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Browning
House

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Old Illinois Houses

by
John Drury

reprinted by
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London, 1977

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Dr. Black
House
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a three‑story wood frame house, with a gabled roof pitched at about 35°, interrupted by a profusion of dormer windows, chimney, and small porticoes; the front door, reached by five shallow steps, is protected by a nearly cubical porch supported by two pairs of slender columns; two more some similar porticoes stack up on top of it: the uppermost is pedimented. It is the Joseph Duncan House in Jacksonville, Illinois.]

Joseph Duncan House, Jacksonville, Built 1835.

p71 Candlelight and Crinoline

In the western residential section of Jacksonville, grove-like city of colleges in central Illinois, stands the Governor Duncan mansion. Built more than one hundred years ago, the interior of this three‑story house is noteworthy for its Colonial Georgian design and furnishings. The exterior was originally Georgian, with a simple, dignified façade, but this effect was marred, according to architectural students, by the addition, in the 1890's, of narrow, three‑story porch at the front entrance.

After this dwelling was completed in 1835 and its master was serving as governor of the state, it became the scene of many brilliant dinners and receptions attended by leading figures of pioneer Illinois and of the nation. Here, at various times, were entertained Daniel Webster, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, and such early Illinois political leaders as O. H. Browning, John A. McClernand, and Colonel John J. Hardin. In later years William Jennings Bryan was a guest in this house, as was Anne Rogers Minor, then president-general of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

In the light of Governor and Mrs. Duncan's earlier careers, it is easy for one to understand why famous persons of the 1830's and '40's visited their Jacksonville home. For the couple had previously lived in Washington, where they were popular and widely known. Joseph Duncan was then a congressman from Illinois. After serving in the War of 1812, General Duncan was elected to Congress in 1826 where he served until 1834.

But General Joseph Duncan had engaged in public service, other than military, before going to Washington. In 1824 he was elected to the state senate from Jackson County. While he was there, says the Dictionary of American Biography, "his notable service . . . was his active support of a bill for the establishment of a free public school system, which became a law in 1825." The Dictionary also says of him: "He had little formal schooling and this lack may have been responsible for the keen interest he later displayed in the cause of popular education."

A native of Paris, Kentucky, where he was born February 22, 1794, Joseph Duncan came to Illinois in 1818, or the same year in which the state was born. He later acquired tracts of land and eventually took up farming. Then he entered politics and remained in this field during most of his life. In 1834, following his long service in Congress, he was elected the sixth governor of Illinois. Work on the construction of his Jacksonville mansion was begun the year he became governor.

p72 While in Washington General Duncan attended a diner party in the home of Matthew St. Clair Clark, who was for many years clerk of the House of Representatives. Located directly across from the White House, the Clark home, an impressive Georgian-style dwelling, was something of a popular social center.

At the dinner party General Duncan met Mrs. Clark's sister, Elizabeth Caldwell Smith, of New York, and several years later the two were married in the Clark home. She was a granddaughter of the Rev. James Caldwell, "soldier parson" of the Revolutionary War who was killed in that conflict.

In an article on the Duncan home written by Edith Kirby Wilson of Jacksonville, we read that "Mrs. Duncan speaks of the interior plan of the Duncan house as drawn from Mrs. Matthews St. Clair Clark's home, only made smaller, and the exterior drawn from the first plan and early home of Governor Duncan at Paris, Kentucky."

An entry in Mrs. Duncan's diary reads: "In June, 1837, we entertained Daniel Webster, his wife and niece. Mr. Duncan gave him a barbecue down in the grove — northwest of the house; roasted a steer whole. Webster made a most eloquent speech, as was his wont. He p73took people by storm. Cheer after cheer echoed and re-echoed through the grove."

After the death of Governor Duncan in 1844, the house was presided over by Mrs. Duncan. Arrayed in her crinolines and moving against a soft background of candlelight on walnut and silver, she reigned here as a popular hostess in the Jacksonville of ante-bellum days. It was about this time that she gave the grounds in front of her Georgian mansion to the city of Jacksonville for a park. This is now Duncan Park — a restful spot of great sycamores that form an attractive approach to the old Duncan home at the north end.

Mrs. Duncan died in 1862. Then, from 1865 to 1875, the historic house was occupied by the Illinois State Institution for the Feeble-Minded, the first such institution in Illinois. Afterward the house came into the possession of a Duncan daughter, Mrs. Julia Duncan Kirby, and here she and her husband, Judge Edward P. Kirby, lived during the 1880's and '90's. While residing here Mrs. Kirby founded the Rev. James Caldwell Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, named in honor of her great-grandfather.

Following the death of Mrs. Kirby the house was occupied for many years by Judge Kirby and then, with his passing, it came into the possession of Mrs. Lucinda Gallaher Kirby. In 1920 the old mansion was sold to the Rev. James Caldwell Chapter of the D. A. R., and thus it became the first D. A. R. chapter house in Illinois.

Since being taken over by the D. A. R. chapter, the seventeen-room house has undergone minor alterations on the first floor. On the walls of the vestibule, main hall, and one of the parlors hang marble memorial tablets containing the names, in gilt lettering, of pioneer Jacksonville settlers and deceased D. A. R. members. An attractive Georgian stairway, with fine walnut balusters and a landing hung with ancient draperies, leads to the second floor, where the rooms have been left intact and outfitted with some of the original Duncan furniture and family heirlooms.

Here may be seen marble busts of Governor Duncan and his daughter, Mrs. Kirby; the Governor's big, four-poster walnut bed, his carpet-bag, rocker, writing desk, and large mahogany clock. Here, also, are Mrs. Duncan's inaugural slippers, her piano, music box, ancient hide trunk studded with brass nails, and a fancy French clock enclosed in a glass bell. On the walls hang several elaborate hair wreaths in shadow-box frames, one of which is said to have been made from the varicolored locks of eighty different persons. Other articles, such as candle molds, brass andirons, and bedroom china, are in this part of the mansion.


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Page updated: 7 Dec 07