Since 2009, Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park has proudly been offering its visitors an exciting new historical site to visit: an original 18th-century style wooden house that has the unusual distinction of never having been modernized. It exists today as its original owners, Aaron Waldo and Charlotte Loring Putnam, built it 1802, when Aaron Burr had just been elected vice president of the United States to serve alongside the new president, Thomas Jefferson.
The Putnams, both members of prominent New England families, had emigrated to Belpre in the Northwest Territory (today's Ohio) in 1789. Having survived the 1791-1795 Indian war and prospered as farmers on the Ohio Valley frontier, Aaron Waldo and Charlotte thirteen years after their arrival in the wilderness, decided to build a new home for themselves and their growing family. They chose as its site a low bluff in the six-mile-long Belpre settlement overlooking the Ohio River and across from the middle of a long, large Ohio River island soon to be permanently named for their close friends, Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett. The Putnams christened their house "Maple Shade". Legend has it that this was for two maple trees that Charlotte planted in front of her new home and which held special meaning for her for some reason now lost.
Years passed. Generation after generation of Putnams lived in the ageing home which had never passed from their ownership. When the name finally died out in Belpre in 1901, a Putnam daughter moved in with her husband and children and the family homestead became known as the Putnam-Houser house. Through the decades, the Putnams occasionally entertained famous visitors as diverse as the elegant Blennerhassetts, the Methodist Church's fire-breathing evangelist, Bishop Francis Asbury, and gentle, tree-loving Johnny Appleseed. Finally, in 1981, the long saga came to a close: the last of the Putnam-Housers in Belpre died and the Shell Chemical Company became the new owners of Maple Shade and its surrounding acres.
Shell was that rarest of all creatures: a corporation with a heart. While it desperately needed the ground on which Maple Shade stood to expand its nearby plant, it also recognized the house's unique historical stature. Not only was it one of the oldest frame structures still standing in the Ohio Valley, it also was in sound structural shape and had never been modernized by the Putnam-Housers. Shell balked at destroying it as many other industrial organizations would have not hesitated to do.
Within a few years, the problem had a happy ending. Shell offered Maple Shade to Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park, the park accepted, and Shell paid around $80,000 to move the building by barge to the Island on December 29, 1986.
The calendar ticked off thirteen more years. The park lacked the money to begin restoration, and passing time increasingly showed its neglect as the house leaned, the wallpaper peeled, and small animals gleefully occupied the old home as its newest residents. The Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park's private financial support group, the Blennerhassett Historical Foundation, surveyed the situation and decided it was time to take action.
In 1999, the foundation, under the leadership of Louise Cruikshank and Mimi Richardson, began the long, difficult task of raising the necessary funds and overseeing the building's restoration. When both of those dedicated ladies died, Dianne Anderson, and later Dick Phillips, took their place. In addition to the park staff, they were assisted by a foundation-sponsored restoration committee, which included members of the Belpre Historical Society. As Belpre was the house's location for 184 years, the society showed a keen interest in saving Maple Shade and contributing to its rehabilitation.
The restoration committee made the decision, a la South Carolina's Drayton Hall, not to furnish the house, so that its architecture and interior design could be more easily seen, appreciated, and enjoyed. Committee members also followed Mr. Phillips' astute suggestion that interpretative "windows" (i.e., framed and lighted panels covered with glass) be cut into the rooms' walls so that visitors can see the house's interior construction.
By 2008, work was far enough along to finally open Maple Shade to the public. The following year witnessed the final touches of restoration when the famous Devenco Company of Decateur, Georgia, installed period-correct exterior window shutters to Maple Shade's front and side walls. The total restoration cost had been $311,700. Dream had passed into reality, with the gratifying result of a great degree of interest being shown on the part of the public, who have flocked to the house in ever-increasing numbers.
Putnam-Houser House, or “Maple Shade” is only open to the public Thursday – Sunday. Admission is free and there are no tickets needed. A host(ess) is onsite for greeting and questions