An Unusual House
by Ralph S. Harrelson
Drawing by Larry Wagner
Beside an early pioneer trail a most unusual structure was erected, "The Old Octagonal House". Both the house and trail excite the imagination of historians. The trail traversed a part of two counties, Hamilton and Franklin. In Franklin it made junction with the Shawneetown-St. Louis trail at the Parrish P. O. and in Hamilton pointed into the old McLeansboro-Benton road near Ten Mile Creek Church.
This old trail crossed the famous Goshen Road in section twenty-six, Knights Prairie, near the old Reed school southeast of Mellonville (Crackers Neck).
|The Honeycomb House|
by Ralph Harrelson
An unusual manse towers to'rd the sky,
Great chimney tops stand still more high,
And time its glory would erase
As vandals rip and scar its face,
Yet strong and proud it lifts its head,
A landmark, once a great homestead.
As time strikes mighty hammer blows,
And heat, and rain, and vandal foes,
Tear at its body growing old
Its facade proud, stands rigid, bold;
And tucked in every joint and seam
Is history, memories, and its dream.
Whose mind envisioned its hexagons
To stand beside where an old trail runs?
This house, like the comb of the honeybee,
Graces the lawn near a huge oak tree,
A tree that reaches long sturdy arms
Toward this hexagon house of charms.
Herndon Harrelson once turned the key
And opened his doors with hospitality,
Widows and orphans heard his welcoming call
As he stood by the stair in the hexagon hall;
To restore is a cause, a cause to espouse,
To preserve this unusual old eight-sided house.
(Reprinted by permission from Goshen Trails - Volume 8, Number 1 - January, 1972)
In the 1870's, beside this old trail on the west side of section nine, then Knights Prairie Precinct, lived Herndon Harrelson, owner-occupant of the house with eight sides. He was born in South Carolina in 1831, son of Nathaniel, and settled in Hamilton County in 1837. This family once lived in a log house west of the present site.
It was first reported to me that the eight-sided house was built in 1852-53. This date put it in the given years of the Octagon Mode. However, later evidence given by close relatives of Mr. Harrelson seems to point conclusively to 1871-73. It probably was under construction though parts of all three years.
O. S. Fowler of New York is credited with influencing the octagon trend. Octagon houses were built in Illinois, one at Mendota, thw Warren Clark house.
Professor Fowler authored various works on phrenology. In 1849, he published a small book on the Octagon Mode of building. In the introduction he said he kept asking himself ... "Why so little progress in architecture when there is so much in other matters? Why not take our pattern from nature? Her forms are most spherical." He built his octagon home at Fishkill, New York.
Floor plan of the octagonal house as drawn
by Ralph S. Harrelson
Herndon Harrelson in some ways outdid Fowler in architectural design - especially in following the pattern of nature. The rooms in his house are hexagons, the design of the honey bee. This design is economical both of materials and space occupied. The strength, grace and utility of the cell design of the honey beehas provoked the wonder and awakened the speculation of the naturalist, philosopher and mathematician. It is easy to see that the floor plan in his house conforms to a similar section cut from a honeycomb.
Curious about the source of the architectural design, I made much inquiry. One report said of the designer, "The man had worked on perpetual motion for a long time." I now wonder if professor Fowler delved into this theory also.
This house, known as "The Old Octagonal House", is not an octagon. It does have eight sides. It would be better described as the Hexagon House, or Honeycomb House, since its rooms are hexagons. Outside dimensions are about 35 x 40 feet. Hand-hewn native oak sills are set on sandstone pillars. There is a cellar under one room walled with sandstone, entered from the inside by a narrow stairway. Three fireplaces are faced and supported with sandstone slabs. The windows large.
The half-hex porches and hexagonal hall are squeezed a bit. A beautiful circular stairway once graced the hall, having a solid walnut handrail, newel and balustrade. The stairway shipped from Chicago to Tamaroa, was hauled by ox-wagon to the site. Other finished lumber and trim came down the Ohio to Shawneetown and up the Goshen Road by ox-wagon. Much of it was poplar, but some was pine and cypress. The nails were the square cut variety.
The roof is a modified half-tower on each end, with a stretch of common rafters fore and aft. It is said only one piece failed to fit as cut. With all the tangents and compound angles, some small infringement on perfection may have occurred ... being conveniently camouflaged by sleight of hand remedial carpentry. Twin consoles artistically adorn the cornice circuit.
This old house, set among ancient walnut trees, towers majestically heavenward, though scarred with age and vandalism. One ancient oak vies with the age of Hamilton County.
As one drives the old trail in front of this old mansion, strolls on the lawn around it, he is forced to think of bygone days. This old house, once the amiable home where many felt the warm hospitality that its occupants offered; is one of the State's most unusual structures.
This Old House (Reprinted by permission from Goshen Trails - Volume 10, Number 1 - January, 1974): On a Saturday Night, October 13, 1973 an old historic landmark vanished from our county. The Octagonal House, sometimes called the Eight-sided house, the Harrelson house, the Round house and the Honeycomb house, burned to the ground.
Built in Flannigan Township more than one hundred years ago by Herndon Harrelson, it was the first and only one of its kind in our county. In an era when men were building the conventional type dwellings of that day this gentleman dared to defy convention and build a house foreign in design to this region.
It opened its doors as its owner opened his heart to the neighbors, the orphans and the wayfaring stranger at the gate.
Many stories have been written about this house but who can fathom its mysteries? Its picture has been on or in many magazines and periodicals. Local artists and poets have used it as a subject for their talents.
When in 1971 the Historic Structures Survey sought out old historic buildings in our county, it was chosen as a first.
Photo taken by Ralph S. Harrelson
of house before it was destroyed
by fire on October 13, 1973.
People have come from many places to view its majestic splendor as it proudly stood beside an early pioneer trail.
It is said of old soldiers, "They never die, they just fade away." It seems as tho' this quotation too, could be said of old houses. Although its sides were riven and torn, its walls defaced, the beautiful staircase gone, and the fireplaces torn out, it still stood with quiet dignity beside the road. No, it wasn't permitted to "Just fade away." All that is left now is a pile of brick, a mound of ashes and a memory, a memory that will long live in the hearts of those who often enjoyed a visit there. As we would climb the climbing stairs and stand on the south porch looking out into the far horizon, it was a place of peaceful solitude and gave a feeling of nearness to God.
If you detect a sadness in my voice or see a tear on my cheek, it is because this old house has passed from the sight of mortal eyes, never to be seeen again. May this inspire us to preserve, restore and maintain the historic old buildings of our county which are a part of our rich heritage.
And so ends my eulogy to a house. -- Dessie Hunt Harrelson (Read at October meeting of Hamilton County Historical Society).
(Reprinted by permission from Goshen Trails - Volume 3, Number 1 - January, 1967)
(4/11/97 - Copyright 1997 by Ralph Harrelson)