By JAMES BELL
One-hundred thirty-nine years ago, a man laid a large cut stone onto the empty dusty plain. He had a dream, not only of a house but of a culture, a town and a university — a dream that wouldn’t be fulfilled in his lifetime, but after 139 years, we are all living in the realization of that vision.
That man was Martin Allen, and brick by brick, just like his home, Hays City would take shape, modeled after his vision. But much like the city, his home would see decades of prosperity, dampened by periods of grief.
Allen built his home a mile north of the few hundred residents that called Hays City home, a stalwart of modernity in an area that was anything but.
Accounts over the years attribute many dates to the home’s construction, but recent research by the Ellis County Historical Society, verified by contemporary news stories say work on the house began in 1877. At the time, Hays City had not yet been incorporated, and still mostly devoid of the Volga Germans that in the following years would leave an indelible mark on the area.
Originally, the home was known as Contest Grove, a moniker given after the battle to secure the land and home by Allen, but for most people today it is known as the Cody House, named for a man who is a local legend in his own right.
By the time Cody secured ownership, the colorful name had been dropped in favor of a pedestrian-sounding address, 2704 Woodrow Court, but his impact on the historic house remains to this day.
“Our family moved to hays in 1965,” said Loren Shaiken, daughter of the late Dr. John Cody, who recalls moving into the home at around 9 years old, after a summer of staying with friends of the family while the young family was looking for a permanent residence.
“At that point, it was in, as I recall, quite disrepair,” she said.
Before ownership by the Cody family, the home had been rented out by the Miller family. They obtained ownership and, by most reports, cared little for the house or its history.
But Cody would quickly bring the house back into shape adding a wrap-around porch and garage with a workshop above.
He would use that space as his studio over the years painting and writing on various topics, work that would make him known worldwide.
Cody also tore out the attic, adding an upstairs bedroom — accessed by a spiral staircase in the center of the room — and finished the basement, adding another bedroom and bathroom, completing that work by 1970. Until recently, that was the last time major work had been done on the home.
While living in the home, Cody founded the High Plains Mental Health Center and became world renowned as the Audobon of Moths.
He also spent time teaching at Fort Hays State University, a school that was first dreamed by Allen. Cody’s wife Dorothy was also affiliated with the university, serving as its first physician.
Cody had worked as a medical illustrator early in his career, a talent that can be seen in the murals in the upstairs bedrooms with knights and princess painted with meticulous precision.
“He’s a remarkable man, probably the most interesting man that ever lived in Hays,” said Hays resident Pete Felton, also known worldwide for his unique stone sculptures.
As with all things, the Cody’s long ownership of the home came to pass in June of last year and the home went on the market, again sparking interest in the home and its unique history.
“The history alone of that house makes it very desirable,” said Kris Munsch, assistant professor in the Department of Applied Technology at FHSU, who calls himself and old house “connoisseur.”
“When you look around and you imagine in your mind, whoever’s lived there over the years, coming in you think of the days when it was horse and carriage up to the last people that lived there. All the stories those walls tell. I hope that isn’t lost in that house, whoever buys it,” Munsch said. “That’s important because it’s so historical to our community, to our university. It just tells such a story. That’s why it’s worth the time and effort to rebuild.”
If the home could share its story, it would likely tell of its stretch as a solitary pillar overseeing Hays as the town crept toward it, eventually enveloping it within its boundaries. Empty space around the home, in fact, is still in the memories of longtime Hays residents.
“When I was a kid, it would be in 1943, during World War II, I went out there with a friend of mine and there was nothing there. I mean the house was bare, there was no grass, there was no trees, no plants, nothing,” Felten said.
Looking back, he said, he wishes he had taken a picture to contrast with what is there now.
From the time of that old memory, until the Cody’s ownership, building in the area began. When Shaiken lived in the home, Wilson Elementary School was already nearby and homes began to surround the house.
“At that time 32nd Street was the very last street. After that, is was fields,” Shaiken said. “That was pretty rural out that direction.”
“The problem was, after World War II, Realtors starting building houses on everybody’s front lawn,” Felten said. “All the big lawns are gone. It was out there pretty much by itself after the war, and then they said we have all this space, let’s build houses around it — so it became crowded. It’s a shame, but it happens all the time.
“Now it’s just crowded onto a little street there and you have to find it.”
“It was just like this stone house that nobody was tending to when my parents bought it,” Shaiken said.”It was really a desolate looking place,” she said of the big two-story stone structure with ranch style homes all around. “I remember a sense of pride because the house had been so neglected when we bought it and then pretty quickly my parents did a lot to it.
“This house is so much a part of my life.”
DAMAGE, REPAIR, DAMAGE, REPAIR
A home of any age needs constant repair, and even a home made from 3-foot-thick cut stone has, over the years, become wanting of some exterior work.
Many of the limestone lintels have fallen out over the years, cracks along the exterior walls have grown larger as parts of the house are settling faster than others, and plaster and woodwork inside shows its age.
But, structurally, it is sound and, despite many cosmetically unappealing aspects, the house still stands ready to be a home.
“That house is absolutely worth saving. That house has sat there for over 100 years with a limestone foundation. It’s not going to go anywhere if some steps are taken to make sure it can last another 100 years,” Munsch said.
He received a call last year to evaluate the home with a couple that was interested in purchasing the property.
The deal ultimately did not go through, but it left him full of ideas of what could be done with the house, through renovation or restoration.
To the outside renovation and restoration may be the same, but Munsch notes there is a very big distinction.
“There’s been some things have been done to that house over the years that they’re cool, but they don’t fit the period,” he said.
If the home were his project, he said, there are some things he would take out to return the house to its original look.
“There’s a fine line that you draw that becomes too modern and with a house like that. I hope that somebody can get that house and do a combination of restoration/renovation,” Munsch said.
“So let’s say a couple that has moderate skills go in there. They could hire some of the major work done,” he said, noting a major project like a new roof and installing drainage systems would likely need to be hired out.
“What you have got to really do look at the mechanical. Those things that are going to save the house. … It doesn’t do a lot of good to have nice pretty cabinets if the roof is leaking,” he said.
Despite that, Munsch said the house is in livable condition and could last another 500 years if proper repairs take place, but modern conveniences must be considered, as well.
“It’s kind of like somebody that restores an old vehicle. It doesn’t have a purpose because it’s too nice. I would never want that house to be so nice you can’t live in it. It’s the same thing with cars — you want a car that you can take out and use,” Munsch said.
Shaiken also equated the home to an antique vehicle.
“It’s like the chassis of a classic car. You would like somebody to come in and put a motor under the hood and still have that beautiful classic car on the outside,” she said.
“You have to balance,” Munsch said.
The cost of bringing the home into the modern age depends on the difference of restoration or renovation he said.
“If a person was going to go in there and make it a renovation project, you may spend a little less because you may not do the things that I would do.”
Many of the additions over the years, Munsch noted, are not in line with the original build, but the historical aspect of the tenants after Allen should be considered in renovation or restoration plans.
“The Codys are just as important as the Martin Allens because of their history with the house. You don’t want just eliminate them out of the middle,” he said. “You want to keep that historical part of them living there as well, so I think there is a lot of combinations that could be done over the years.”
BUILDING THE HOME TODAY
The main reason the home still stands in solid shape is the material with which it was built. While homes today are built with wood, at the time of construction, the stone bricks were a more practical solution that would be difficult to reproduce.
“It would be possible,” to build a house like this today, Munsch said, but difficult.
“Where would you find a mason that is willing to set those kinds of stones? You’re not going to find it.”
The building materials would also be hard to find on the market today.
“You could get the limestone probably, but you’re not going to find limestone with that character,” he said.
But at the time of the homes construction, the stones used would have been easy to acquire, and the most cost-effective material of the day.
In 1872, a quarry was opened about a mile west of the college, and it quickly became in high demand because lumber was very expensive, according to Felton.
The stone was used to build homes, business in the area, including the college.
Those local quarries are no longer in operation, so stone would need shipped – a costly proposition in itself — and the stone now has become expensive.
“It’s an expensive material instead of a cheap material,” Felten said.
The skills need to build a home out of stone, however, are relatively simple.
A builder during the time of the home’s construction would often begin by placing stones directly on the ground.
“It was a technique that was low-tech and a lot of the people around here had some experience. You can learn about all there is to know about it in one day,” Felten said.
He recalls a story of a man who worked at the nearby quarry and would bring a brick or two home every day. In five years, he had a house.
That building still stands as is currently used as a dentist office in Hays. And work on those old homes requires little training, as well.
“If somebody hasn’t already fixed it up, it’s going to be a burden, but kind of a fun thing because you can always do it yourself. It’s not complicated,” Felten said.
Despite the time and effort required a home made with stone offers something rare in new construction.
“They are really great, because if you have a stone house, you don’t feel the wind. It just protects you from the wind all of the time,” Felten said. “They’re really nice for calmness. … They feel secure.”
MARTIN ALLEN: HIS HOME, HIS LEGACY
The truly unique history of the house is felt by every resident in the area. When Martin Allen arrived in Hays City, there was little in the area outside of the nearby military fort, but quickly it became more — in no small part to his efforts as a real estate agent, horticulturist and champion for the university that would later become Fort Hays State University.
“Martin Allen was really influential in Hays, in order to promote himself a little bit he gave land for the courthouse in Hays,” Felten said.
Although that gift wasn’t entirely altruistic — he owned land around the area and wanted to sell it — the courthouse became, and remains the center of government for Ellis County.
While buildings and the school are impressive reminders of his vision, one of the more pressing issues facing early settlers was finding a stable source of food.
“He tried to grow everything he can find. He said if you’re gonna live out here on the plains, you gotta learn what grows,” Felten said.
Allen planted a large number of plants and trees around his home, meticulously testing suitable plants for the area. A bit of that legacy can even be seen today, with many trees still lining Fort Street having been planted by Allen himself.
His most lasting legacy, however, is none other than the university that has grown into a regional center for higher learning. Now called Fort Hays State University, when the idea was presented it was known simply as “Allen’s Folly.”
“When the word came out they were going to sell the land that the old Fort Hays was on, he ran for the Legislature to prevent that. So they could keep it in one piece and start an agriculture experiment station,” Felten said.
That land is still used by the university, with another large parcel becoming Frontier Park.
While the idea for the college directly came directly from Allen, he would be forced off of his land by mortgage holders in 1898 and soon moved to land owned by his son in Colorado. He would die months later, four years before the founding of the university.
His efforts, however, did not go completely unrecognized as one of the first buildings on the campus was named in his honor – a name that remains to this day.
His name is also attached to another well-known, but less cheerful piece of property in Hays – Mount Allen cemetery.
One of his daughters, Clara, died of scarlet fever in 1874, leaving Allen to search for a final resting place.
“He wasn’t about to bury her on Boot Hill, where all the desperados were, so he gave a piece of land to the city and they named it Mount Allen and it became our cemetery,” Felten said.
Clara would be the first burial in the cemetery, and his wife, Elizabeth would also be laid to rest there.
A NEW LIFE FOR THE HOME
As the home sat empty after John and Dorothy Cody relocated, several ideas were floated. Munsch hoped FHSU would purchase the home to be renovated by students as a project, then used as a home by the university. The Ellis County Historical Society thought it could be a museum to share the history of the area.
Ultimately, fate stepped in and the house will continue as a private residence, just as it was intended so long ago.
As Jayson van Wooten was searching for a home he noted a listing that he believed to be the Cody home, not immediately recognizing the house with the overgrowth of plants and trees that had popped up over the years.
He had been searching for homes within his price range and, as a designer, wanted to find a home he could renovate, but loved the idea of a house with history attached to it.
“All of a sudden, this one popped up,” he said.
After realizing it was the Cody house, he immediately texted his real estate agent and was anxious to tour the property.
“I have to come see it,” he told her. “It’s mine. I knew instantly this is gonna be the house.”
When he first arrived, even in need of repair, he said the house “instantly felt like home.”
Even before talking to a bank, he put in an offer on the home that was accepted. He then secured funding and began planning.
“The thing that I liked about it is the Codys have had it for 40 maybe 50 years and hadn’t done a whole lot since they moved in,” van Wooten said.
His vision for the house recognizes the history the Allens and the Codys left behind, noting the unique features added by the Codys.
“It was pretty bare bones, because they had a pretty minimalist ascetic too, it seems like,” van Wooten said. “The things they had done to the home had given me liberties to do a little more exciting things.”
Normally, a home of such importance would be on the National Register of Historic Places, which would limit the amount of changes that could be done on the property.
“I can mix elements that speak of the home, but also of contemporary living and, at the same time, preserve the character of the house,” van Wooten said.
He moved into the home recently and has already tackled the project identifying exterior and interior work that will preserve the home for the foreseeable future. So far, the repairs are only cosmetic in nature, as experts who have toured the home have noted how sound the structure remains, despite its age.
“Everybody that has seen the house, all of the contractors, are surprised how good of shape it is in,” van Wooten said. “They have had great stewards and caretakers of the house living here.”
Perhaps 100 years from now, the home will be known as the van Wooten house after he adds his own history to the impressive stone building. But for now, looking back is enough to inspire awe and humility.
“I’ll move into the old house any day in that condition than I would a brand-new one, because that one has the character, the stories, the history. Martin Allen sitting in that house saying we should build a university or a school. That’s where we’re sitting right now. You can’t buy that,” Munsch said.
“The good days the bad days, the storms, the tornadoes on the horizon. That’s why that house is cool.”