Cooksville resident offering historic limestone home for relocation

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Neil Johnson
Wednesday, July 24, 2013

TOWN OF PORTER—Want a historic stone house? It's being offered up for free.

All you'll have to do is pay to move it someplace else.

Here's the rub: It's built of 180 tons of solid limestone with walls two feet thick. And it's 163 years old.

A rural Cooksville property owner is enlisting the help of the Historic Cooksville Trust to relocate the former Harrison Stebbins home, a nationally registered, historic limestone home built on one of Rock County's earliest farmsteads.  

Ted Keehn, whose family owns the home, says he's trying to find someone who'd be willing to pay a house-moving contractor to relocate it. The house has been since Keehn's father, Earl, died in March.

In 2008, Keehn built his own home just 150 feet from the house, in part to continue farming the surrounding land, but also to be near his father, who had lived in the old house since 1950.

Now, Keehn said, he's paying taxes on a vacant, aging property he has no intention of living in or renting out. He said he's given himself a deadline and an ultimatum: either get the house moved by fall, or, likely, it will have to be torn down.

Keehn, a Dane County highway department worker, grew up in the 2,400-square-foot, four-bedroom Federal/Greek Revival-style farmhouse. For that reason, he's sensitive about the situation.

Hanging in the balance is a home Keehn spent his entire childhood in, and a residence that originally was the home of Harrison Stebbins, who in the mid-1800s was a prominent Janesville educator, farmer, state legislator and mill owner, according to Rock County Historical Society records.

The house, which stands like a square-bodied sentinel on a hillside off Wilder Road, was once a hotspot for dances and social gatherings for Cooksville area residents.

The house took the brunt of an outbreak of seven tornadoes on Palm Sunday in 1965 and survived unscathed, even though the twisters ravaged nearby fields and homes and left swaths of debris scattered for miles, according to historical records.

All true, yet Keehn said his options are limited.

“I realize it'd break a lot of hearts in Cooksville if this house went down, but here are the shoes I'm in—I just don't have the resources to fix it or maintain it,” he said.

Historic Cooksville Trust coordinator Larry Reed said he caught wind of the Stebbins House dilemma shortly after Keehn's father died.

Reed's initial words to Keehn: “I said, 'Oops, no, we don't want to demolish it.'”

Reed's trust has served to help preserve local historic properties in Cooksville, a tiny burg of 75 residents about seven miles north of Evansville.

Reed said the Cooksville trust is not able to provide funding for relocation of the house, but it wanted to find a way to help save the historic property from ruin. He began to look into the option of relocating the Stebbins House, possibly to another location.

Reed reached out to an Albany-area contractor who moves houses. The contractor tested the home recently and found its limestone exterior and plaster interior stable enough to move, Reed and Keehn said.

“He (the contractor) said it could be moved quite easily—a piece of cake,” Reed said.

“Easy” is a relative term. The house would have to be cut off its original stone foundation, lifted with a series of hydraulic jacks and then skewered with steel girders before it could be loaded onto a truck and moved down local roadways to a new site.

Reed said there are a handful of potential parcels in and around Cooksville where the house could be relocated.

Now all that's missing is someone who wants the house—and who'd be willing to pay for relocation. Keehn said moving the house could cost about $40,000, plus the potential cost of land to put it on.

That fee would include the contractor digging a hole for a foundation at a new site, and placing the house on pilings above it, Reed said.

“Obviously, it's costly to move, but a free house is a good deal,” he said.

Reed said because the house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, an investor could possibly find state tax credits that could offset costs of relocation or later renovations. The house would need interior renovations and replacement of its original front porch, which is rotted, and crumbled off about a year ago.

A wooden frame addition on the house could be moved, too, if an investor wanted, Keehn said.

Keehn has asked for the address of the property to be withheld because he and his wife live on the property. He's concerned about people trespassing to get a glimpse of the old home.

The Cooksville Trust is working with Keehn to handle inquiries from potential investors.

Keehn said within the last few weeks he's been in touch with an Evansville investor who has expressed interest in moving the home, but a deal has not solidified.

“Larry and I kind of left it that we've got this channel open to try to relocate the house. So we've said, 'OK, let's just exhaust that idea,'” Keehn said.

For now, the clock is ticking on the future of the old Stebbins Home. Keehn said whether the house moves or is torn down, it'll be odd to step outside his new home and see an empty hillside where a big stone house always stood.

“You know, it's change. We're hoping to save it," he said. "We're realists, but we're hoping."

Last updated: 2:29 pm Wednesday, July 24, 2013

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