One of the most beautiful sites in Fayette County is the picturesque home and surrounding grounds now known as Elmhurst, thought its early history is recorded under the name of "The Old Elm Farm". Situated on the west side of the Whitewater Valley along the banks of the Whitewater Canal and adjoining the south edge of Connersville, it played a prominent part in the development of this section of the state. It was the home of those responsible for the early growth and advancement of the city as well as the State of Indiana.
All of the historic building was not constructed at the same time. The nucleus of the present structure was erected in 1831 by the Hon. Oliver H. Smith, then a member of Congress. His contribution to the magnificent building consisted of principally four rooms. The building was of brick, two stories in height with immense chimneys at each end with the addition of a frame structure on the back, which was used for the kitchen and dining room. It is said that he located his home at this particular spot because of the choice view of the valley it afforded and the fact that the old Indian Trail passed directly in front of it, then continued past the house a short distance to a well known spring that the Indians visited on their trips through the valley. This trail then branched off to the west and up the hill to what is now known as Jenny's Point, the highest point in Fayette County, where the Indians had fire bowls for their signal fires. Smith was very friendly with the Indians and befriended them at every opportunity. He wrote several books but is best known for his "Early Indiana Trails and Sketches" whicyh was published in 1857. In this herefers to his purchase of the land as follows: "I bought the fine farm of one hundred and sixty acres, adjoining Connersville the same now the residence of my friend the Hon. Samuel W. Parker, of John Adair, of Brookville, for $9 per acre, in three installments without interest." This transaction is recorded January 3, 1831.
It is not known how long he lived in his new home, but shortly afterward he purchased a pretentious hom located in the heart of the village of Connersville and moved there while his Whitewater mansion became the residence of the Hon. Celeb B. Smith, member of Congress for three terms and Secretary of the Interior under President Lincoln. He also served his state in the Legislature from 1833 to 1840 and was speaker of the House in the sessions of 1835 and 1836. He was one of the most eloquent and powerful stump speakers in the United States. This distinguished man died in Indianapolis in 1864, and according to tradition , it was his dying wish that he be buried on the grounds of the estate he loved so well. Whether that wish was fulfilled is not known because to the present day there is no true evidence as to his exact burial spot.
The farm at this period, so history states, formed an important link in the Old Underground Railway. The trail forked here, the West prong leading toward Yankeetown, the East prong toward Centerville and Union City. A brick building still stands on what is now known as the Gamble Farm, but, at that time part of Old Elm Farm, which was a haven and refuge for escaping slaves from the South.
The estate next became the property of James Shaw on November 13, 1838 and later of Nicholas Patterson on February 14, 1842, and from the latter it passed into the hands of the Hon. Samuel W. Parker, recorded under the date of February 23, 1850. Parker was a member of Congress from 1851 to 1855, and a resident of Connersville from 1828 until his death in 1859. On return to his home from Washington, he divided his attentions between the practice of law and the direction of his varied railroad interests. He was president of the Junction Railroad Company and for several years president of the Whitewater Canal Company. It is said the the canal boats on their trips up and down the canal, as they passed his home, would toll their bells in respect to Parker and that he would answer their salute with a bell which he had installed by the front porch of his home. Parker gave his support and rendered valuable aid to the career of Henry Clay and tradition has it that this great man was entertained within it's spacious walls.
To Parker is given credit for beautifying the grounds that surrounded his home, for it was he who planted many of the trees that are standing today. The dwarf Catalpes now in the foreground of the estate were set out by Parker. He started the first remodeling of the building, paneling the lower front rooms with the solid cherry that graces the walls of the lobby today.
On the slight elevation at the rear of his home, he dedicated to the Parker cemetery and in order that his remains should never be disturbed, Parker with his own hands built tombs for himself and his sister. They were intricate structures of solid flagstones, brick lined, with bottom of gravel for drainage. His wishes nSmith.
A simple marble shaft on which he inscribed the one word "Parker" marked his grave. The splendid grove of tress he planted and cared for is a more fitting monument to his memory that is the marble which gives no information or history.
The estate next became the property of James N. Huston through a foreclosure sale in 1881. Huston is said to have entertained Benjamin Harrison and his first wife Caroline Scott Harrison, upon numerous occasions, one of the bedrooms being reserved exclusively for their frequent visits.
During Huston's time, the building was extensively remodeled, being patterned along the lines of the White House in Washington. The massive porch columns and wings at both north and south ends of the old structure were added and the paneling started by Parker was continued. This included the oak stairways and panels in the upper room and hall and dining room at a cost of $44,000. These panels and stairs are now restored and are prominent parts of the present decorative scheme. The estate was often referred to as "The White House of Indiana".
When Senator Huston occupied the residence, it was part of the estate of over eight hundred acres known as the "Old Elm Farm" from the ancient elm grove and particularly the single giant elm that stood in front of the building. Huston was the political manager for Benjamin Harrison who later appointed Huston United States Treasurer.
It was Huston who added the huge fireplaces in both the upper and lower halls. The fireplace, which now is the center of the present lobby, is made of carved red sandston and polished granite. Huston commissioned a noted sculptor to carve the likeness of Indian Joe, a crippled Shawnee Indian, who remained in the valley after the remainder of the tribe were sent to a reservation. This Indian was a famous character known to the early settlers of the valley, and as the story goes, he was buried somewhere on the grounds of the estate. The sculptor used and old tintype of the Huston's to obtain his likeness and while working at his task he was watched by a stable boy, a dwarf Negro who whistled constantly. After completing the profile of Indian Joe, the sculptor to balance the design, obtained Huston's permission to carve the profile of the whistling Negro boy on the opposite side.
The building next passed into the hands of Andrew Daum in March, 1901. Daum added the norht wing, known as the Daum Annex. This annex consisted of 26 rooms and was used as a sanitarium and at this time was well known throughout the country. Dr. A. H. Daum on one of his trips to Europe, contracted a strange disease which caused his death at the height of a promising career. His body was placed in the Parker burial plot and for over a month lanterns stood at his grave and a guard stationed to insure no molestation by those who sought to solve the enigma of his strange malady.
The Daums finally disposed of the property in April, 1902 to Charles Chambers and Ella Porter, who operated a sanitarium under Dr. W. J. Porter. Later when "Old Elm Farm" was divided and sold, Mrs. Porter applied for the modified name of "Elmhurst" to the part retained which consisted of the house and one hundred forty acres. The estate was then sold to the Connersville Sanitarium Co. in August of 1903.
In June, 1904, Elmhurst was purchased by George B. Markle of Hazelton, Pennsylvania, who used it only as a summer home.
Three years later in 1909, the "Elmhurst School for the Girls" was established. This school was directed by Isabel Cressler and Caroline Sumner for the purpose of giving the girls of the Middle West educational opportunites equal to those to be had in the Eastern Schools. Elmhurst was a unique school in many respects. In the first place the enrollment was originally limited to twenty-four students, the number which could be accommodated in the building, although at one time there were as high as forty enrolled. While the school was strictly nonsectarian, it was permeated with a religious atmosphere. The school property comprised one hundred and forty acres and by utilizing the tillable land, the school developed a combination agricultural and domestic science course which was unique in the work of private schools for girls.
Daughters of both prominent and wealthy families obtained their education at Elmhurst. The Italian marble drinking fountain was presented by George Ball of Muncie to the school while his daughters were emrolled.
This fountain is now in the dining room of the present remodeled structure.
At this time the magnificent forest trees surrounding Elmhurst furnished one of its distinctive features. The famous Elmhurst Elm stood ninety-five feet high and measured more than sixteen feet in circumference at its base. Good authorities placed the age of the tree at close to four hundred years. The tree was cut down in 1935 due to its endangering condition, and it is said the wood when cut furnished heat for the building for an entire winter.
Standing near the building on the southwest corner, was a catalpa species, eight feet in circumference and one of the best specimens of this variety in the country. This tree fell in 1934, on a calm summer day.
It is said that at one time there was a specimen of every known variety of tree that would grow in Indiana, planted and growing on Elmhurst's beautiful acres.
The school closed in 1929 and the estate came under the control of Manfred Dale. It was vacant until the Pennington Military Institute was started by Mr. Lewis, who operated the school for about a year. In 1931 Herbert Bard, an Eastern professor sought to open a private school, which subsequently proved a failure.
The building then stood idle except for a caretaker, Robert Ingersoll, until purchased by Warren Lodge No. 15, F. &A.M. to be used as a Temple by the Lodge.
Extensively remodeled and restored to it's grandeur of years gone by, it stands today a landmark of beauty, a magnificent link between the days of early development of Fayette County and the present day.