Barbed wire does not seem like much of a novelty anymore, but in the late nineteenth century when I. L. Ellwood, one of its inventors, debuted his unique version of the fencing, it made him a trade baron to be reckoned with. While Ellwood’s was not the first barbed wire, the demand for his patented version far outpaced those of his competitors. By 1879, Ellwood’s fortune was as secure as the livestock his wire corralled, and he intended to illustrate that fact to the world with his lavish new mansion on First Street in DeKalb, Illinois.
At its creation, the Ellwood estate included a horse farm, a water tower and hothouse, and a spacious, stylish mansion that included a solarium, a three-story cantilevered staircase, and a ballroom.
The Ellwoods intended to send a message a pointed as their fortune-fostering barbs: we’re in charge now, take heed.
Within a few short decades, Ellwood’s message forcefully delivered and sharply underscored, he departed the mansion for greater rewards, leaving it to his son. By that time, the Ellwood estate had become both more of the town of DeKalb – no longer set apart in the country – and more of a family compound, with several marriage-gift houses decorating the mansion’s perimeter. Upon inheriting, Ellwood’s son decided the Victorian excess of the mansions façade was altogether too frau, so he refaced it, adding a porch, porte cochere, and restyling much of the interior in a style considered Colonial and English Country at the time. The second-generation Ellwoods, well-accustomed to their influence and splendor, wished to cordon off the newness of their fortune and the foibles of their parvenu father and so, just as they hid the mansion’s Victoriana with a blue-blood colonial colonnade, they assumed a gentrified countenance disinterested in origin stories or the overdecoration of the past – except when one circles round the mansion, that is.
Nestled just behind the ponderous mansion is a pint-sized Queen Anne-style Victorian-era child’s playhouse from 1891. Despite the new owners’ wish to eradicate much of the nineteenth century from the property, this six-foot tall, fully decorated playhouse proclaims its enduring dominance as the source of the family’s prominence. Starting originally as a salesman’s sample created as a parade float to advertise the builders’ abilities, one of the Ellwood’s spied it in some parade and decided that their children simply could not do without it. The family immediately snapped it up and brought it home, filling it up with appropriate furniture, crockery, curtains and all the requisite finery demanded by Ellwood children at playtime. It’s a wondrous, if Lilliputian, trip back in time to visit: everything about it boasts perfect scale and refinement, and photos do little to reveal its diminutive stature. More wondrous, still is the fact that any adult can enter the space from behind if one is willing to stoop and shimmy forth into the past. From inside, the vistas of the mansion and grounds appear even more imposing, but what strikes one most prominently is the superior hominess of the long-disused parade float and the fact that the fence around the property’s perimeter is wood, not wire.