Historic preservation {guest post by Kent Carlson}

Original farm house, sitting at the State Fairgrounds, a very early Des Moines home, is under threat of demolition
Original farm house, a very early Des Moines home, is under threat of demolition


The following is a guest post by Kent Carlson, who has restored a few historic structures in his lifetime. Kent wrote a favorable editorial about the Maplenol Barn back in January 2011. He now writes about the original homestead that is being threatened by the Iowa State Fair Board of Directors. The State Fair and tradition seem to go hand in hand (quite the opposite of the school district’s treatment of its alumni) so removal of the house is rather shocking to the community.


  • “Like” the Homestead’s Facebook page (you do not need to belong to Facebook to do this). Kent says I compelled him to start the page, but hey, it needed to be done. There are 80 fans of the house as of this writing. I’d personally like to see it grow to 1000 by the time the fair board meets in Jan. 2012. Which leads me to the next action below.
  • Contact the State Fair Board. I will post info for doing this in the following days, but not on this blog. Go to www.savethebarn.com for that info. Let the board know that you want the house spared from demolition by Jan. 10, 2012.


On December 1, 2011 a Des Moines Register article reported the Iowa State Fair Board announced their intentions of destroying the original homestead house on the State Fairgrounds. The State Fair CEO, Gary Slater, said the homestead’s barn was the iconic structure. The house has been labeled “intrusive.” Unfortunately, there is evidence that the State Fair Board has made no attempt at due diligence before arriving at their decision. A glaring example is the State Fair’s Blue Ribbon Commission’s erroneous claim that the nearby barn was constructed in 1837. That is 11 years before the farm was homesteaded and 6 years before Fort Des Moines was established.

Concerned with both the lack of information, and the misinformation about the original homestead, I decided somebody needed to investigate the property’s history. Following is what I unearthed. I think the information in it’s entirety indicates the justification for saving the historic home that should be accurately called the Harris/Thornton home.

John Harris was born September 4, 1796 at Deep River, Guilford, North Carolinain. This was during George Washington’s term as President. He was born to Benjamin and Margaret England Harris, who were both born in the same area years before the Declaration of Independence was penned. John Harris was one of 15 children. His journey took him from his native North Carolina to Wayne County, Indiana where he met and married Nancy Harvey in 1817. In 1819, John Harris accidentally shot and killed Nancy’s youngest brother while deer hunting. Between 1826 and 1839, John and Nancy had five children, all born in Indiana.

John Harris’ older brother, Pleasant Harris, was one of the first residence of Johnson County, Iowa. He homesteaded in May of 1837 when the area was the Wisconsin Territory. His wife gave birth to one of the first children there and he was one of first territorial judges. He served in in the Fifth Legislative Assembly representing Johnson and Muscatine counties in 1842. He was among the first handful of men who organized a claims association for land in 1837. Pleasant Harris returned several times to Indiana, bringing back friends and relatives. To illustrate the realities of the day, in May, 1838, Johnson county had 39 male residents subject to taxation. There were in the county 22 horses and 106 working cattle over three years old, but only four hogs and no sheep. There were seven watches and nine clocks scattered among the settlers. Cash on hand was scarce, apparently, for only three settlers were thus blessed, the aggregate amount being $190. The total tax was $46.74 on an assessed valuation of $9,298.50. The richest man in the county was Judge Pleasant Harris, the assessed valuation of his property being $828.50.

It’s unknown if or when John Harris returned with his brother, but it is likely he joined Pleasant in one of the return trips to what was to become Iowa. Pleasant Harris died in 1844, two years before Iowa became a state.

In April of 1848, Harris and a group of early pioneers met at Fort Des Moines to help establish a method for settlers to safely stake their land claims, just as his brother had done 11 years earlier in Johnson, County. John Harris staked his claim where the Iowa State Fairgrounds now exists. By 1850, John and Nancy Harris had 5 children and $2,000 worth of real estate. The 1860 census states the value of John Harris’s real estate as $12,000. Nancy passed away in 1853, and John in 1864. Both are buried in the ancient Sim’s Cemetery just 800 yards from his homestead. John Harris is the oldest “resident” of the cemetery. The cemetery was within eyesight of his home.

After his death, the land passed down to his daughter, Araminta Harris Thornton and her brothers. Araminta’s husband, Calvin Thornton was born in Illinois in 1830, the fourth of ten children. His father followed his brother, Riley who came to Polk County in 1846. Calvin visited in 1848, but didn’t return to Ft Des Moines until 1850, after completing an apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker. He bought farmland in 1851, became Delaware Township clerk, Director of the School District and President of the School Board. He was the township’s first Justice of the Peace. He married Araminta in 1854 and they had seven children. Calvin and Araminta took possession of the farm after selling their own place and settling with John Harris’ heirs. In 1886 he sold the farm to the Iowa State Fair Board and bought a farm in what is now the heart of Pasadena, California. The 1890 census listed Calvin as “Orchardist.” He died in 1908 at age 78. Araminta died one month short of her ninetieth birthday in 1921.

It’s unclear at what point the home was enlarged. The Thornton’s had 7 children, the last being born in 1875, the year the Andreas Atlas produced an etching of the house. At that time it appears to be in it’s original form. By 1920, the home had 7 bedrooms, a full-size 3rd floor attic, 5 porches (including 2 on the second floor). The kitchen was large, having 7 doors and 5 windows.

Henry Floyd Deets was 7 years old when his father built a house on E 30th across from the fairgrounds entrance. The fair had located to the site just 6 years earlier. A bored Henry Deets found himself hanging around the fairgrounds. It wasn’t too long before he was hired to count attendees as they entered the fairgrounds. By age 14 he was a water boy. However in 1921 he was hired as the first full-time Maintenance Superintendent. That same year his son, Floyd Deets was born. Henry held the position for 40 years. Then it was Floyd’s turn. He worked as the Maintenance Superintendent until 1985. For 64 years, the Deets family resided in the house. For many years the house was the home to Fair Board members during the fair. Today, Floyd and his wife still live in Des Moines.

In 1950 a decision was made to literally chop the top of the house off. Heating the house had become a concern, so it was downsized. Later, other modifications and alterations were made. Today there is little evidence of the original fabulous Carpenter Gothic architecture. But a visit to the west side of the house reveals the original bay window, somehow miraculously spared.

In 1987 the Iowa State Fair applied for a listing as a historic district with National Register of Historic Places. Local architect and historian William Wagner helped in the application. In the process the home was labeled “intrusive.” Mr. Wagner is a beloved man to many local preservationists. He was involved with a number of important historic renovations. But he wasn’t above making a mistake now and then as he admitted to by sandblasting the brick of Terrace Hill during the restoration. My guess is if he was asked today about the “intrusive” designation of the Harris/Thornton House today, he would rethink that decision. For one thing, it’s nearly a quarter of a century since that statement was made, and in that time Des Moines has lost dozens, if not hundreds of historic buildings. That makes what’s left all the more important.

State Fair CEO Gary Slater has stated the Harris/Thornton’s barn is more iconic to the property than the family home. Had the barn been the site of the Holy Manger, he might have a point. But the Iowa pioneer families that built, maintained, and farmed the property lived in the house, not the barn. They were the folks that quite literally created Iowa. Eliminating the house destroys the context of the entire site. One could not, and did not exist without the other. The site has lost every other outbuilding that previously existed. And the building that the State Fair Board considers “iconic” is now home to grape stomping and wine tasting. Did I mention John Harris was a Quaker?

One of the most recognizable paintings in the world depicts the most iconic structure in Iowa: “American Gothic.” The Harris/Thornton home originally shared the same architectural style. A restored Harris/Thornton home would provide an iconic signature piece to the Iowa State Fair while educating young and old about the pioneers that created the Iowa we know today. It is a most unique opportunity, and being unique is something that has always been important to the Iowa State Fair.

The Harris/Thornton House is without doubt one of the oldest homes in Des Moines. The home considered to be the oldest is the Larnerd Case House, also known as Rose Hill. It was thought to be built in 1850. Larnerd Case is buried a few yards away from John Harris in Sim’s Cemetery. They were contemporaries of each other. It’s unknown which house is older.

It’s disturbing to think that 16 Iowa State Fair Board members that are not from Des Moines can hold the fate one of the city’s oldest structures in their hands. But they can choose to make the Harris/Thornton House a site for the entire state to be proud of. I have little doubt if the call went out, volunteers and contributions would pour in. The citizens just have to be given the chance.

In a recent conversation CEO Gary Slater had with Aaron Putze of the Iowa Food & Family Project, Putze said: “The architectural beauty of the Iowa State Fair buildings is amazing and makes for a tremendous legacy. Is it overwhelming to be entrusted with it?”

Slater’s response: “The board and I take great pride in not only maintaining what’s here, but building from the traditions that have made the state fair so successful. This includes our facilities. Our broad pledge is that our children and grandchildren will be as proud of the buildings as we are. They have character and functionality. That’s important to us and always will be.”

Well, talk is cheap. It’s up to the Iowa State Fair Board and CEO Gary Slater to do the right thing.

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