate of early lumber baron one of 11 sites in Warren County on the National Register of Historic Places
Andrew Jackson was the president.
P.T. Barnum and his circus began their first US tour.
Mark Twain was born.
The year was 1835.
Here, the City of Warren was just 40 years old.
Oil hadn’t yet been discovered (that would happen 24 years later in Titusville) but lumber was the commodity of the day.
And one of the earliest lumber barons in the region was Guy Carrolton Irvine.
Irvine came to Brokenstraw Township in 1817 from Northumberland County, where he was born in December 1772.
“Being an enterprising young man, he gradually became known as ‘the Napoleon of the Lumber Business,” according to a National Register of Historic Places application.
Philip Tome, who was a long-time interpreter for Cornplanter, wrote in his book Pioneer Life, or Thirty Years a Hunter, first published in 1854, about Irvine’s “generosity, in both his business and personal affairs and of his fame in all the river towns from Olean to New Orleans.”
He married Mary Cotton in 1822 and the couple lived in a log cabin, called “Castle Comfort,” which was probably located in Brokenstraw Township.
Irvine owned more of the sawmills and rafts that went up and down the Conewango Creek and Allegheny River than anyone else.
According to the Warren County Historical Society website, Irvine cut 3,000,000 feet of pine lumber annually in the mid-1820s.
He was more than just a cut-throat businessman.
“According to Tome, Irvine was always concerned with the rights and welfare of his employees, at the same time amassing his fortune by owning more timber and sawmills than any other individual along the Allegheny River,” the National Register application states.
He once loaned $700, around $17,000 in today’s money, more than what was agreed upon for a two million board foot shipment to Louisville.
But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t rough around the edges.
“He was a high tempered, exacting man, never at ease, rough and rugged, but very soft hearted and always open and above board,” according to the WCHS. “He was respected by his employees in the woods and on the rivers.
“He was a typical frontiersman, big and strong; he never backed away from a fight or brawl.”
Some of the Irvine stories are downright eccentric.
It was said that he would often dress as a preacher when he traveled and carry his money in a Bible. While he was harassed several times on trips to Pittsburgh, who was going to steal from a preacher?
One time when he was in Pittsburgh he stayed in a high-end hotel and asked to sleep in a feather bed, paying $5 for the privilege. The next morning, he came down covered in feathers because he, literally, slept in a feather bed – he cut the mattress open and slept directly in the feathers.
In addition to his lumber ventures, Irvine was also one of the first six commissioners of the Lumberman’s Bank of Warren, incorporated by the state legislature in 1834, according to the WCHS.
He also installed a stone grist mill in 1836 on the Conewango Creek.
As business boomed, Irvine found himself more involved in building mills in Pine Grove Township.
Irvine and business partner Rufus Weatherby, who had married Mary Cotton’s sister, Rachel, realized that they often traveled together and weren’t in Warren County much, ultimately deciding to live together.
So the two men went in together, bought a 400 acre tract and built a home in Russell that Tome later described as “the most elegant and commodious residence in the county.”
300 of the original 400 acres remain part of the estate.
That home, called the Irvine House but more well known as the Locust House, is now on the National Register of Historic Places and is located on the left-hand side of Rt. 62 between North Warren and Russell.
The current owner, who wished not to be identified in this story, graciously gave the Times Observer a tour of the stately, 180-year-old home and shared the stories of the estate.
Depending on who you talk to, it was designed either by Irvine or by William Bell, an English architect.
By JOSH COTTON
The National Register application states that “it has been called a composite of the many homes he (Irvine) saw and liked during rafting trips into the deep south.”
The ?Thompson brothers, William and John, who lived in Russell, started work on the home in 1831 and completed it four years later in 1835.
While the house was under construction, Weatherby died in 1833 and his family never resided in the home, even though it was built in a mirrored fashion.
What does that mean?
Essentially, draw a line down the middle of the home and you would find a dining room, kitchen and living space in the first level on each side as well as three bedrooms on each side of the second floor, with the two halves, one completed in a Greek Revival and the other in a post-colonial/Pennsylvania Georgian style, completely isolated (i.e., you could lock out your neighbors and live completely separate lives under the same roof).
Irvine continued with construction of the residence as a single family home after Weatherby died.
It is built of entirely local materials.
The brick were made by the Thompson brothers north of the house at the foot of Baccop hill from Pine Grove clay and sand from Dunkirk. They are arrayed 18 inches thick at the bottom of the house and tapered to 12 inches at the top.
The stone used in construction came from behind the current Russell Roller Rink, with site where the stone was cut still visible.
With Irvine one of the region’s premier lumbermen, the finest lumber available was procured for construction, including the hand-hewn 18 inch thick beams that run the length of the house – over 50 feet – with every fifth beam doubled.
The first structure completed? The outhouse – a two door five-seater.
The ceilings in the first floor are 11 1/2 feet and 10 feet on the second floor.
Every wall, inside and out, is double-bricked.
Each room had a fireplace with the capacity to drop the ashes into the cellar for removal.
All of the ornate woodwork? Done by hand.
There were also no nails used in the construction as wooden pegs serve that purpose.
When Irvine lived there, the home would have been staffed with full time cooks as well as a farm manager and farm hands. Irvine was also known to have a guard.
Three fires have occurred at the home – the first in 1875 and others in 1890 and 1910.
All three occurred in the area of the main kitchen on the south end of the building.
By JOSH COTTON
When Irvine died in 1868, he left his wife half of the home and garden and “a small piece of ground connected with the adjoining farm for planting potatoes,” the NRHP application explains. “The furniture was left to his daughter, Rachel Irvine Bachop, who lived in the other half of the house with her five children.
“Anything left to her was on the condition that she would have nothing more to do with her husband, William Bachop. The reason for that condition was not explained in Guy Irvine’s will.”
Evidently, that was a promise that Rachel kept as the last descendent of Irvine’s to reside in the house was his granddaughter, Rachel’s daughter, Louisa Bachop Briggs, and her daughter, Alice Briggs Higgins and family.
Caring for the dignified home doesn’t appear to have been much of a priority to these descendants – their chickens lived inside in a room over the kitchen – leaving the home in a “pretty sad state,” the application states, when it was purchased by Will A. Walker in 1940.
Walker, the publisher of our predecessor, the Warren Times-Mirror, purchased the mortgage on the property and foreclosed.
The Walkers gave the home the nickname that most know it by now – “The Locusts.”
Their contribution to the house goes far beyond just naming it.
The Walkers renovated the entire home – removed all the vegetation, removed a portico and porch off but went to painstaking efforts to ensure the home remained as original as possible.
They razed all of the out buildings except the outhouse due to their poor condition.
Those structures were replaced with a garage and carriage house, which are becoming a historical part of the home in their own right.
The only significant change the Walkers made to the interior of the home was to remove one of the three original staircases and replace it with an elevator.
Before 1940, the only light sources were the 56 windows and the fireplaces.
That changed when the Walkers added modern utilities – gas, electric, septic – though the original outhouse remains.
When the town of Russell came to Will Walker and said that Irvine’s grist mill needed to be torn down, Walker took the stone and used it to build a small barbeque and pond in the back yard, preserving the sign on the front of the original mill as the front of the barbeque.
During the 1940 restoration, a new bear fence was also made by Al Keely of Russell that copies exactly from the original.
After a year of renovation, the Walker family moved in and used the home as a summer home, maintaining a permanent residence in Warren.
Will Walker and his wife, Nell Granquist Walker, had two two daughters – Ann, who passed away in 2013, and Jane, who died about 10 years ago.
In 1962, the application states, Jane, and her husband, Robert Kopf, moved in, had a new heating system installed and moved into “The Locust” on a year-round basis while Anne lived on a house near the country club.
“They also modernized the kitchen on the south end, the north kitchen having been made into a sitting room circa 1940,” according to the NRHP application. “They also restored one of the chimneys which was destroyed by fire in 1875.”
Kopf owned Hammond Iron Works (which would later become Pittsburgh Des-Moines and was the firm that did much of the fabrication of the St. Louis Gateway Arch).
Hammond did the ironwork on the back patio of the home.
Jane Walker was also a chandelier aficionado and several beautiful fixtures hang throughout the home.
They had three sons and those sons were the invididuals who sold the property to the current owner after it sat on the real estate market for seven years.
That means the home has only changed hands twice – 105 years in the ownership of the Irvine family, over 70 years in the Walker/Kopf family and three years for the current owner.
Many offers were made in those seven years, according to the current owner, but none were the “right fit.”
“There are easements on the property so that the property is maintained historically,” the owner explained.
A couple examples? Trees larger than eight inches in diameter can’t be cut down and none of the buildings can be torn down.
Additionally historical accuracy is provided by annual audits from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, who has been inspecting it since 1978 when the home was added to the National Register.
The Conservancy is a resource for the owners, giving all kinds of suggestions on things such as paint color and wallpaper. The head curator at Falling Waters has been one of the inspectors.
And that takes on added significance as the owner has expressed a desire to maintain the historical nature of the home and “restore it to its former self.”
While it has been maintained well, sitting empty for seven years took a toll – gutters and drainage proved problematic, utilities needed updated and the wells needed re-done.
But what is original overwhelms any work that has needed to be done.
The home has shifted so little that the original interior doors still close nearly perfectly.
The first floor floors – made of American Chestnut – date to construction.
The woodwork is all original as are the fireplaces, several of which have been restored to operating condition.
The locks one some of the doors also remain.
However, it’s impossible to talk about what is original at the home without talking about the beautiful black locust trees that grow in the front courtyard.
They were planted when the house was built in the 1830s and the Walkers added all of the smaller locust trees on either side of the house in the 1940s.
About 50 of the original locust trees remain and the Walkers planted 400 additional locust trees, as well as other species including Chinese Redwood.
The home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on September 13, 1978 and included for its date of origin, architecture as well as landscape architecture.
The current owner is committed to “trying to keep the original feel of the place,” acknowledging that Irvine and Weatherby “put their personal traits into it (and) put their own wood into it, their own style.”
“The history is still here.”
To be continued in next Saturday’s Times Observer.