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updated: 4/26/2010 2:11 PM

Owners of Geneva's McKinley-Adams house seek national recognition

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  • Adam Gibbons is a history teacher and genealogy buff and has filled his historic home with pictures from its past. The McKinley-Adams house at Kirk and Hill roads in Geneva has been designated a Kane County historical landmark.

      Adam Gibbons is a history teacher and genealogy buff and has filled his historic home with pictures from its past. The McKinley-Adams house at Kirk and Hill roads in Geneva has been designated a Kane County historical landmark.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer


A couple of transplants are taking root in Geneva history, preserving the home of one of the area's first settlers.

A love of history led Adam and Heidi Gibbons to Geneva when they were looking for a larger home in preparation for extending their family tree.

"I refused to look at anything built after 1929," said Heidi Gibbons.

They would have preferred to stay in a closer-in suburb, such as where they were living in Downers Grove. But for the size they wanted, the prices were cheaper in Kane County.

"This was the edge. We knew we could only afford to get more space by moving west," Heidi said.

And so they found the house George McKinley built, circa 1838, after he moved from civilized New York state to the frontier in Illinois.

Now, thanks to their love of history, the home has been designated a Kane County historic landmark last year, and may be on its way to being listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The building

The two-story timber-frame blue house is on the northwest corner of Kirk and Hill roads, just north of Geneva. That's not its original site, however. It was moved in the 1960s from East State Street to Kirk Road, to make way for commercial and industrial development. A McDonald's restaurant sits where its barn was.

The Gibbons bought it in 2006.

The basement reveals a history lesson in construction - and proof of the building's age.

In the oldest part, the first-floor joists are white oak logs. You can still feel the rough bark, and see the marks from the broadax that hewed the timber. This indicates the house was built before the first lumber mill opened in the area.

Mortise-and-tenon joints hold things together; there are almost no nails, which would have been a precious commodity in the 1830s frontier.

An addition was put on, using 3-inch joists, commonly used before the Civil War. By the time of its third addition, circular and sash saws were being used to cut the 2-inch beams, Gibbons points out.

He points out details in how stair railings were carved, the heart-of-pine floors throughout and how the windows in a family room are two-over-two double-pane handblown glass.

There have been no major structural changes since the 1880s, other than the addition of bathrooms.

"It's older than I thought it was," Gibbons said.

The families

George McKinley moved to the area in May 1838, before an 1839 federal survey and the 1841 Pre-Emption Act. Gibbons has copies of the paperwork McKinley filed with the federal government to retain the land.

Like many settlers of northern Illinois, McKinley came from New York - something he has in common with Adam Gibbons, who was raised in Williamsville, N.Y.

McKinley sold the house and farm to Joseph Adams; Adams to the Joy family; the Joys to the Snows. They lived in it until 1963, when it was moved across farm fields to its present site. It passed through several more hands until the Gibbonses bought it.

Adam Gibbons has struck up a friendship with DeWitt Snow.

"DeWitt and Adam are two peas in a pod: they never toss anything," Heidi Gibbons said. Adam has tried to contact all living former residents of the house, and displays photos of them throughout.

Gibbons revels in research and documentation. He has maps of 1892 Geneva framed on his walls, a 1939 aerial photograph of eastern Geneva, an 1871 atlas of Kane County. He has a copy from the National Archives of George McKinley's pre-emption documents. He's looked up all the deeds, back to the original in 1843. He's tracking down more Joy family descendants, in California.

The decor reflects their love of history and old things (although they do have modern appliances.) There's a 446-year-old German church pew in their kitchen.

"I just sort of like to decorate with antiques," Adam Gibbons said.

"But its livable. It's not a museum. We just use all the things," including eating every day at his great-grandmother's kitchen table.

Just because they like old houses doesn't mean the Gibbons are going to restore it to original conditions. The Gibbons recognize their limitations.

"We aren't quite in that category of people who can take it down to the studs," she said of their repair and restoration skills.

Personal history

This is from a woman who spent the first three years of her life in a converted North Carolina tobacco barn, sans electricity.

"My parents wanted to live off the land as much as they could," she said of the place, which the family still owns.

The Gibbonses were kindred souls, from the first time they spoke to each other by phone (she was assisting him with research.)

"He asked, 'What's your ancestry?'" Heidi Gibbons said. They found out they had relatives who came over from England on the same ship in 1727.

He went to Northwestern University. He liked the Chicago area, so came back after getting a graduate degree at Wake Forest University, becoming a social science teacher at Riverside-Brookfield High School. Heidi teaches social studies at Herget Middle School in Aurora.

Next step

Gibbons has started work on the application for getting on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately, although McKinley is considered a Geneva settler, the house can't be listed on the City of Geneva's registry, because it is now in unincorporated Geneva Township. Adam Gibbons did look up a lot of information in the archives at the Geneva History Center, however.

The Gibbonses say their neighbors have told them they think the house is haunted.

But now that the house is owned by people who appreciate its history, "we think the ghosts are content," Gibbons said.