Gurler House renovation projects underway

DeKALB – Chris Carpenter remembers walking past the Gurler House, 205 Pine St. in DeKalb, on his way to St. Mary School as a child.

“I remember that the Gurler House looked about the same as it is today,” Carpenter said. “I knew it had something to do with barbed wire and old DeKalb history, but I was never exactly sure what it was.”

About four months ago, Carpenter, an owner of Service Now Home Services, 17742 Somonauk Road in DeKalb, received a call from a member of the Friends of Gurler House NFP, looking for pricing quotes to replace the Gurler House’s heating system.

“My family has been in the heating and air conditioning business for three generations, my grandfather started in 1949,” Carpenter said. “I remember walking past the Gurler House every day and knew I wanted to help. We’re happy to help preserve DeKalb’s history. The house was built before the Civil War and is still there today. I hope it will remain standing 100 years from now.”

Carpenter donated 33% of the heating system’s cost, about $1,000, back to the Friends of Gurler House NFP, formerly the Gurler Heritage Association, founded in 1978.

“The old furnace was more than 25 years old and it had worn out its useful life,” Carpenter said.

Replacing the furnace was one of the main renovation projects the Friends have been working on. The organization hopes to make the house’s upstairs unit available for rent, creating revenue for the nonprofit.

“In addition to the furnace project, we also completed back porch and foundation work,” Friends treasurer Eli Vasilopoulous said. “Our biggest project is painting, and the barn needs some work and a new roof. We’d also like to address and update the plumbing fixtures and electricity. We want to do some repair work, but keep the historical look to the home.” 

The Gurler House was built by Ellzey P. Young and Alida L. Ellwood-Young in 1857-58. Alida was the younger sister of barbed wire baron Isaac Ellwood.

The house was purchased by the George Gurler family in 1893. The Gurler brothers moved to DeKalb after the Civil War and were involved in local businesses.

Vasilopoulous said the family’s greatest success occurred “in 1900, when the Gurler Bros. Dairy sent samples of their ‘pure milk’ to the Paris Exposition.”

“Innovations in milk sanitation is the Gurler claim to fame,” Vasilopoulous said. “At the time, dairies from this area shipped a lot of milk to Chicago, and this being before pasteurization, there were often issues with contamination. The Gurlers addressed this with a series of hygiene measures such as wearing clean lab coats when milking the cows, painting the barns white to make them easier to keep clean and ensuring the cows themselves were carefully cleaned.”

George Gurler was the oldest surviving Civil War veteran in DeKalb, and lived in the house until 1940. When he died, his daughter, Beatrice “Bea,” inherited and restored the house to an older configuration while also dividing it into two living spaces with modernized kitchens and baths. She lived in the house until 1977, when she died.

After Bea’s death, a nephew of the family living in California inherited the house and asked that it be sold at auction. The house was purchased by a local real estate firm for development, but in 1977 and 1978, a group of locals rallied to build support for saving the property. After a campaign of letter-writing, community outreach and fundraising, they managed to gather enough funds and support to purchase the house and place it on the national historic register.

Since then, it has been maintained as a public meeting space and historic site. Through the years, the house has hosted an annual folk music festival and yard concerts, community picnics and private dinners hosted by local chefs, weddings, plant sales, art shows, book clubs, holiday parties and more.

“While not a formal museum like Ellwood House or the Glidden Homestead, Gurler House is meant to be a community gathering place for indoor and outdoor events,” said Heath Johnson, Friends board president. “The house and yard are available for use as a gathering space for any individual or group, and we make it available on an at-will donation basis, [so] there are no economic barriers to someone who wants to host an event in a charming location.” 

Johnson said one of the Friends’ main goals is to invite the community to volunteer or participate on the board of directors.

“We are an all-volunteer board, recently reorganized from the former Gurler Heritage Association and with a new name, Friends of Gurler House NFP,” Johnson said. “We are especially interested in connecting with people who have both a passion for local history and skills in finance, organizational leadership, event planning/coordination, gardening/landscaping and home repair.”

“If you love DeKalb history or just want to help, we could use volunteers interested in gardening, raking leaves, dusting, cleaning or organizing our book collection,” Vasilopoulos said. “There are all kinds of ways to get involved.”

Friends of Gurler House will be participating in Give DeKalb County on May 2. To donate, visit www.givedekalbcounty.org/organizations/friends-of-gurler-house-nfp.

For more information about the Gurler House or to volunteer, email gurlerhousedekalb@gmail.com or visit www.facebook.com/gurlerhouse.

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