SHOAFF HOME, FORGOTTEN HISTORY
Weather and lack of interest conspire to destroy Shoaff mansion.
Shoaff home once a haven for road-weary settlers.
By Ron French of the News-Sentinal
The historic Shoaff house is one of the oldest in Allen County. The house may have been used as an inn, with settlers renting rooms until their homes could be built. Now in disrepair, the house may face demolition.
Along Shoaff Road, past a monotony of ranch houses and modular homes, Barb Dawson wrestles with history. She and her husband Dan, own one of the oldest brick homes in the county, a brick behemoth rich in lore but poor in condition. Dawson looked at the sagging, cracked structure and frowned. “We want to build out here and tear it down,” she said. “It’s a shame.”
One of only a handful of brick homes in the county dating to the 1840s, the house is crumbling from years of neglect and lack of interest. The Dawsons would sell the house for a song to anyone willing to move it from their property, but there have been no takers.
“I think it would be a tragedy to see it come down,” said John Martin Smith, an Auburn attorney and avid historian. “It is a very early house that is significant historically, with irreplaceable woodwork and architecture.”
Allen County histories are sketchy on the origins of the home and the family who built it. It is known that one of the earliest settlers of Eel River Township was John P. Shoaff, who left Miami County, Ohio, in 1836. His brother, David, came a few years later. David Shoaff built a road connecting the settlements of Huntertown and Heller’s Corners. In 1843, along the road that would later bear the family name, he built a home for his brother.
By pioneer terms, it was a mansion. While many of the settlers who dotted the heavily forested area lived in log cabins, the Shoaff home was a two-story, federal-style, brick showpiece.
From the front door, road-wear travelers would enter a foyer dominated by an open staircase. To the left was a living room; to the right was a two-room master bedroom suite. The kitchen was as big as some log homes.
Led up the stairs, the visitors would see one large bedroom, and two smaller bedrooms. Six fireplaces, their mantels carved of black walnut, kept the home warm.
People familiar with the lore of the old home tell various stories. Some say it was once used as a roadside tavern. Others say it was a stagecoach stop or that Pony Express riders stayed overnight at the home. The most often-told tale is that the home was used as an inn, with settlers renting rooms until their homes could be built.
“In those days, when you had the only house within five miles, people tended to stay overnight with you,” said Smith, who has toured the home several times. John Shoaff wasn’t related to the Shoaff family that prospered in Fort Wayne proper. But he was well-known in the rural area he called home until his death in 1887. He became a township trustee and township justice.
In 1862, he was elected to the Indiana General Assembly. About that same time the home probably was remodeled, Smith said. Empire-style woodwork of black walnut was put on top of the simpler woodwork.
Three generations of Shoaffs lived in the home, watching the forests turn into fields and buggies give way to the first flivvers. The home changed hands several times after the turn of the century, before Granvill and Ester Dawson bought the house and farm in 1943.
Dan and Barb Dawson became the third generation of Dawsons to own the brick home when Dan Dawson’s uncle, Cal Dawson, died seven years ago.
Barb Dawson stepped carefully through what once was the master bedroom. Now, its occupant is a great Dane! “I never saw it when it was really neat,’ she said. “It’s been empty for seven years. Cal was old and couldn’t keep up the house. He was never married so even all the years he was here, it was really run down. It probably hasn’t had proper care in 30 years.”
Some of the windows are broken. Gray paneling covers the walls. Old drop-ceiling panels are gray with age. Years of water damage have left a large crack through the bricks on the southeast side of the home. The wooden porch sags sorrowfully. The house that has been home to nine families now is occupied by three dogs.
“My husband wanted to fix it up and move in,” Barb Dawson said. But building contractors who examined the home convinced them otherwise. “They said the foundation is just gone,” she said. “It’s a miracle it’s still standing, really.”
Gene Murray, a family friend, approached ARCH officials several years ago with a proposal that the historic preservation group move the home and restore it. “They said it was out of the city, and there was nothing they could do,” Murray said. “It’s really rich in Allen County history and I think it’s a shame.” ARCH board member, Madelane Elston said she’s not familiar with the house, and that its location outside of Fort Wayne wouldn’t matter to ARCH.
Smith was interested in moving the home a year ago. “I had a mover look at it,” Smith said. “The roof would have to be taken off and possibly the house split in two lengthwise. But it could be moved.” Moving the house probably would cost between $10,000 and $12,000. Currently, no one is interested. The Dawsons are getting tired of waiting. They don’t know when – maybe this year, maybe next – but the house will be torn down. They want to leave their Huntertown home and live on the farm where they raise hogs and farm about 80 acres of corn and soybeans.
The woodwork would be salvaged. The house would be demolished and burned. The rubble would be buried in the dirt John Shoaff first walked on 154 years ago. Smith hates to see it disappear. “That is probably one of the earliest brick houses in Northeast Indiana,” Smith said. “In my opinion it could be moved.”