History recalls the day as frigid in the extreme, and Abraham Lincoln arrived “blue with cold” after a morning’s ride in an open buggy.
There in Troy, in the Kansas Territory, having spent the days before in St. Joseph and Elwood, the tall Illinoisan talked for two hours in a building that then served as the Doniphan County courthouse.
About 40 people gathered for the speech, and one of them called himself “drawn by the clearness and closeness of his argument. Link after link it was forged and welded, like a blacksmith’s chain.”
A lawyer named Sidney Tennent owned the house about 150 feet east of where Lincoln spoke about slavery in the territories, the first residence built in Troy three years earlier, in 1856. The soon-to-be president was said to have spent time in this house on the day of his speech.
Pete Duncan and Corky Smith know this story, understand it as essential to local heritage. But they also know the story of preserving a tangible part of that history.
The men sit in the 161-year-old building, now known as the Nelson Rodgers House, and sometimes the Tennent-Baker House, and point to walls and doorframes, a fireplace and the ceiling, that once seemed impossibly in disrepair.
Over the course of two decades, and at least 21,560 volunteer hours, they and others saved the residence for future generations.
At times, after starting the work in 1995, the workers who showed up almost every Saturday must have wondered what kind of chore they had brought upon themselves.
“I think we felt that way a lot of times. But we always had a goal in mind, and the end result was important enough that we continued,” Duncan said. “To be honest, I think a lot of us looked forward to being up here every Saturday.”
Smith added, “I don’t regret a day of it. We never had a dispute, not in the least.”
Duncan grew up in Savannah, Missouri, but his forebears had migrated to Doniphan County from Kentucky in the 19th century. A Duncan Creek runs through the county, in the area around Blair.
A Korean War veteran, Duncan retired from the gas utility in St. Joseph in 1992 and found himself with more time to attend Doniphan County Historical Society meetings with Smith, his brother-in-law.
Smith, a native of the county who has an insurance business, had offered to buy the house from Fred Baker, the owner. But the Baker family donated it to the county with the idea of seeing it preserved.
The historical society took on the task. Duncan, who would eventually serve 20 years as the society’s president, organized workdays each Saturday, along with Smith, builder and former Troy mayor Paul Dittemore, Everett Shelton, Phil Benitz and others.
First, volunteers secured the house from the ground up.
“The earth from the west side had come underneath the foundation and was heaving upward, causing the floor to rise,” Duncan said. “Some of the outside boards had rotted away.”
The house got lifted, enabling the foundation to be restored and the beams holding the framework to be replaced. Next, the roof got replaced with wooden shingles, true to the period and required by state regulations for historical integrity.
(The house, built by the first postmaster, Nelson Rodgers, before being sold to Tennent, became listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, part of the Doniphan County Courthouse Square Historic District.)
The workers stripped the plaster down to the lattice, and Smith retained a collection of string, beads, corn kernels and horse hair that had been used as part of the binding material.
A fireplace got rebuilt from bricks gathered from a fallen schoolhouse in Doniphan, an old Missouri River town to the south of Troy. The original floorboards survived, as did many of the mortise and tenon joints.
“The house itself is a demonstration of what a modern house would have been in 1855 on the western frontier when everybody else was living either in a log cabin or a maybe a dugout,” Smith said.
School groups can see it that way, an example of Doniphan County’s past. And students can later learn of Lincoln’s speech in Troy. Some historians call it a rhetorical forerunner to the Cooper Union speech two months later, the one that thrust Lincoln into national prominence.
In this small, now preserved, house, the man who would save the Union spent time one cold day.