Niles woman bringing 1836 home back to lifePublished 9:07am Tuesday, May 13, 2014
There are times when Jeanne Watson has second thoughts about restoring one of the two oldest homes still standing in Niles.
“About every 15 minutes,” said Watson said with a laugh as she stood in the Michigan basement of the two-story Hickory Street home. “People think I’m crazy, but I want on my gravestone to say I saved some old properties.”
The home, located at 720 Hickory St., was built in 1836 by Alfred Johnson after he traveled from Vermont on foot, according to newspaper accounts.
It came into the family, Watson said, when her grandparents, Jeanne and Dwight Benson, purchased it in 1920 “lock stock and barrel.”
“It still had old underwear in the drawers,” said Watson, a Niles native.
Watson lived there between the ages of 1 and 6, but the home was turned into a rental after that. Watson gained legal possession of the house in 1979.
Besides the sentimental attachment she has to the home, Watson said she wants to preserve its rich and interesting history.
Inside the home, Watson said there is an approximately 9-foot-by-9-foot secret room that may have been used to house slaves in the Underground Railroad.
“If you crawl through the attic and drop down there is a space big enough for someone to be in,” she said.
It was also the childhood home of George A. Kimmel, who mysteriously disappeared in the late 1800s, according to a New York Times article published Sept. 20, 1911.
Later, a convict at an Auburn Prison claiming to be Kimmel returned home only to be denounced as a fake by relatives who had already claimed Kimmel’s life insurance. Others, including the company that paid out the insurance, claimed that it was, in fact, Kimmel.
Also rumored is that Kimmel had been caught up in a gold heist and that some may be hidden in the home.
Watson said none has been found.
“My grandfather would joke that he bought the house because of the buried treasure,” she said.
To this day, there are many unsure of what actually happened to Kimmel.
“It was big news back in the day,” she said.
Watson said it would be a shame to hand the home over to someone that might tear it down.
“You know how many beautiful houses there are in Niles that have been left to rot?” she said. “Third Street was beautiful even when I was a kid. I think it’s a shame to lose our heritage that way. This is something I can change.”
The home, Watson said, still has the original poplar siding and shutters. All need to be replaced.
She expects the project will take about a year.
“Of course if I won the Powerball I’d have it done in three weeks,” she said.
Watson hopes others will follow her lead and restore a part of Niles history she believes is worth saving.
“Sometimes one house can turn a neighborhood around,” she said. “There are a lot of lovely old houses there that if they were restored would really be a wonderful thing.”