photos by Eric Gregory
The 140-year-old stone house was almost forgotten. Inhabited by trees that had forced their green fingers through a patchwork roof. With roots that had cracked its foundation. The place was filled with animal filth and the vestiges of 50 years’ abandonment and vandalism. But the Krull House — which may be one of the oldest structures still standing in Lancaster County — could again become a home.
Two years ago, Matt Steinhausen bought the two-story limestone house that was built by German immigrants in the 1860s. He’s on a 20-year plan to restore it and, he hopes, make it his home. For now, fearing vandals, he’s hesitant to pinpoint its location, beyond noting it’s in southern Lancaster County. It’s off the beaten path, in a draw, near a creek.
Steinhausen’s roots run deep in the Salt Creek soils of southern Lancaster County. His knowledge of the area has helped him track down the history of this almost-lost home.
He’s heard stories passed down from Krull children and their children — tales of hardship, hard work, migration, Native encounters and other aspects of early Nebraska life. The neglected house, with its 18-inch-thick limestone walls, still has a long way to go before it’s habitable. But if anyone can save it, Steinhausen appears to be the one. A history buff with a love of fine craftsmanship and years of construction experience, he once worked as a home restorer, specializing in badly burned-out houses. “After the things I’ve seen,” Steinhausen said, “I look at this and say ‘easy.’ ”
The project began with a book. Steinhausen learned about the Krull House from a 1903 Lancaster County plat book owned by his grandfather’s grandfather. “I wondered what kind of house could take seven years to build,” Steinhausen said, and so the mention stood out in his memory. Sometime later, he heard the Krull House was standing. “I nearly jumped out of my chair,” he said. He contacted those who owned the farmland and house, and began a few years of research in 2001. He learned the house is one of a handful that remain from the 1860s in Lancaster County — only five or six farmhouses are older.
The first steps to build the home were taken in 1863 by Frederick Krull, a German immigrant. Recollections by Krull’s son William, recorded in the 1903 plat book, say the family moved to the spot in late 1862, living in a covered wagon before moving into a dugout they built on the property on Jan. 7, 1863. The stories tell how the Krulls spent that first night sleeping on straw-covered ice. Rain washed into the dugout and froze because Frederick Krull had yet to finish a fireplace. Steinhausen believes a depression near the Krull House is where the dugout had been. For seven years, as the story goes, the family lived more or less in the ground, waiting as a sturdy but modest stone home took shape.
Frederick Krull hauled the lumber from Nebraska City. The limestone was quarried in Roca, though two years passed before he accumulated enough stone. Today, hand-hewn marks are still visible on the rough blocks.
Known as Black Fred, Krull was a blacksmith by trade, one who reportedly knew how to shoe oxen. Steinhausen guessed a nearby cut-off trail, well-traveled in those years of western migration, would have kept him busy. Otherwise, in the early years, the Krulls were largely bereft of nearby neighbors. The village close by wouldn’t be founded for almost 25 more years.
House has provenance
Steinhausen’s preservationist nature led him to spend four years looking for stories about the house. He didn’t plan to buy it. “I dove into this thing head first. I looked up all the descendants and found histories and diaries. I realized this house has a provenance like no other, a history that had been forgotten or unknown for 60 or more years. “I told the owners they had to save it; not only because it has great architecture, with its pioneer construction, but it has a historical significance, a cultural significance.” In the end, Steinhausen sold himself on the idea. But the Krull House yard was choked and impassable from dozens of Siberian elm trees. The rough land around it was unfarmable and unbuildable, in a designated flood plain that’s zoned agricultural. Even years before the roof sprung Swiss-cheese-like leaks, an unwise 1912 renovation had let in water that damaged the house. No matter.
Steinhausen paid $60,000 for 10 acres and the house, knowing that if anything happened to damage the structural integrity of the home, the county would never let him do more than just bulldoze it. “If this doesn’t work, I’m just out,” Steinhausen said. Since then he’s “mothballed the house” — covered the roof with steel, shuttered the windows and doors, cleared all the rubbish and stabilized some crumbling stone. The yard looks like a yard again. The Steinhausens even painted the window covers to look like friendly blue curtains. But inside the house still has large gray chunks of fallen plaster, huge holes in the floorboards and interior walls and a fine mist of musty ashlike debris.
And it’s never had electricity or indoor plumbing.
Steinhausen heard the stories of the children born on the Krull place, passed down by their children and grandchildren. A story of fetching a doctor all the way from Nebraska City, who came too late to save Fred and Dorothea Krull’s little girl Caroline. That story came from the daughter of the couple’s second Caroline, born a few years later, who lived long enough to see the completion of the stone house. During his work, Steinhausen had found a little metal tag engraved with her name. He heard stories of how Dorothea went to midwife a baby and got lost on the darkness of a pitch-black prairie until their dog came and led her home. Of how the Krulls and others once fled their homes for fear of a Native attack — and how Fred and Dorothea believed the stress of that exodus injured the baby the expectant Dorothea was carrying at the time; daughter Frederika would be born mentally challenged. Other stories told how a Native man gave the Krulls a pony to thank them for their kindness.
Eventually the house passed to son William, who grew up to become a banker. Presumably, he sold the house before he moved to town in 1912, and it passed through other hands until the last family, the Moormeiers, moved out in 1949. All that history is based on the stories Steinhausen has heard and accounts he’s discovered. He uncovers more tangible pieces of the story as he works, finding marks left by an earlier workman’s hands.
As he recovered the lumber from the Krulls’ collapsed timber-frame, tenon-and-mortise barn, the boards he found bore Roman numerals. They were put there to mark where each piece would fit into compound dovetail joints. “Someone would have carved these joints in the winter and assembled them in the spring,” Steinhausen explained. As Steinhausen talks, his hand brushes over faint square impressions on the barn wood — marks you can tell were made by a blacksmith’s heavy square hammer, he said.
He’s even researched the names of carpenters who left their names carved in boards inside the house.
The Steinhausens like to work and picnic together at the Krull House. He and his wife, Kim, assign little tasks to their children, ages 6 and 8. “I always tell the kids, here they’re doing all this work but they’ll never live here,” Steinhausen joked.
Steinhausen started to clear a way for the house’s future in 2005. With help from county planners, he was granted a rarely used special landmark permit that will allow him to fix up the house. The trick is, he has to preserve the house’s historical integrity but also make it safe for habitation if he ever wants to live there. “There is no code for, say, 18-inch-thick stone walls with no insulation. And when it’s been empty this long they require you to bring it up to current codes,” he said.
His career as a home inspector helps. “Everyone knows I’m careful,” Steinhausen said.
His hobbies help, too. “I’m a scavenger. I’m already stockpiling late 1800s stuff.” He’s been joined in his quest by neighbor Marvin Bice, who’s given countless hours of free labor. It also helps that Steinhausen knows the time period of the home’s construction so well. He’s dismantled painstakingly built barns and documented and photographed falling-down barns across the area. He knows masonry, too. He’s worked in restoration. He has a degree in construction management. He’s also an amateur photographer with a love of Nebraska history, pursuing historical questions such as searching for the grave of Standing Bear’s daughter, who died in Southeast Nebraska during the Poncas’ forced march to Oklahoma. Those are skills he’ll need to save the Krull House and contribute his own story to the tales he’s gathered.
The house will retain an 1870s feel when it’s done, he said. The family plans to add a wing with at least a modern kitchen, bathroom and laundry room. Nearing 40, Steinhausen sees the Krull House as a place to retire someday. “That’s why I say I’m on a 20-year plan,” he said.
While dozens of new rooflines can be seen from the family’s home just a few miles from Lincoln, living in the Krull House will put him and Kim further out from the path of development. On this place almost forgotten, once hidden in a thicket of trees. But, to Steinhausen, the perfect location.