Interview and story by Janet Ferguson
Rheuben Gibson remembers his grandfather, Jim MacDonell as an influence in his own woodworking.
“I studied history at University of Michigan, but I’m a professional woodworker. We used to visit them during the summer from Michigan and I would mess around in my grandfather’s workshop, I sanded a lot for him and had a lot of fun spending summers with him.”
Gibson continued, “He was a Geologist by training and loved nature. He also had a lot of farms around Allen County and I don’t know how it got started but way back he decided probably in the 1970’s to give away trees to all the first graders in town. It started with saplings from his farm and I think most of the red buds or walnut trees around Lima probably came from him giving to the first graders. We figured over the course of his lifetime that he gave away something like 50-60,000 saplings and I believe that is something the Kiwanis continued.”
Most people know the MacDonell House that sits next to the Allen County Museum as a testament to the Victorian period but they might be unfamiliar with the couple that donated it to preserve the history for future generations.
“I remember going to the museum and the house with him,” he said.
“A lot of the houses on the Golden Block were getting torn down and being world travelers they appreciated European architecture and the importance of preserving it so they tried to do that with the house. My grandfather was President of the Allen County Historical Society from 1938-1988 and prior to that my Great Grandmother, Elizabeth MacDonell, was an early trustee.”
Both sets of Gibson’s grandparents were early families in Lima going all the way back to John R. Hughes who was mayor of Lima during the Civil War. “He built what came to be known as the Russell Mansion and Russell was the one who donated it to the WYCA.”
James and Ellen MacDonells knew each other as kids because their mothers were childhood friends and kept in contact over the years. “My grandmother lived on Hollywood Blvd. and Douglas Fairbanks was her neighbors. She had interesting life. Growing up her grandfather lived in Lima and their mothers kept in contact. Grandmother went to school in the east at Wellesley and my grandfather went to Harvard and went into oil and became an Independent Oil producer after his father. Little by little they got to know each other and married in 1936 and settled in Lima.”
The MacDonells had 3 girls, Ann, Janet and Gay. They lived in the house on Market after James’ mother Elizabeth passed away in 1942. “He promised her that he would have a building made for the museum and they had been raising funds for that. The collection was originally housed at Memorial Hall 1938 – 1955. WWII slowed things down. Under his watch they built the original museum. Little by little he started buying up properties around the museum with an eye toward expansion. Because the building was built in 1956 and they decided to move around that time, they decided it would be a beautiful addition to the museum and a nod to Victorian era of that Golden Block. When you look at pictures of that time, some of those homes must have been spectacular. So they officially donated the house to the museum in 1960.”
Although James loved the the house, the woodwork and all the detail; Ellen did not enjoy the coal dust that came from St. Rita’s. “My grandmother said she would clean and clean and then open the linen cabinet and the linens would still have soot on them,” he remembered.
At that Ann had just graduated from Stanford as an interior designer so she her mother decorated the house and secured collectible items. “There were a lot donated over the years. Most of the items in the house are not from our family. Of course there are my grandfather’s trophies and mounts and the dining room furniture is from our family. But this was before Ebay and people were anxious to donate their furnishings and Victorian stuff to the house so they got lucky in the time window. The Victorian Era by itself was an era of classification and collecting and it all kind of gelled together,” gibson explained. “It’s a family joke that now in modern day my grandfather would be a hoarder,” he laughed. But many of his collections are now a part of the Museum.
Some of the collecting carried down the lineage, “My wife laughs at me that if someone says they like a couch I have I can tell them the history of the couch. My mom and my grandparents were good about telling us the stories about where items came from. As a result I am a little bit hesitant to get rid of things but I do have some pretty neat things.”
Gibson remembers his grandmother having each of the grandchildren make a list of things they wanted around her house. “At the time I didn’t think too much about it so some of the things I had on my list were pretty silly,” he explained.
The MacDonells were of a generation that gave very quietly, Gibson shared. “They didn’t want the publicity or their names put on things. The James MacDonell wing was added in his honor while he was alive. My grandmother was even less interested in people knowing what she gave, she gave very discreetly and was very active with WYCA and was a great patron of the arts. They secured original space for art space was on the museum campus originally.”
James also secured a lot of land for the Boys and Girl scouts, “One is in Allen County and one is not but they were for the children of Allen County. He was real active with that and they were very generous towards the Baptist Church on Cable and he used to do a lot with his wood working. He had the cross built at the Baptist Church.”
Gibson also remembers that James had a rock room in his basement, “We would cut geodes on the diamond saw and it was my job to clean and polish them. I would spend hours with a toothbrush trying to get all the grime off. If he knew you were interested something he would help direct you to the best way to find out more about it and further your interest.”
Gay Williams also shared some memories from growing up in the home on Market Street. “It’s interesting, I took it for granted, we pretty much lived in the trophy room where the mounts and the animals are. My father was in Africa on a Geological Convention and the story is that he was the third white person to drive from the Cape to Cairo. I asked him what on earth he thought he was going to do if he had car problems. In his typical way he said he would have dealt with it. He was an adventurer and back then the animals in Africa, unlike today with the poaching, there were an abundance of them, like deer here now. It was a whole different period of time and a different mindset and mentality,” she explained. “We only used the dining room for Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners. We really just used the breakfast room and upstairs. The back room at the top of the back stairs with the purses was our main living area and we were never able to use the attic because so much was stored there, but it would have been fun to have parties there.”
She remembered the front bedroom overlooking Market Street was great for hearing the milkman come. “The Meadow Gold milk truck would come and we could hear the horses clip clop down Market St. and the the bottles had different colored tops for the different kinds of milk.”
Williams also remembers being the only single family home on Market Street by this time. “Everything else were boarding houses and apartments, “Not too many young people were living anywhere around us and we went to Faurot Elementary School and we would walk home for lunch and back to school for the afternoon.”
She remembers, the decision to move out of the house. “My parents finally decided to move, it was so difficult because around that time St. Rita’s burned coal, well we burned coal too, but there was so much soot in the air. You could clean and clean and clean and then open a cabinet door and there was an inch of dust in there.”
It was a work in progress to change the house over to a museum, “It had a lot of our family things in there and as things were donated they would pull ours out to replace it with the donated items. It was a lovely example of a beautiful home from that era it would have been a shame to not save.”
Williams also remembers her parents as very giving to the community. “They certainly were, my mother was a generous philanthropist and didn’t want recognition in return. It was important to them to give back,that was the way they felt.”
Gibson said, “My grandmother would be absolutely mortified about being on the mural and my grandfather would just chuckle, he had a great chuckle.”