Article written October 22, 2009, for MCHS newsletter, Vol. 22, No. 3, 2009.
A couple of months ago I became engaged in an interesting conversation with a fellow. He had asked me why we in the history field, and society in general, tend to refer to houses by either the first or most prominent owner’s name or by the architect’s name. Why don’t the names of the houses change to that of the current owner or to an owner who has done restoration work? That’s a good question, something I had never thought about until he broached the subject.
I suppose the answer is that human beings are lazy creatures and it seems easiest to stick with one house name, rather than keep changing it as owners change. We also tend to be impressed with fame and wealth, so if a house has had a famous or wealthy owner (or architect), we feel a sense of gossipy pride in pointing out a house with such pedigree to our acquaintances. “That’s the Lindbergh house, don’t cha know?”
Our habitually slothful or boastful behavior, however, doesn’t necessarily serve historic memory. If we keep referring to a house by its first owner long after that owner has passed on, we do a disservice to the owners who come after and the effects they have had on the structure. (Although it can be argued that it’s better to forget owners who trash a house. But then we may be accused of whitewashing history.)
There is another house-naming convention that could be adopted to neutralize the favoritism shown to particular house owners and their history. Around the time I had the house-naming conversation, a friend sent me a link to an item for sale on eBay. It was a 1905 advertisement selling Major Ashley Morrill’s house north of Little Falls. Major Morrill’s house was an über-fancy thing at the confluence of the Little Elk and Mississippi Rivers. It was often referred to as a mansion and, I’m not going to lie, we at MCHS typically call it by its owner’s name – the Major Morrill house. The ad, however, revealed a different name for the home – Elk Ridge Estate.
Here it is … a solution to calling homes by any owner’s name. Give the house its own distinctive name, one that can travel through time, speak to the house’s personality, and live through whatever history it endures. No favoritism or whitewashing displayed through this strategy. And there is at least a minor historical precedent for it on the local scene as well. Take Elk Ridge Estate, for example, or the Motley Castle. The Charles Weyerhaeuser home in Little Falls was called Homeland. After the Weyerhaeuser family moved away from Little Falls in 1920 and the neighboring Richard Musser family added the Weyerhaeuser home to its estate, the property became known as Linden Hill.
Farmers in Morrison County were much better at naming their farms than homeowners were at naming their homes. The 1892 Morrison County plat book is littered with farm names, such as Orchard Grove Farm, Spring Brook Farm, Evergreen Farm, Rock Dell Stock Farm, Hazel Hurst Farm, and Sunnyside Farm. There were a few farms named for their owners (Chapman Hill Stock Farm, Oestreich Farm), but these were the exception, not the rule.
Farmers continue the farm-naming practice to this day. Why don’t homeowners follow suit? A descriptive moniker would be a lot better than calling a house by its list of owners, as in the Jodon, Brown, Picotte, Tanner, Roberts & Abrahamson house. Sounds like a law firm, doesn’t it? Why not adopt an elegant solution in naming houses?
If you own a home, what descriptive name would you give it?
By Mary Warner
Copyright 2009, Morrison County Historical Society