FORT WAYNE – The entries are handwritten, sometimes poorly so. Some of the questions are clearly from another era. But the answers – sparse, often just yes or no – tell a story.
It’s the story of who we are, and our nation tells it every 10 years through the census.
The U.S. census is supposed to be about the mundane: Drawing district lines for the U.S. House of Representatives and apportioning government spending on roads and social service programs. But the reality is the census lets us step back and see who we are as a country. Today, it shows that we’re a diverse bunch, long removed from a farming society, and a continually growing one, despite having fewer children.
But that step back is only required for recent census results: By law, our answers on census forms are private for 72 years. But once that waiting period is over, we can step close and see the details of the picture that for seven decades was deliberately fuzzy.
This month, the government offered new clarity with the release of the 1940 census, letting us see the answers – names, ages, places of birth, occupations – of another era.
Instead of the story of us writ large, it becomes millions of stories, writ small.
That distant relative who was just a name on your family tree? If you know where that person lived in 1940 you might be able to fill in the blanks. That name on the property records for your house? It could come to life.
Those handwritten answers from 1940 can solve mysteries, like this one:
For Dave and MaryPat Nichols, the mystery goes back further – they want to know the story of their house, which dates to 1867.
For them, the 1940 census provides one more piece of a large puzzle.
We have the sense that there’s a really significant piece of history here that we don’t know, but we want to know, Dave Nichols said. A lot of what’s here (in Fort Wayne) now proceeded from what’s here. It’s a farmhouse like no other.
It’s a farmhouse with a name: The Franklin P. Randall farmhouse. Randall’s name may not be prominent today, but for a half-century it was one of the most prominent families in Fort Wayne.
The Nicholses have filled in a few of the gaps between their purchase in 2004 of the house at 1711 Kensington Blvd. and its construction, but not many.
One thing is clear about the 145-year-old structure: Those who live there tend to stay awhile. Since 1940, there have been only three owners other than the Nicholses.
Did they live there?
The house’s history begins long before census enumerator Connie M. Renollet knocked on the door on April 12, 1940.
According to property records, the land was first recorded as a 122-acre parcel by David Coles in 1820. It would change hands a few times until Randall bought it June 8, 1853, for $3,000. But the purchase included a mortgage, and in 1860, it was sold at a sheriff’s sale for $2,060 to James G. Reed to satisfy a foreclosure judgment.
In 1869, after Reed’s death, the farm was bought by the Randalls again – this time by Franklin Randall’s wife, Mary Jane Randall, for $2,000.
That would technically make the home, built in 1867 under Reed’s ownership, the James G. Reed House, but even in property records shortly after, the land is referred to as Randall’s Farm. At some point, the road running up the east edge of the land was named Randallia in their honor; as late as 1937, Randallia was the Fort Wayne city limits.
But according to historical documents and photos at the Allen County Public Library, that may have been the Randall farm, but the Randall home was downtown, at Lafayette and Berry streets. One book says that for half a century, Fort Wayne’s social scene seemed to revolve around Randall and his house.
Randall was an attorney, a state senator for three terms, the mayor of Fort Wayne for five terms, the designer of the city seal and the author of the city charter when the town was being formed. But it does not appear that he ever lived in the grand old farmhouse on what was then the city’s countryside. All of the photographs in the library’s Randall family collection are of the downtown house. City directories from the period all list their residence as Berry Street.
In 1874, property records show, the family started selling off the farm piece by piece, and in 1917, the various parcels were bought and subdivided into 80 lots along what would become Kensington Boulevard. That would make the house an anachronism – built on the brow of a slight rise, it faces south to look across the flood plain toward the Maumee River. The southward orientation makes the red brick Italianate seem as if it is sitting sideways to the street, when in fact, the street was built sideways to the house.
Did the Randalls ever live there? Possibly: The 1920 city directory lists a George Randall living at 11 Randallia Drive – probably one of Franklin Randall’s sons living in the house.
In the 1930s, city directories list the owner as Carrie Wiegman. By 1938, however – with America struggling after a decade of the Great Depression and on the precipice of war – the owner is listed as H. Allan McMahan.
The McMahans would live there for the next 48 years.
A family home
A lot can be learned from the Polk City Directory: The 1940 edition says the house was occupied by McMahan and his wife, Viola, that he ran Lehman Book & Stationery Co. and was the manager of the Ediphone Co.
But the 1940 census tells us much more.
We can see that on April 12, 1940, Allan McMahan was 42 and Viola was 37. They had a 3-year-old son Alan and a 5-month-old son Stewart. Husband and wife had both completed four years of college, both were born in Indiana and both had lived in Fort Wayne in 1935.
Allan McMahan’s occupation was classified as a retail merchant. Viola stayed home.
Using that information, you can then trace the family through other sources, such as city directories and newspaper archives.
By 1971, Allan McMahan was listed as retired, and Lehman Books no longer appeared in the directory. By 1980, he was writing book reviews for The Journal Gazette. He died in 1986; in 1987, Viola was listed as living at the TownHouse Retirement Home, and the house – by then 120 years old – stood empty.
But not for long.
Son Alan McMahan, who loved growing up in the home, says family friend Dr. Richard Wehrenberg called him in the 1980s knowing that Allan and Viola were getting on in years and wondering whether they would be interested in selling their house.
I told him, Unfortunately no,’ he said. At Allan McMahan’s funeral in 1986, Wehrenberg asked Alan again. I said, Call me an hour after the funeral.’
So a half-century after the McMahans moved into the farmhouse, there was a new resident: The surgeon, Wehrenberg.
Here, the Nicholses are able to fill in some blanks. They learned from Wehrenberg that the McMahans had done extensive work on the home to modernize it. In the 15 years he lived there, Wehrenberg did extensive work to restore it to its glory days under the McMahans and left behind his photo albums of all the work he did.
McMahan said his parents had wanted to renovate the house shortly after they moved in but could not because civilians could not get building materials during World War II. Once the war was over, however, they combined the front and rear sitting rooms into one large living room and carved the large farmhouse kitchen into a large dining room and a tiny kitchen and rearranged the upstairs bedrooms.
But 40 years of family life had taken a toll, and Wehrenberg’s restoration was needed, McMahan said.
In late 2002, the Wehrenbergs sold the house to Matthew and Sheri Salis. They listed it for sale in 2004, and on a whim, the Nicholses stopped by an open house just to see the inside.
‘We just love it’
We always say we’re going to go to open houses we see, and we never do it, MaryPat Nichols said. It was just a lark.
That lark led them to immediately fall in love with the house. They lived only four blocks away and had no intention of moving just a few streets over. Dave Nichols didn’t even realize there was no garage until they moved in.
The Nicholses have done a little work since, but nothing major.
We’ve tried to do things in a subtle way, Dave Nichols said.
The Nicholses also are part of an amazing line of owners associated with books and writing.
Franklin Randall was famous for his personal book collection, which one history expert said ranked as one of the largest in the state and rivaled that of museums.
Allan McMahan ran a bookstore and wrote book reviews.
Dave Nichols now owns marketing firm The Nichols Co. but once worked at The Journal Gazette and in the 1980s edited two books of famed journalist Ernie Pyle’s columns, Ernie’s War and Ernie’s America.
Regardless, the Nicholses love the house and have no plans to go anywhere.
The brick walls are fortress thick, Dave Nichols said, explaining how there is an exterior brick wall and a second, interior brick wall with an air cavity between. You can sit here with the fiercest thunderstorm blowing outside and just be oblivious.
And the things that might drive some homeowners crazy living in a 145-year-old house are the things the Nicholses think give it character.
They like the way the original, hand-blown glass window panes look, and that the original floorboards have shrunk, so that when you leave the lights on in the basement, it creates an ethereal light shining up through the floor.
We love it, MaryPat Nichols said. We just love it.