California woman traces ancestry
to Madison, buys Greves house
Donohugh’s great-great-great grandfather
built the home
(April 2014) – Ruth Donohugh only planned a quick stop in Madison, Ind., to see a home that had lingered on in family legend since the 1800s. “We knew at one point our family had had a big house, but we only had bits and pieces of the story,” she says. Her great-great-great-grandfather Jacob Shuh had built a beautiful house on the Ohio River and had lived there until his fortunes turned after a catastrophic 1846 flood destroyed his business.
Photo by Lela Bradshaw
Ron and Vangie Greves in February sold their house on Madison’s
Main Street to Ruth Donohugh
of California. She had family ties
to the house from years past.
Last year Donahue, of Kentfield, Calif., and her husband were visiting towns along the Mississippi River and decided to include a trip to Madison since they were in this part of the country. While she intended to visit her ancestor’s home and perhaps get a few photographs of the house, the quick trip turned into something more when she saw the for sale sign in the front yard.
Earlier this year, Donohugh recaptured a piece of her family’s past by buying the Shuh-Leininger House from Ron and Evangeline (Vangie) Greves. While the exterior of the home is strikingly beautiful, it was the interior that convinced her that she had to bring it back into the family.
“When I came inside, that’s it” she says of her first impressions of the house, located at 718 W. Main St. In addition to the physical details, such as historical woodwork and elegant ceiling medallion framing the hanging lights, she was captured by “the way the sun just pours in here, the orientation with the river. You can’t ever go back and change that on a house.”
Donohugh has been happily surprised by how well built and how well thought out the house is. “The old part is the best insulated,” she marvels. She said the windows are ideally suited to catching the river breezes. “Open them up and you have like air conditioning.”
Some elements of the home suggest that famed architect Francis Costigan may have played a role in the design of the property. Work on the home is thought to have begun in 1837, the year that Costigan arrived in Madison. Stepping inside the home, one finds that the high ceilings and sense of balance in the Greek Revival home echoes the style of his other constructions. While no records have yet been found to pinpoint the architect, the keystone work and other details have lead people to speculate over the years that this house may have been Costigan’s first Madison project before the Lanier Mansion and Shrewsbury-Windle House.
Despite its age, the home has had only five owners before Donohugh. Once families moved in, they were inspired to stay. The Greves family enjoyed the property for 32 years before selling it to Donohugh. Ron Greves explains that they were initially attracted to the property because of “the stately structure itself and the history behind it. She likes a challenge,” Ron says of his wife’s enthusiasm for the home when they first purchased it.
The couple continued restorations begun by the previous owner and worked to preserve the historic details that make the place unique. “The Greveses were good stewards of the home,” says Donahue, who was delighted to have found her family’s old property in such excellent condition.
While it can be difficult to pass on a home having spent so many years caring for it, Greves says that “after meeting Ruth, we were very confident. She’s keeping it in the family. She’ll be an asset to Madison for sure.”
While she is not currently planning any large projects on the house, Donahue is eager to begin putting some of her own touches on the interior. She says that she is going to be “careful about the furniture. I do look forward to getting some appropriate things.” And as is only fitting for an old family home, she does have “some family pieces” that she is looking forward to moving in.
“I wish my mother was still alive to share it with me,” Donohugh said. A member of the Colonial Dames of American, she was “always interested in family history and genealogy.”
Jacob Shuh and his wife, Mary Ann Polite, were born in Maryland and married in Mississippi. They then relocated to Madison, which was in many ways a frontier town in the 1830s. She reflects on her ancestors’ willingness to move around, saying, “They were on the cutting edge – risk taking.”
Jacob owned a successful mill on Crooked Creek until the 1846 flood swept through, killing nine of his workers. From 1854 until 1859, Shuh served as the city assessor, a “very respected person,” Donohugh said. But he never recovered the same position that he enjoyed before the flood. In 1859, the family moved to Arkansas to be near Mary Ann’s family, but Jacob died soon after.
Donohugh says that her Arkansas family, “wound up on the wrong side of the Civil War” and that one of Shuh’s daughters later married a veteran “with a minie ball in his lungs.”
“Madison values its history and historic properties,” Donohugh says. She adds that in many other towns, her family’s old home and other houses might not have survived the years. “It’s a delightful place; that’s a huge attraction for me.”
While continuing her research into her ancestors and their home, she has been happy to find that others in the area share her enthusiasm for studying the past and are eager to aid in her search. “I’m still learning things,” she says. “Everyone has been very helpful and encouraging.”
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