History buffs, community help restore a treasure

Kay Hively

It’s a home that no single person owns, yet is claimed by many.

The historic Matthew Ritchey house in Newtonia, which suffered considerable damage in the May 10 tornado, is beginning to make its way back to its once proud self. This successful return has been made possible by many people who have affection for this structure which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Taking a hit on its northwest corner, the house was laid bare by a hole that measured about 20 by 20 feet across the front of the house on the west end. Other sections of the roof received lesser damage, but all the punctures in the roof were conduits for water to enter the building.

Several windows were broken, their glass panes flying through the house, leaving embedded glass in everything not covered.

Within hours of the tornado, the caretakers had left the premises and all valuables, historic and modern, were removed to safer quarters. Less than 24 hours after the damage, a construction contractor was signed on to oversee the restoration of the house. Twelve hours after that, carpenters, electricians, heating and cooling experts, a logger and volunteers were on the job.

The house, which is owned by the Newtonia Battlefields Protection Association, began the process of dealing with insurance, power companies, and a tangled web of volunteers, charitable agencies and government regulations.

Securing the house by covering the roof and boarding broken windows was the first priority to the building. On the grounds, the priority was clearing debris so repair and delivery trucks, scaffolding, and ladders could get to the work sites.

Day after day, work was done by hired professionals and volunteers. Untold numbers of people came to help. Some came and went and no one even knew their names. A group from the Fourth Missouri Infantry Re-enactors showed up on a Saturday morning and picked up debris — everything from glass to broken shingles to nails and pieces of aluminum and steel.

Woodcutters came to cut firewood off downed trees and burn brush piles. Food was brought to feed workers and volunteers did everything from cleaning up to cutting down broken trees to watching as trenches were dug (to look for artifacts — something that is common on historic sites).

Once word went out to history buffs across the country and to members of the local battlefield protection, donations came to help cover costs which were not part of the insurance coverage.

After more than a month, power was finally restored to the house which was a big help to the carpenters who had been using generators to power their tools. It also allowed the heating and cooling contractor to get the new system installed and tested.

As of now, there is much yet to do, but talk is now turning to taking on a caretaker and, ever optimistic, an Open House is set for Sept. 13. At this time, the public will be invited in to see the house up and running again. It will be a true celebration and various activities are being planned for the day.

Recovering from the disaster has been a great learning experience for the members of the Newtonia Battlefields Protection Association. We have learned how much people care about the house and are willing to support its restoration. We have also learned something about the character of the house.

It has withstood two Civil War battles, years of abuse and neglect, at least two tornadoes, and several damaging ice storms. In spite of that, it has been declared strong and fit by historic architects and structural engineers.

Many of the people who came as professional help have fallen under its charm and many of the workers have stated it was “an honor” to work on the old home. Many of those workers have asked questions about the battles and about the house.

And one group from an Elderhostel in Springfield even toured the house when things were in very bad shape. Come Sept. 13, many more will follow and see how this old house has weathered the storm.

Neosho Daily News