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Marshall
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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George French
House

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.


[image ALT: A photograph of a two‑story rectangular plastered or stuccoed brick house, roofed in two perpendicular sections, one pitched at about 40° and the other much flatter. The front door is surmounted by a heavy pediment. It is the Gibson Harris House in Albion, Illinois.]

Gibson Harris House, Albion, Built about 1818.

p15 Survivor of English Prairie

In Southeastern Illinois, on the rich, rolling prairie between the Wabash and Little Wabash rivers, stands the small, thriving city of Albion, seat of Edwards County. More than a hundred years ago Albion was well known in America and England as the center of a semi-utopian colony of British immigrant-farmers called English Prairie. The name of English Prairie has since disappeared but one of the original buildings of the colony remains in Albion, the Gibson Harris house. It is now held in veneration as that city's oldest residence.

Although this dwelling, made of brick and located half a block west of the Courthouse Square, was constructed at the time English Prairie was in its prime, it was not built for one of the English colonists, but for an American who had come west from his birthplace on the Atlantic seaboard. This man, Francis Dickson, was one of several hundred Americans who had joined the Englishmen in setting up the colony on the Illinois prairie. After this community was established, Robert Owen and his son came from Scotland and founded a similar and more famous colony across the Wabash River at New Harmony, Indiana.

The old brick house in Albion is believed to be that city's first brick dwelling. It has the further distinction of being owned and occupied by members of the same family, that of Gibson Harris, for more than one hundred and twenty years — an unusual record for Illinois.

The man for whom the brick house was built, Francis Dickson, had conducted a general store in his home. Here he sold supplies to the English colonists, many of whom had been sailors. Among his customers were the two men who had founded the colony, Morris Birkbeck and George Flower. Both of them liberals and idealists, as well as practical farmers, these two Englishmen wrote books and pamphlets about their settlement that made it widely known in the early nineteenth century.

One of the best-known of these books was Birkbeck's Letters from Illinois, published the same year the colony was founded, 1818 (which was the same year Illinois was admitted to statehood). He also wrote Notes on a Journey in America, which describe his trip from the Atlantic seaboard to Illinois. At the same time, George Flower penned many letters to English newspapers describing the colony. In later years he was to write an authoritative History of the English Settlement in Edwards County Illinois. William Cobbett visited English Prairie in the early years of its founding and described it in his Journal of a Year's Residence in America.

p16 While Francis Dickson was tending his store at Albion, and English Prairie was flourishing, there lived at near-by Vincennes, Indiana, a young surveyor named Gibson Harris. A native of Litchfield County, Connecticut, where he was born in 1791, Harris had come West and secured employment making maps and plats of the country around Vincennes. While engaged in this work he helped plat Terre Haute. Soon after English Prairie was founded he crossed the Wabash and joined the other Americans who had associated themselves with the Englishmen.

Unable to secure work as a surveyor, young Harris found employment in Albion as a clerk in Francis Dickson's store. Several years later he married Elizabeth Woods, daughter of John Woods, cultured English-born hotelkeeper of Albion, whose book, Two Years' Residence in the Settlement on the English Prairie, the Illinois Country, was another of the published works which attracted attention to English Prairie and the great fertile lands of the newborn state of Illinois.

A few years after Gibson Harris bought the house and grocery store (1826) he erected a separate building for his store, this being located on his property just to the east of the brick house. Later, this store building was moved across the street and still stands. As with his predecessor in the store, Gibson Harris enjoyed the business and esteem of many of the colonists of English Prairie.

But there was one product Gibson Harris always refused to sell in his store, and that was liquor. An old history of Edwards County says of him: "In an early day he took strong grounds in favor of temperance, nor was it in words alone, but in action as well. It was the custom of the times to have liquor on sale in such establishments (general stores). This he would not do. Years afterward this was imputed to him as a virtue, though at the time his customers thought it a hardship."

After selling his house and store, Francis Dickson entered other fields. In his later life he lived at Louisville, Kentucky, where he was occupied as a bookkeeper. A brother of his, Dr. Henry L. Dickson, was a well-known physician in southern Illinois during the 1850's and 1860's.

Gibson Harris died in 1847 and the operation of the store was continued by his widow with the aid of three of her sons. Another son, Gibson, Jr., studied law at Springfield under Abraham Lincoln but afterward gave up law and went to Cincinnati where he became wealthy as a mattress manufacturer. It is said that he turned down an offer of a government post from President Lincoln, feeling that he was doing well enough in the mattress business.

The Harris house is a two‑story, gable-roofed dwelling, its old brick walls painted a dull yellow. It is one of the few houses in Albion built p17flush against the sidewalk. Originally, the house contained only four rooms but it was enlarged and now contains nine. Most of the rooms were warmed by big fireplaces but these, with the exception of one, have beenº walled up.

Among numerous Harris family heirlooms and relics of early days that were handed down from generation to generation with the house were a set of blue china dishes brought over from England by the parents of Gibson Harris' wife, a corner whatnot, an old-fashioned walnut parlor organ, a four-poster bed, and a drop-leaf table.


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Page updated: 4 Dec 07