The Dunham Legacy in the Fox River Valley.

Edward G. FitzGerald

HIST 492 Prof. Gildemeister 05/09/05

INTRODUCTION “The castle came from Scotland and was reassembled stone by stone on a hill near Wayne by immigrant stone masons. Ghosts inhabit its halls. Fierce dogs guard its fenced grounds. . . .”1 These are the sorts of myths that surround the Norman influenced castle Mark Wentworth Dunham built at the end on the nineteenth-century. This curious building, located at the rather busy intersection of Army Trail and Dunham Roads, stands as a monument to old-fashioned American entrepreneurship and the extravagance of the Victorian age. Beyond the mysterious walls of the castle lay a local history rich in stories of both high-class soirees and pioneer life.

THE DUNHAMS OF KANE COUNTY Solomon Dunham, born in 1794, was among the first to settle in the Fox Valley of Northern Illinois following the Black Hawk War, 1832. The war had opened millions of acres of land in Northern Illinois and Wisconsin. In the spring of 1835, Dunham, his wife Lydia and their eight children, Betsy, Daniel, Harriet, Jane, Delia, Julia, Franklin, and Emily, left their home in the Saratoga area of Upstate New York and began their overland journey.2 By late April, the family arrived at Fort Dearborn in Chicago, only a small village at the time, and Solomon continued on alone to stake his claim on the eastern border of an area known as the Little Woods in Saint Charles Township. In May 1835, the rest of the Dunham family arrived at the homestead and construction began on a small log cabin at the foot of the hill now occupied by the castle.
Bruce Smith. “Splendor of Past Lives on in West Suburban Landmark Castle.” The Chicago Tribune. 31 May 1972. North West Section. 3. 2 Carol Cummins. “Dunham Castle: The Family, Grounds and Building.” St. Charles History Center Archives (hereafter SCHC). Dunham Collection. Report, 4.

Dunham Castle


The following year, the family began work on a more permanent home of red brick made from the clay found on site.3 This home and the grounds are now the Dunham Woods Riding Club. The two-story structure reflects the rustic style characteristic of simple pioneer architecture. Much of the interior of the lower floor is clad with black wood paneling and large tiles. Upstairs, the rooms are small and simple, a far cry from the lavish dressings of the future Dunham home. Solomon Dunham appears to have been an influential figure in the early days of the Saint Charles Township. He is known to have formed an organization for the protection of the pioneers’ land claims and had prevented several families from being ousted from their homes.4 Dunham had also held office on the Kane County’s first Board of Commissioners and on July 7, 1853, was appointed the first postmaster of Wayne. Dunham was a civil engineer and surveyor by trade and when the first railroad west of Chicago (the Chicago and Galena) was being built, he pushed for the track to go through his own land.5 The Village of Wayne moved from its original site east of the Dunham property to a spot along the tracks where it is still located today. In 1857, Solomon’s wife, Lydia, died and on April 2, 1865, Solomon Dunham, one of the Fox Valley’s most influential settlers, perished at the age of seventy-four.6

MARK DUNHAM AND HIS PERCHERONS The importance of the Dunham Family in the Fox Valley did not end with Solomon. On June 22, 1842, Mark Wentworth Dunham, Solomon and Lydia’s youngest
Ruth S. Pearson. “Castle in Wayne.” Interview with Jane Dunham. (date unknown.) SCHC. Dunham Collection. 4 Samuel W. Durante. Commemorative Records, Biographies of Kane County. Chicago, 1888. 547. 5 Pearson. 6 Cummins, 4.

Dunham Castle


child, was born on the family’s farm next to the Little Woods.7 He received his early education in a small country schoolhouse and at academies in Batavia and Elgin. By the time Mark was in his late teens, he was largely responsible for the direction and management of his father’s farm and when Solomon passed away, the family homestead, comprised of three-hundred acres, was left to him by will. On May 29, 1877, Mark W. Dunham, then thirty-five, married his wife Caroline, just nineteen years old, whom he had met while attending Wheaton College.8 Mark W. Dunham had developed an early interest in draught horses and at age nineteen, he brought the first of what would become many Percheron horses9 back from Europe. Mark was part of a company founded by himself, M. W. Fletcher, and Daniel Dunham (his older brother) in the late 1860’s for the purpose of importing Percherons from France. Apparently Mark’s choice in breeding stock proved fruitful and by 1870, the company, Dunham’s Oaklawn Farm, was one of largest horse importing and breeding operations in the United States.10 By 1873, Mark was the sole proprietor of the successful Oaklawn horse business with sales reaching over $600 per annum and an imported stock of 300 stallions and 75 mares from France.11 As the operation grew, he oversaw the expansion of the farm to 2,000 acres and the addition of new barn facilities that could accommodate 500 to 800 horses.12 Twice a year, Dunham would import up to 200 Percherons whose arrival to the small village of Wayne became a regular community
7 8

Ibid. Cummins, 7. 9 The Percheron is a large draught horse of a breed developed in France, having a dark, often dappled coat. The horse is a native of the le Perche province south of Normandy. These rugged war horses helped break the soil of the great western prairie and aided the advancement of civilization in the American Midwest. Judith Draper. The new Guide to Horse Breeds: The Complete Reference to Horse and Pony Breeds of the World. (New York: Smithmark, 1997), 48-49. 10 Oaklawn Farm Catalog, 1911. History. SCHC. Dunham Collection. 11 Marek Perzynski. “Unusual People, Magnificent Horses.” SCHC. Dunham Collection. 12 Catalog, 1911.

Dunham Castle


event. Dunham’s robust draft horses were in particular demand in the ever-sprawling Midwest for their ability to pull the heavy farm machinery of the day, such as the McCormick reaper. The growth of large-scale farming and the settlement of the prairies meant Dunham’s investment would be immensely profitable. The reputation of Dunham’s Oaklawn Farm was known throughout the United States and even Europe. One of Dunham’s prized colts, “Brilliant”, was from a long line of blue ribbon Percherons and, according to one story, Mark turned down an offer of $20,000 for the horse on a New York dock. The French painter, Rosa Bonhuer, is known to have painted Brilliant, and another of the Dunham’s horses is featured in his work titled “Horse Fair” which is among the collection of the renowned Louvre Museum in Paris.13

THE CASTLE With an internationally prestigious horse farm that hosted visitors from all levels of society, Mark W. Dunham saw the need to replace the small, simple home that his father, Solomon, had built forty years earlier. In 1880, Dunham began work on what would become known as “Dunham Castle”. Using sketches of the grand mansions and chateaus that he and his wife had fallen in love with during their frequent trips to Europe as a guide, Dunham hired Elgin architect Smith Hoag, to review their plans and supervise the construction. The castle, when completed, was to become the residence of the Dunham family while the old home would be fashioned into an office for the family’s business. Visiting traders would be housed in some of the eight bedrooms of the old red


Cummins, 9.

Dunham Castle


brick house, with the rest of the rooms being converted to offices for Dunham and his principal farm staff. Upon completion of the work in 1883, the cost of Mark W. Dunham’s castle was reputed to be around $40,000.14 Described as “one of the finest farm residences in Illinois”, Dunham Castle combined the elegant power of Norman architectural style with all of the amenities of modern design.15 The building is constructed of Milwaukee brick, one of the highest grades of material available at the time. The foundation is of Batavia limestone (from the same quarry that supplied the stone foundation for the barns) while the steps of the entrances were made from a higher-quality Joliet limestone. Various decorative reliefs and exterior ornaments, modeled after those found on Norman-Gothic French chateaus, are of hand carved stone. Four polished-marble columns, which adorn the main entrance, are capped with foliated carvings.16 The slate roof uses various shades of the material to create geometric patterns in a fashion especially typical of Victorian architecture. Copper gutters and down spouts had to be specially manufactured by a firm in Elgin for the mansion. The castle, with its Gothic towers, gargoyles, turrets and battlement, stands in stark contrast to the simple country homes (though these too have grown somewhat larger in recent times) that surround it still today. The interior of the three-story, 11,500 square foot mansion was originally decorated with antique and custom-made furniture and tapestries collected from Europe. Each of the hallways that connect the castle’s twenty-two rooms are covered in parquetry, a type of wooden flooring that combines contrasting colors into an inlaid mosaic. There
14 15

Elgin Advocate. 12 Feb 1883. SCHC Archives. Dunham Collection. Ibid. 16 Jane D. later found a “mystery column” that matches these exactly on the front of an Elgin building that “seems to be a bar.” A leftover piece perhaps? Jane Dunham. Personal Narrative. SCHC. Dunham Collection. 7.

Dunham Castle


are eight stone and wood faced fireplaces as well as pieces of intricate plaster ceiling work located throughout the house. Many of the original elaborate brass and glass light fixtures, some clocks, and a few murals and tapestries are still present.17 Ornately carved woodwork, hardwood doors, paneling and trim adorn the first floor of Dunham Castle. Some of the mansion’s original chandeliers and furnishings were actually loaned to the Art Institute in Chicago for an exhibit.18 On the third-floor there was a ballroom, though on one occasion, a ball was held in the cupola of the south tower: “The great cupola on top of the roof blew off in a tornado [and] a new one had to be custom built. When it was completed and put in place, [the Dunhams] threw a costume ball to celebrate.”19 Throughout the house were placed statues of the farm’s most prized horses with Brilliant, of course, taking his place of honor at the end of the main hallway.20 In 1893, the castle was redecorated by Marshall Field & Company in the lavish style of the time.21 The 1893 Columbian Exposition held in Chicago was a particularly eventful time for the Dunhams. Not only did a Dunham horse win first place at the exposition’s internationally attended horse show, the family was host to many prominent Chicagoans and European aristocrats who made the trip out to Wayne (on the tracks that Solomon Dunham had helped lay) to attend the soirees held at Dunham Castle. Over the years, Dunham Castle was host to such notable guests as the Infanta Eulalia of Spain, the Duke of Veragua (a descendant of Christopher Columbus), and Crown Princess (and later Queen) Juliana of the Netherlands. The castle was also the setting for the marriage of

17 18

Cummins, 24. Pearson. 19 Ibid. 20 Cummins, 25. 21 Jane Dunham. Letter to Mr. Claude Smith c/o Robert McCormick Charitable Trust. 14 May 1990. SCHC. Dunham Collection.

Dunham Castle


Solomon Dunham’s daughter, Belle, to Count Adimari Morelli of Italy.22 Other notable guests over the years included George Pullman, Potter Palmer, P. D. Armour, Marshall Field, Lyman Gage, and Cyrus McCormick.23

LIFE OF THE CASTLE When Mark Dunham died of blood poisoning in 1899, his son Wirth Stewart Dunham, who had been away at Harvard studying law, retuned and assumed the family trade. Percheron breeding continued on the property until the advent of the gasoline engine slowly made horses obsolete for farm work. As the farm’s prosperity dwindled during the 1920s, Wirth began selling off pieces of land. His daughter, Jane, and her sister, Barbara, were the last of the Dunhams to be raised in the castle. The family made frequent trips to Europe, each time returning with more horses. In the summer of 1914, the Dunhams narrowly missed the outbreak of the First World War in Europe, which was declared while they were shipboard, retuning from one of their trips.24 During the war, Wirth sold horses to the U.S. Army (presumably for hauling wagons, caissons, and artillery as the Percheron is not particularly well suited for mounted riding). He also served as the president of both the Association of Percheron Breeders in the USA and the Association of Horse Breeders in America.25 By 1929, however, the market for large draft horses had all but collapsed and the last 35 Percherons of the once immense breeding stock were sold off.

22 23

Pearson. Cummins, 10. 24 Dunham. Personal Narrative. 10-11. 25 Oaklawn Farm Catalog, 1925. Preface. SCHC. Dunham Collection.

Dunham Castle


After Wirth died in a car accident in 1931, his widow passed the mansion on to their daughter, Barbara, and her husband, John Dole. The couple lived in the castle for 15 years until eventually deciding to move into a more modern and conservatively styled two-story home a few miles away on White Thorne Road. The Doles then partitioned the first and second floors of the castle into six apartments in 1952, taking care not to damage the fine interior detailing, and removed most of the furniture, art pieces, wall hangings, and even some chandeliers to their new residence. Upon his death, John Dole left his White Thorne estate, which was complete with swimming pool, tennis courts, and a golf course, to the Illinois Audubon Society. Jane Dunham, an amateur history buff and antique collector had hoped to establish a museum at the Dole’s home but instead, reclaimed the castle’s fixtures and furnishings and deposited them with the St. Charles and Elgin Historical Societies.26 On April 1, 1950, the remnants of Oaklawn Farm and Solomon Dunham’s red brick home, which had been enlarged over the years to provide more office space, became the property of the Dunham Woods Riding Club.27 A real estate developer, Oliver Hoffman Corporation, bought the castle in 1965 and sold it in 1976 to Gerald Griffin, a financial consultant who lived with his wife in one of the apartments for approximately nine years until they sold the place to its current owners. The Griffins had ambitious plans for Dunham Castle including converting the building into a museum, a professional office space, or even a private dinning club. But nothing under the Wayne zoning laws allowed for such uses and local residents were not particularly receptive to these ideas.28 In July 1979, the building received official protection as a landmark when it was placed on the National Register of Historic
Phyllis Warner. “Gifts to the St. Charles History Museum.” St. Charles Chronicle. 4 May 1977. Ibid. 28 Carol Cain “Groovy Castle is Recognized.” St. Charles Chronicle. 8 August 1979. Our Town Section, 3.
26 27

Dunham Castle


Places.29 The castle’s current owners, plumbing contractor David Ambrust and his wife, Caren are devoted to returning the building to its original format, converting it back into a single family home and restoring the façade. The couple paid $250,000 (a fraction of the $1.5 million asking price) in 1987 for the building, which had seen no major renovations or restoration work since its conversion into apartment in the 1950s.30 Until her death in 1995, Miss Jane Dunham was instrumental in preserving the history of the castle and the Dunham family. From the wealth of quotations left behind in newspaper articles, it seems that Jane never turned down an opportunity to relate the tales of her childhood memories. Throughout her life, Jane had shown an interest in the past, having owned two antique shops. In the 1980s, she used up most of her savings to purchase the 1836 home of Bella T. Hunt, one of the earliest settlers in Saint Charles. The building, restored by Jane to its original appearance, became the Dunham-Hunt Museum. Several rooms of the museum are furnished with pieces that she was able to salvage from the castle. After Jane Dunham’s death, the museum was closed for lack of funds. In May of 1998, the Dunham-Hunt Museum reopened under the direction of the St. Charles Heritage Society.

CONCLUSION Mark W. Dunham was a promoter and his grand Victorian era mansion served as a fitting background for his expansive importing and breeding business. The place became a regular gathering place in its heyday for both the community of Wayne and the social elite. Local residents would turn out to view the new shipment of horses from

29 30

Ibid. Ibid.

Dunham Castle


Europe. In 1889, delegates from the Pan American Conference were entertained at the castle by the Elgin Military Band.31 Today, Dunham’s castle and farm continue to bring the community together. Each year, the Dunham Woods Riding Club hosts a number of events including horse shows and fox hunts that send riders galloping right beneath the shadow of the most magnificent farm house in the Fox River Valley. Mark W. Dunham’s reputation in the world of horse breeding was much like that of the barons of the Industrial Revolution: Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. He too built his own empire that fell with changing times and he too left a magnificent legacy, steeped in tales of princes and castles.


Cummins, 10.

Dunham Castle


Works Cited
Cain, Carol. “Groovy Castle is Recognized.” St. Charles Chronicle. 8 Aug. 1979, Our Towns Section. Cummins, Carol. “Dunham Castle: The Family, Grounds, and Building.” 1974. St. Charles History Center Archives. Dunham Collection. Draper, Judith. The new Guide to Horse Breeds: The Complete Reference to Horse and Pony Breeds of the World. New York: Smithmark, 1997. Durante, Samuel W. Commemorative Records, Biographies of Kane County. Chicago, 1888. 547. Elgin Advocate. 12 Feb 1883. St. Charles History Center Archives. Dunham Collection. Jane Dunham. Personal Narrative. St. Charles History Center Archives. Dunham Collection. Jane Dunham. Letter to Mr. Claude Smith c/o Robert McCormick Charitable Trust. 14 May 1990. St. Charles History Center Archives. Dunham Collection. Oaklawn Farm Catalog, 1911. History. St. Charles History Center Archives. Dunham Collection. Oaklawn Farm Catalog, 1925. Preface. St. Charles History Center Archives. Dunham Collection. Pearson, Ruth S. “Castle in Wayne.” Interview with Jane Dunham. (date unknown). St. Charles History Center Archives. Dunham Collection. Perzynski, Marek. “Unusual People, Magnificent Horses.” St. Charles History Center Archives. Dunham Collection. Photographs. “Dunham Castle (c. 1890),” “Dunham Castle (c.1950),” and “Mark Dunham.” St. Charles History Center Archives. Dunham Collection. Warner, Phyllis. “Gifts to the St. Charles History Museum.” St. Charles Chronicle. 4 May 1977. Smith, Bruce. “Splendor of Past Glory Lives on in West Suburban Landmark 'Castle'.” Chicago Tribune. 31 May 1972, North West Section.

Dunham Castle


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful