By Tara L. Cale
Six Mile Prairie, located in the American Bottom six miles from St. Louis, was first settled in the 1830s by American farm families who migrated from the upland south. With their crude farm implements, these pioneers broke through tough prairie sod to grow crops in this rich bottomland, once called the “Garden Spot of the State.”
The Six Mile Prairie boasted a stagecoach stop on the National Road and grew prosperous supplying produce to the growing city of St. Louis. The community loved the strategic location of the Six Mile Community. And even though a cholera epidemic wiped out much of the area’s population in 1849, the Six Mile Community rebounded and continued to grow as an agricultural settlement.
William Emmert was only five years old when he arrived at the Six Mile area with his mother and sisters in 1822. He began working for farmers in the area at age 12 and by the time he was 20 had saved enough money to buy a 40-acre farm. Construction of his farmhouse began in 1937. The I-type house, characterized by its rectangular shape, two-story height, and two-room-wide-one-room-deep floor plan, was popular in housing found throughout the midwest from the 1830s through 1900s. A year later he married a local, Susan Stewart. The couple’s family grew, and so did their home. A rear, one-story kitchen was added first. A summer kitchen was constructed in 1848.
Emmert became interested in fruit and vegetable production and became a leading horticulturist in the area. He supplied the St. Louis markets with a variety of fruits and also began experimenting with pruning, pest control, and more. During the Civil war, Emmert sold large quantities of fruits and vegetables to the Union Army.
Emmert also took an interest in horse racing and constructed two racetracks – one near his home for practice – and one about a mile away for actual races. Crowds from St. Louis came to bet on races at his track every Sunday afternoon.
At the time of his death in 1881, Emmert owned 460 acres of land. The property was eventually sold by his heirs to a German couple, August and Elizabeth Zippel, who immediately began making changes to update the home to current styles, including the addition of a brick smokehouse to the southwest, which still stands.
Granite City grew to become a major steel-producing center and that industry ended the need for Six Mile. By the 1960s the Six Mile Community was incorporated into the city’s boundaries. Most of the 460 acres of the farmland was developed into subdivisions, shopping centers, and schools. At that time the Zippel’s children owned what was left of the property and deeded it to the Shriner’s Hospital (early 80s).
James Engelke, who was involved in the recently organized Old Six Mile Historical Society, approached the Shriner’s about purchasing the house and land to form a museum. An agreement was made and work began to renovate the old farmhouse which included acquiring period furnishings and historical items from the community. His mother, Georgia, led the effort, assisted by determined volunteers. Hundreds of hours were dedicated to cleaning and restoring the home, holding fundraisers and tours to pay the mortgage, all in an effort to restore the home to its late 1800s appearance.
Georgia contacted the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency in 1986 to inquire about placing the farmhouse museum in Granite City on the National Register of Historic Places. But she received bad news. The farmhouse’s original clapboard siding had been covered with asbestos siding that significantly altered the historic character of the building and it is agency policy not to support the nomination of buildings covered with synthetic siding. But she saw beyond that obstacle.
At the advice from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA), the synthetic siding was removed, repairs were made to the original clapboard siding (that was still in good condition), and Georgia sent in a new application to apply for the National Register designation. Without going into numerous details, the house was finally listed in the National Register of Historic Places, 25 years ago, on May 2, 1996. This month marks the 25th anniversary of that designation.
The Old Six Mile Museum property has a significant past and represents the historic heritage of the community. The farmhouse, preserved as a museum, occupies the oldest structure in Granite City. The furnishings, which have been donated by pioneer and Victorian families, are from the same historic period and geographical area in which the Emmerts lived from 1837-1884. Each room in the museum has been furnished with period pieces of antique furniture and also displays smaller articles from that era.
The museum itself offers an abundance of printed information about Emmert, his descendants, the Zippels, and their successors… but there is nothing much in print about the efforts of the late James Engelke, his mother Georgia (also deceased), wife Sharon, and daughter Kathy, who have worked long and hard to keep the farmhouse standing, keep the museum alive, and preserve the historic heritage of the Six Mile Community. Nor does it mention Julie McKinney, volunteer extraordinaire, that now spearheads these efforts.
Thirteen years ago Julie, a beekeeper, was driving around looking for a place to put some honey bee colonies. She saw Mr. Engelke at the old homestead and approached him about the idea. He loved it! Julie introduced hives to the grounds and over time, she began to do more for Engelke, including planting a garden, flowers, and other flora that not only beautified the property but helped the bees prosper. She started working on the repairs to the house and property too and organized fundraisers to aid in that effort.
“Mr. Engelke passed right before the first honey harvest, and that broke my heart. He didn’t get to see the fruits of that labor,” Julie said. “And until then, I had never met James’ wife, Sharon. We met on the day of his funeral. After that, she and I joined in our efforts to continue with the preservation of the Old Six Mile Museum, and now it continues with their daughter, Kathy.”
The Buzz recently toured the Old Six Mile Museum in Granite City. Upon arriving I was quite surprised. I had driven by this old farmhouse numerous times, never really noticing it, never knowing anything about the history of the property. It made me wonder how many other people pass by on a daily basis, unaware of the story behind it, and the work being done to preserve it.
Tony and I thoroughly enjoyed our time at the Old Six Mile Museum. The ladies are dedicated to the continued repair, preservation, and promotion of the oldest structure in Granite City. Julie is there on a daily basis, tending the flowers, the garden, and the bees – all of which provide products that are sold for funds that go towards the repairs and operation of the museum – local honey, plants, and produce when in season… there are even books that have been donated for sale. And books about the Old Six Mile Museum, written by Georgia Engelke herself, are available for purchase also.
This trio of women do all they can to keep the museum self-sufficient. They collect rainwater for watering the plants and garden and make their own mulch on the property. It’s better for the plants and helps keep costs down. They conduct tours, fundraising events and contact anyone and everyone that will help spread the word about the Old Six Mile Museum. You see, a big old house such as this is in a constant state of a need for repairs, and they don’t come cheap.
Even though I was at the Old Six Mile Museum on “business” I enjoyed it too much to consider it such. I love historic places and the stories behind them. And Julie was quite the knowledgeable tour guide! I was also able to purchase something I have been searching for… flowering plants that do well in the shade. Julie had just potted upstarts of Hellebore, an evergreen perennial flowering plant in the buttercup family. I bought all six that she had ready and the other four she said would also do well in the shade. She has since restocked the supply of plants available and even added to the mix.
If you love history, historic places and care about preserving them, please visit the Old Six Mile Museum in Granite City. Take a tour of this 184-year-old home, buy some plants, books or produce, or consider leaving a donation. The museum and garden can only stay open and operating with the help of donations, the community, and volunteers. This year they are expanding the garden 4-6 times the size of last year’s garden so the community can benefit and the house and museum can be preserved. The museum is always in need of monetary donations, materials, and volunteers. Currently, they are in desperate need of empty pots (4,6,12 pcs, trays, pots of all sizes), potting soil, and gardening equipment (they are down to our last shovel).
The Old Six Mile Museum is located at 3270 Maryville Road in Granite City (Julie said to mention it is at that crazy 4-way stop across from TWIGS Food Pantry). For more information call 618-225-1452. You will probably have to leave a voice mail, as Julie will most likely be out in the garden, but she will get back to you. You can find additional information and photos at Facebook.com/Old Six Mile Museum.