If you like apples with your architectural history, consider a weekend trek down the Mississippi River to the southeastern Minnesota town of La Crescent.
A 156-year-old home built for railroad engineer, racehorse breeder and early resident D.J. Cameron will open its doors for walking tours from 1-5 p.m. next Saturday, Sept. 23.
“La Crescent will be in the midst of its annual apple harvests, so that will be an added treat for visitors,” said Mary McLaughlin, a member of the all-volunteer La Crescent Area Historical Society sponsoring the house tour.
Named Glenevis after a scenic Scottish area, the home dates to 1861 and includes a granary, gardens, three fireplaces with inlaid tiles and a millstone from Scotland.
“It is unusual to find a Civil War-era home in livable condition or still standing, let alone thriving,” the tour hosts say on their event web page: sites.google.com/view/glenevis/home.
La Crescent’s apples have historical significance of their own. Despite the common belief that Minnesota’s climate was too harsh to grow apples, a pre-statehood settler named John S. Harris proved otherwise. Starting in 1857, he began experimenting until he managed to grow apple trees hardy enough. Half of his attempts failed, but by 1866, Harris was displaying 20 apple varieties at the Minnesota State Fair — then held in Rochester.
Considered the “Father of Orchardists” in Minnesota, Harris helped create the Minnesota Fruit Growers Association, which morphed into the Minnesota State Horticultural Society in the 1860s. La Crescent, with a population of about 5,000, copyrighted its boastful moniker, “Apple Capital of Minnesota,” in 2002.
A few years after that first apple crop and the town’s incorporation in 1857, Donald John (D.J.) Cameron arrived. A 1919 book on the history of Houston County pins his birth to April 8, 1828, in Ontario.
It’s unclear how he was related to Peter Cameron, who’s considered La Crescent’s first resident — moving across the river from La Crosse, Wis., in 1851. McLaughlin thinks they’re distant cousins. The settlement was initially known as Camerons, then renamed Manton before an unscrupulous land speculation company from Kentucky came up with a more romantic name to woo settlers to the crescent-shaped turn in the Mississippi River.
Peter Cameron died in 1857 after trying — and failing — to build a canal that would divert the Mississippi’s flow from La Crosse and closer to La Crescent. D.J. Cameron proved better at engineering.
D.J. left his Canadian home at 19 and found work as a canal timekeeper in New York. He went on to engineer railroad tracks and tunnels in Ohio, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Wisconsin and what became Oklahoma and Thunder Bay, Ontario.
His work constructing a train tunnel near Tomah, Wis., prompted the Milwaukee Road to give him 1,000 acres in La Crescent, according to one report. Although the abstract on the current property shows no such transaction, the historical society is researching that early deal.
Records show Cameron built a flour mill on his farm in the 1870s. And a large barn across the road, dismantled in 1978, once served as a dairy with La Crescent milk routes in the 1930s.
D.J. Cameron and his wife, Mary, raised eight children and many horses for harness racing. He built a racetrack down the road and eventually gave up the railroad work for the ponies.
“We learned that D.J. Cameron settled down as a ‘gentleman farmer’ and raised full-blooded horses for horse racing,” said Regina Chihak, who purchased the place in 1989 with her husband, Chuck.
Old newspapers are punctuated with reports of Cameron’s horses, especially a 2-year-old filly named Princess Eulalia. According to the Minneapolis Tribune from July 6, 1894: “D.J. Cameron, her owner, thinks he has a world-beater in the little one, and it is doubtful if he would be tempted to part with her for money, no matter how much the amount.”
His family resisted parting with its house, too. It remained in the Cameron family for more than 125 years
When the Chihaks open their home for tours Saturday, they’ll show visitors a grave-marking obelisk on their property that verifies the house dates to the 1860s. The waist-high memorial is chiseled with the names of two Cameron sons who died as infants.
The Chihaks moved from Cedar Falls, Iowa, to La Crescent in 1989. They loved the beauty of the area and, having both been music majors at the University of Northern Iowa, needed a large room to store their musical instruments.
Chuck, 71, is a jazz pianist and composer — not to mention an avid fisherman. Regina, 63, plays the flute and taught music in the schools across the river in La Crosse. Both play as soloists for various ensembles around the area, and Regina works as a music practitioner at the Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse.
“Our two boys were small and it seemed an ideal place to raise a family,” Regina said.
Their daughter joined the family 18 months after they moved in. Chuck will play his Roland keyboard piano in the garage during Saturday’s tours, while Regina leads folks through the old house. They’re asking for $5 donations to the La Crescent Area Historical Society.
Horseshoes from the 19th century, the granary chute, stone foundations and old mill stone “are living artifacts of D.J. Cameron’s life in La Crescent,” according to the web page.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.