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Ulysses S. Grant

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Old Illinois Houses

John Drury

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

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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[image ALT: A photograph of a two‑story rectangular brick house, with a gabled roof pitched at about 40° and two chimneys; it is partly overgrown with roses or ivy. The front door is arched with a fanlight. It is the Pinkerton House near Onarga, Illinois.]

Chicago Daily News

Pinkerton House, Near Onarga, Built 1873.

 p191  "The Larches"

During the seventy-five years it has been standing in its grove of larch trees a mile outside of Onarga, small city in the eastern part of Illinois, the Allan Pinkerton house has given rise to more conjectures and legends than perhaps any other dwelling in the state. This was undoubtedly caused by the career of the man who built the house, for Allan Pinkerton, as this country's earliest and best-known private detective, had worked on many sensational crimes and plots during the Civil War period and later and, besides, had written eighteen widely read books telling of his experiences.

In a paper read several years ago before the Lincoln Group of Chicago, Clint Clay Tilton, a Danville historian, said of Pinkerton and his house: "Here [near Onarga] he caused to be built the square house which he termed his 'villa,' but which is known locally in this day as the Pinkerton 'Whoopee house.' . . . The villa never was used as a family home but was the scene of many a high carnival when he went there with his cronies for days of relaxation. Within the walls of the historic house leaders in sports, the stage, writers of note and painters of national reputation would gather as his guests, during which time the Stars and Stripes would flutter from the flagpole atop the lookout tower in the center of the building."

Others of less repute came to this house, too, Tilton declared. Referring to the various rooms of the dwelling, he says: "One . . . was made soundproof, where he held interviews with mysterious individuals from time to time, giving rise to the tradition that ex-convicts frequently found a haven there until they could accustom themselves to their new freedom."

When this country dwelling was built in 1873, Pinkerton — or "The Eye," as he was widely called — was already at the height of his career and had amassed a considerable fortune as head of a private detective agency of national scope. Twelve years earlier he first attracted widespread attention as the personal bodyguard of President-elect Abraham Lincoln during the sensational "Baltimore Scare." It was Pinkerton's belief, based on the evidence of one of his operatives, Timothy Webster, that Lincoln was to be assassinated in Baltimore. So "The Eye" arranged for Lincoln to change trains secretly. This was done and he arrived safely in Washington.

At the time he built the Onarga house, Pinkerton was a resident of Chicago. It was there, in fact, that he began his career as a professional  p192 detective. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1819, Allan Pinkerton came to Chicago in 1842, and a year later moved to the Scotch settlement of Dundee on the Fox River, where he set up a cooper's shop. In 1846 he was made a deputy sheriff of Kane County after discovering and helping round up a gang of counterfeiters.

During this time, being an ardent abolitionist, he also served as a "foreman" of the Underground Railway, his cooper's shop being a "station" of the railway. By 1850 he was living in Chicago and serving on the city's police force as its first detective. He later organized a private detective agency, said to be America's first such organization, and helped to solve several sensational express robberies.

After the "Baltimore Scare" and following service with General George B. McClellan during the Civil War, Allan Pinkerton, in 1864, acquired a 254‑acre farm on the outskirts of Onarga. It was on this tract he built his villa nine years later. In landscaping the grounds around the house, "The Eye" planted many larch trees, as well as other types of evergreens, and in time his estate was called "The Larches."

It became a show place of Iroquois County in the 1870's and '80's. Writing of this estate for the Historic American Buildings Survey, Loren  p193 Van Degraft said: "He created on the prairies of Illinois a replica of a gentleman's estate he had known when a boy in Scotland. The larch trees were imported from Scotland and were set in orderly rows along the drives of the estate. Along these drives were planted thousands of flowers in beds that were always neat and orderly. Guards were stationed at the gates, and visitors who drove their horses along the drive faster than a walk were fined five dollars for raising dust that would settle on the flowers."

Some idea of what "The Larches" was like in its prime was obtained from an old Onarga resident, John Nichols, who served as a kind of major-domo of the Pinkerton estate. He reports that the estate contained a fish pond and swimming pool, a race track and numerous outbuildings. These latter included a great barn called "Big Jumbo" where between forty and fifty Indian ponies were housed, a wine cellar called "The Snuggery," which was connected with the villa by an underground passage, a milk house, root cellar, several smaller barns, and a group of greenhouses. The sloping walls of "The Snuggery" were decorated with murals of heroic Scots attired in kilts.

The villa, now showing signs of decay, is a frame building, one-and‑a‑half stories high, with a windowed cupola on its roof. Originally, it contained verandas on all four sides. A wide hall runs through the center of the house and on each side are bedrooms and living rooms. Still to be seen on the walls of the central hall are the murals of Civil War scenes of which Major Pinkerton was so proud. Running water for the villa was furnished by a large wind engine.

"It was a lively place on week ends," recalled old John Nichols. "Major Pinkerton would come down from Chicago on Fridays with a group of friends and go back on Monday morning. They would arrive on an Illinois Central train, getting off at a special stop alongside the estate. There were always three cooks on duty and the pay roll, I distinctly remember, ran to $1,200 a month. Yes, sir, it was a great place while it lasted, but after Major Pinkerton died, in 1884, it gradually declined. and now it is but a mere shadow of what it once was."

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Page updated: 11 Dec 07