The Frederick Krull House is a 2-story limestone structure located along Salt Creek between Sprague and Roca. The Krull House is one of the oldest houses in Lancaster County (about 140 years old). The following is my story about the house and my involvement in its preservation
In January of 2001 my grandfather Mark Steinhausen loaned me his grandfather’s copy of the “1903 Plat Book of Lancaster County Nebraska” by Brown and Scoville to read and research. The plat book mapped every precinct, section, farm and farmstead in the county as well as displaying photographs of prominent farms, buildings and people. In one section of the book were written histories / remembrances by early Lancaster County settlers. One of these histories was by William Krull, son of pioneer Frederick Krull. William Krull’s history titled “Development of Centerville” was a fascinating read. He described the various creatures that roamed our area such as antelope and catamount, the hardships faced by the earliest settlers, and stories about the limestone house where he was born, which he claimed took seven years to construct.
After reading the history I was consumed with curiosity and awe at how a family could survive in such conditions, and in the Krull family’s case, persevere and prosper. I also wondered “what type of house takes seven years to construct?”. Obviously, I thought to myself, a 135 year-old house was long gone so I didn’t give any thought into researching it further - the house and the Frederick Krull family legacy would remain just a curiosity, and nothing more….
On March 26, 2001, Denton Community Historical Society member Luana Sullivan gave a presentation on the History of Centerville at the monthly DCHS Meeting. Luana read aloud the same history by William Krull that had fascinated me only months earlier. After she read about the construction of the limestone house, Luana dropped the figurative bombshell that would change my life: ‘Yes I believe that old stone house is still standing.’ I raced to Luana after the presentation to introduce myself and ask more about the house. She knew very little about the house itself, except she did know its approximate location, which was all I needed.
Camera in hand, I went to the house the next day, but it was unfortunately on private property and the driveway was gated. Out of pure chance and luck, area farmer Russ Robertson stopped by my house the next day and I asked him about the stone house. Ironically his family had farmed the place for many years. Russ had spent a lot of time working around the house and putting hay in the barn. Russ couldn’t give me permission to explore the house but he did give me the names of the owners - the Batie family. I contacted the Baties who did graciously give me permission to explore the property. In exchange for allowing me to explore and photograph the house, I told the Baties I would put together a brief history of the property based on what little bit I had learned at that point in time. Krull House co-owner Mary Helen Batie was born a Mitchell, daughter of Charlton Mitchell and granddaughter of Clinton “Clint” Mitchell, both well known in the Sprague-Centerville community in years past. Though the Mitchell - Batie family had owned the Krull House for many years, they had not lived in it, nor were the Mitchells any relation to the Frederick Krull Family.
On April 7, 2001 I first explored the Krull House in detail. It was a very warm day for early April, and very windy, however the wind was not noticeable near the house because the area was so overgrown with trees. The house was a two-story structure whose floor plan was shaped like a short, fat letter “T”, with three rooms down and three rooms up, and a basement under the south half of the house. The exterior walls were built of limestone, 18” thick. There was a wood-frame kitchen on the rear of the house that was an addition. When I inspected the house all of the windows and doors were broken or missing as a result of vandals. The floors were rotted and covered with an inch or more of a mixture of animal feces and dissolved plaster that had fallen from the walls and ceilings. There were large holes in the roof, and trees were literally growing out of the limestone walls where the roof was missing. It was definitely the most beautiful house in the world!
Frederick Krull was born in Germany in about 1828 and trained as a blacksmith. He came to the U.S. at 22 years of age after completing his German military service. He landed in NY and then moved to a German community in Indiana where he met his wife to be, Dorathea Marie Haase. Later, Frederick moved to St. Joseph MO. The Krulls then moved on to near Nebraska City and eventually to Lancaster County.
Based on various sources of information in context of my research I have determined that Frederick Krull came to Lancaster County Nebraska in 1862 as a result of the Homestead Act of the same year. He built a “dugout” (an earthen home) on a sloping bank of a hill about 200 yards above the Salt Creek. Unfortunately runoff from a Christmas 1862 rainstorm filled the dugout with water and frigid temperatures soon afterwards made the floor a thick layer of ice. Frederick and the family moved into the yet unfinished dugout on January 7, 1863, which William Krull described as “a night never to be forgotten”. It wasn’t until the next day that Frederick was able to construct a fireplace that would warm the dugout. Apparently the family spent the remainder of that winter in an unfinished dugout, but that was better than the other option of living in the wagon as they had done while the dugout was being constructed. The Krull family lived in a dugout for 6 or 7 years while the limestone house was being built.
William Krull wrote that it took his father 2 years to accumulate the limestone for the construction of the house, the stone quarried from near Roca. It took another 4 or 5 years to construct the house while the family lived in the dugout. William Krull wrote the following in regards to his father and the house:
“He (Frederick Krull) had no thought of buying anything which he could make himself, as money was scarce, and all other building material must be hauled from Nebraska City, nearly sixty miles distant. There were only two loads of lumber used in the entire building, and that was the only material that required a cash expenditure. The poorest grade of lumber cost at that time from $75 to $90 per thousand. The building looks to-day as it did at its completion thirty-five years ago.” (excerpt from the 1903 Plat Book of Lancaster County published by Brown and Scoville)
Krull family descendents Ilene Vorhies and her sister Marilyn Carstens had learned of my attempts to research and preserve the Krull House and both have provided me with information that has been very helpful. Their mother Dorothy (Frohn) Hoffman wrote down the remembrances of the Krull and Frohn families. The handwritten remembrances were copied and forwarded to me by Ilene. My wife Kim and I have since transcribed them on the computer for easy reading and reproduction. According to the stories told by Caroline “Lena” (Krull) Frohn as remembered and written by her daughter, Dorothy (Frohn) Hoffman, there were four children born in the dugout during the six-plus years that they lived in it. These stories also told of Indian encounters, hardships, migration and early Nebraska life.
Leona (Frohn) Wittstruck, another granddaughter of Frederick and Dora Krull gave her remembrances of the “stone house” in an interview for the Sprague Centennial Book written in 1988. Mrs. Wittstruck said the Indians would come visit the Krull House:
“Mama’s mother was afraid of them. Her mother told about a big chief who came and sat down with his blanket around him. Grandma Krull was baking bread so she shared the bread and gave him a chicken prepared ready to fix and they went off again. I don’t remember how many there were. That happened down near the old rock house. That was on the Krull place.”
Krull House In The 21st Century
After studying and researching the Krull House for a couple of years I believed that it was worthy of preservation. I approached the property owners, the Batie family, regarding its future. We talked about my research, discussed the history of the property, and I proposed that it be preserved. The Batie family encouraged me to continue my efforts on their behalf, and research the feasibility and means to preserve such a structure. In 2004 I visited with Mike DeKalb and Ed Zimmer of the Lancaster County Planning Department. The men explained to me that the most reasonable way to begin the preservation process was re-zone the Krull Farmstead with a “Special Landmark Status Permit”. The landmark permit is a way for the county to recognize special situations where established zoning standards are not applicable. After going through the application process, the proposed zoning change passed through both the Lancaster County Planning Commission and the Lancaster County Board unanimously.
After being recognized by the county as a historic property, I was ready to move forward on the preservation of the house. Upon discussing the various options with the Batie family, they decided to sell it to me. My wife Kim and I agreed to purchase the property, and on July 13, 2005 we closed. Since closing, we have removed undesirable trees that were growing around (and in) the house, and I have covered the roof with steel paneling to prevent further leaking.
Fortunately for me, my new neighbor Marvin Bice had some time to assist in my efforts. We have become good friends and excellent co-workers while preserving the Krull House. His efforts are a tribute to the pioneer spirit, when neighbors helped neighbors.
Since our purchase, there have been numerous visitors to the house, averaging between 5 and 10 people each day that we are there. Most people are pleased to see the house being restored. Many folks have told me that I’m crazy for taking on such a project, while most think it is a worthy task. I’ve been very pleased to meet and share stories with the visitors to the house.
While I haven’t found a time capsule or anything of monetary value, I have found some interesting items that help put together the pieces of the Krull House puzzle. Probably the oldest and most interesting piece was discovered at the top of the south wall of the house: While repairing a portion of the roof, a small piece of metal exposed itself where the roof framing and limestone wall are connected. I brushed the dirt off the 1” x 2” metal tab and discovered that it was a nametag stamped “Caroline Krull”. Of course I knew that Caroline was a daughter of Frederick and Dora Krull. Actually they had 2 daughters named Caroline (or Carolina), but the first died while the family was living in the dugout, and she was actually buried just south of the stone house. Subsequently her grave was moved to Centerville Cemetery. The second Carolina Krull would become Lena Frohn, or “Grandma Frohn” as those in the community respectively referred to her.
While removing the wood frame kitchen from the stone house I discovered a piece of roof decking carved “Charles W Kurtzer”. Charles Kurtzer grew up and lived in the Centerville area for many years. I have found some documentation that Mr. Kurtzer worked as a hired hand, later as a tenant farmer, and eventually a land owner and farmer. It is likely that he was hired by the Krulls as a general laborer when he was young and probably did some carpentry and other work for them, perhaps he even occupied the home for awhile. I also found the name J.H. Koehler with the date June 1, 1912 written on some framing in the house where the kitchen was attached. I believe Mr. Koehler was probably the carpenter that added the kitchen to the house. Grace (Krull) Damrow who grew up about 3/4 of a mile from the Frederick Krull House said she remembered a Julius Koehler as a hired hand at their farm. She said she remembers Julius played banjo at the dances they'd have along Wittstruck Creek in the evenings. In researching Julius Koehler I learned that his father was in fact a carpenter who came to the U.S. from Germany, and I am assuming that he taught his skill to son Julius who probably worked as a carpenter when he wasn't working as a farm-hand (or playing banjo).
An ornate staircase was added at the same time as the kitchen addition and it was a feature of the house. Many people have asked me “Is the staircase still there?” Unfortunately, vandals destroyed the balustrade and the steps are deteriorated, however, Dr. Harley Batie salvaged the top rail and he gave it to me to install back into the home. The underside of the railing is written in blue wax “Martell Lumber Co Martell Nebr”.
Locals knew William Krull as “Banker Bill”. He operated the bank in Sprague until the Great Depression. I assume Bill Krull lived in the stone house until he moved into Sprague, and later to Hallam. My father, like many folks in the Sprague-Hallam area, took piano lessons from Blanche Krull.
After the Krulls left the stone house some different families occupied it. I was told the Recklings may have been one family that lived in the house. We know the Ed Moormeier family occupied the house for many years, until 1949. I found a piece of plaster in an upstairs bedroom penciled with the name “Eddie Moormeier”.
The house never had plumbing or electricity. The farm's water was supplied by a windmill that sat above the hand-dug well just to the north and east of the house. The well was about 4' in diameter and the walls were lined with limestone.
My plan is to restore the house to original, or at least as similar as is reasonable. First and foremost is preserving the structure so that it doesn’t deteriorate further. I am currently working on covering the roof, doors and windows. After the house is “preserved” I hope to save the lumber from the collapsed 100 year-old barn that sat west of the house. I will re-use the salvaged barn wood to replace floor joists and other areas of framing. The next step to the process is restoring the framing, floors, windows, doors, stairs, trim and walls of the house. Later, the addition of a kitchen and bathroom would be the next reasonable step if the house is ever to be occupied. Ultimately, I think that our family may live in the Krull House. It is my belief (fear) that the growth and development of Lincoln will eventually push us out of our existing rural home. The Krull House would make a good future home. I have set up what I call a “20 year-goal” for completion of the Krull House. To loosely paraphrase what Lancaster County Historic Preservation Planner Ed Zimmer told me, ‘A house doesn’t live unless it is lived in’. I want to make the Krull House live again.
Since originally writing this story I have subsequently made some new discoveries, including the location of the dugout where the Frederick Krull Family spent their first years at the farm. I have also done more work on the Krull Family genealogy and believe I have definitively connected the lineage of the various Krull families that settled in the Centerville area in the 1860s and 1870s.
I would like to take this opportunity to ask area residents for permission to inspect other limestone structures for the sake of documentation, comparison and ideas for the Krull House project. Also, I need to collect period materials for the house's restoration, namely I need Roca limestone for the exterior footing / walls and a couple of old / authentic wood burning stoves (the house was originally set up for 6 stoves, one in each room!). If you own or know of historic limestone structures or barns that I might photograph, or if you have any 1860s period materials or furnishings that might assist me in the preservation of the Krull House, or if you just want to visit and tour the Krull House, please call me at 402-421-9258 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org Thanks! Matt Steinhausen