By Craig Moorhead
The Caledonia Argus
Restoration work has began on one of oldest family-owned homes in the city of Houston, thanks to H.A.P.I., a recently-established 501(c) (3).
The Houston Area Preservation Initiative has chosen the 1878 Nels and Emma Forsyth home as their initial long-term project, and the group hopes that it will lead to more historic conservation efforts in the future.
“Nels was my great-uncle, my grandfather’s brother,” H.A.P.I. member Bryan Forsyth told the Argus last week. “Basically it’s been in the same family for 140 years.”
Bryan’s wife, Diane, serves as president of the organization. “We think it’s the oldest intact family-owned home (in Houston) that has been continually owned by the same family,” she said. “That’s one reason we wanted to preserve it, because there’s not much left like that around here, and it’s a good example of Norwegian immigrants coming here and beginning their life. This is kind of prime real estate here in Houston.”
It’s true. The site (301 Maple Street) has remained high and dry through numerous floods, and the home still retains a flock of supporting structures, including a barn, harness shop/granary, a small separate building once used as an office, and a summer kitchen. “It’s like a compact farm,” H.A.P.I. Member Jim Skree noted.
Walking just to the east of the home, Bryan Forsyth pointed to an unassuming but straight structure. “This was the office for the barn,” he said. “They had a dray line (wagon transport company) out here. Sometimes they’d have 35 guys hauling freight out of the railroad, lumber from La Crosse, even running postal routes...”
Over the years, Nels Forsyth had more irons in the fire than the dray business. According to local historians, he managed the L.R. Hall General Store, harvested ice which was used throughout Houston in warmer months, cut firewood for the railroad, and served as a Houston County deputy sheriff for 52 years. He passed away in 1935, but the property - as noted – has remained with family members.
“We were hoping to preserve and restore the house so that we can have small venues for arts and culture in Houston,” Diana Forsyth stated. “The Apollo Music Festival is here, usually in August/September, and they do lessons and have small group sessions with students, things like that.”
The Southeast Minnesota Arts Council also sent several visual artists who sketched the house recently, H.A.P.I. members noted. In addition, Miranda Moen did some work on the house when she was part of the Crystal Creek Artist Residency program. Her talks to visitors explained that it represents a typical house built at that time by Norwegian immigrants, enforcing Diane Forsyth’s observations.
Local communities have venues of various sizes for events such as wedding receptions, musical performances, and historic presentations, members noted. But “this wouldn’t be for large gatherings,” Diane Forsyth said, “we are kind of a small group, and it would be nice to have small gatherings. We also talked about maybe having tours of it when it gets restored.”
H.A.P.I. member Ron Evenson, a former City of Houston mayor and city council member, said that “It would be really nice to have this thing looking really good by 2024, because that’s the 150th anniversary of the charter of the city (of Houston).”
The organization includes officers, such as the aforementioned president, as well as a vice president, secretary, and treasurer. Allison Wagner of the Houston County EDA also serves as project director, members stated.
Skree added he hopes the Forsyth project may encourage others to keep historic structures “intact and looking good.” In addition, H.A.P.I. may be able to provide a sort of “umbrella” of support for those who are trying to preserve historic buildings in the area.
As a 501 (c) (3), the organization is seeking grant funding as well as accepting private donations of funds from community members. Tax deductible donations may be sent to HAPI, P.O. Box 292, Houston, MN, 55943.