Shelby County house dates to 1816
Story by Patricia Ann Speelman
Photos by Luke Gronneberg
She’s not exactly what one would call a gracious old lady.
She’s not dressed in furbelows and fancy ornaments. In fact, what’s known as the Wilson-Lenox-Ditmer House presents a very utilitarian image. But the oldest house in Shelby County is “probably the most significant historic building in west central Ohio, and that includes public and industrial structures and residences,” according to historic preservationist Mary Ann Olding, of Minster.
Travelers along Houston Road through the rural area about a mile south of the little village of Hardin might not even give a second glance to the three-story, rather plain home. But were they to take a closer look, they’d see why it’s been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980.
The house dates to 1816, when Irishman John Wilson built a home “sturdy enough to protect his family from Indian attacks,” said current owner Barbara Ditmer. The bricks — which were possibly made on the property — were laid using a Flemish bond, a pattern that alternated the ends and the sides of the bricks. The Flemish bond is thought to be among the strongest, and the house in Hardin may prove that rule. It has withstood a 1934 earthquake; a 1945 renovation that included an addition, the lowering of ceilings and the installation of a wood-burning furnace; and then almost 50 years of neglect, yet it still stands proud.
The Wilsons had settled on the land in 1807, when the area was still part of Miami County. When Shelby was incorporated as a separate county in 1819, Hardin became its county seat and Wilson, one of its first county commissioners. The center of county government eventually moved to Sidney, leaving Hardin with little to remind anyone of its former importance — except the Wilson-Lenox-Ditmer House.
After Wilson’s death in 1841, his son-in-law, John Lenox, purchased the farm and house, and it remained in the Lenox family until it was sold to J.F. Black in 1897. Black died in 1918, and the Miami Conservancy District purchased the property only to sell it four years later to Adrian Ailes. Ailes sold it to the Ditmer family in 1939; however, Marvin Ditmer, Barbara’s late husband, was born there in 1935. Barbara moved in with Marvin in 1956 and, they raised their three boys there.
In 1967, the Ditmer family vacated the house for a new one not far away. That’s when the historic property, little by little, became a storage building. Whenever someone in the family had something too good to throw away but had no place to put it, the something went into the old house. Somethings piled up as the house sat “empty.”
“It sat for 48 years without heat or anything,” Ditmer said. “In 2005, (Marvin) started to see deterioration and put on a new roof.” The house is known for its gambrel roof, featuring double slopes on two sides.
As the home approached its bicentennial, the Ditmers decided to clean it up and out in earnest.
“We had collections of grange stuff, chairs no one knew what to do with, paintings,” Ditmer said, explaining her brother is an artist. They lowered buckets and buckets and more buckets of stuff from third-story windows and carted out box after box of glassware, tools, kitchen utensils, toys, paperwork, farm implements and the myriad sorts of items that seem to accumulate when no one’s looking.
Then they got to work on the interior rooms.
“We cleaned the (original) floors. The floors are gorgeous,” Ditmer said. They repaired and rebricked windows, tore off a furnace room and replastered walls. Much of the upstairs still sports its original wallpaper, paint and window panes.
Once the clutter was out, Barbara, Marvin and their family created a private museum and furnished the rooms with antiques from various periods. There are a children’s room with an iron baby bed; a pantry with copper kettles and canning jars; a bedroom with a rope bed, comforters and quilts; old sewing machines and the roll-top desk that had belonged to the now defunct Compromise Grange.
Marvin died in February 2016. In his memory, Barbara, their sons and the Shelby County Historical Society hosted a 200th birthday open house in July. More than 500 people attended. Now, Barbara is busy with continuing renovations and cleaning in preparation for an event at the house which will take place during Shelby County’s bicentennial celebrations in 2019.
“Marvin was looking forward to celebrating this,” Ditmer said.
The Wilson-Lenox-Ditmer House is located at 9804 Houston Road, Sidney.