Austin-Whittemore House

A scene as wintry as the one depicted in this file photo of the Austin-Whittemore House likely won’t greet participants at the conclusion of the annual Clay County Historical Society’s Tour of Homes in the Vermillion area. Historical society members, however, have been busy this past week, getting the interior of the historical home decorated with a holiday theme. The tour will conclude at the house with caroling, piano music, refreshments, and plenty of time to socialize with friends and neighbors.

For at least 45 years, the Clay County Historical Society (CCHS) has been offering a Tour of Homes in the Vermillion area. This year’s version takes place Friday, Dec. 7, from 4:30 until 7:30 p.m. and promises to be a jolly kick-off to the holiday season, said Wess Pravecek, executive director of the CCHS.

“Last year, we had our largest Tour of Homes to date,” said Pravecek. “We sold 290 tickets, and this year, if the weather cooperates, we think we will have at least that many participants and maybe more! This event has really grown into a fun community celebration that people love.”

The CCHS’s Tour of Homes, which Pravecek has traced back to at least 1971 (before the Austin Whittemore House had even been restored!), is an important annual fundraiser for the organization, which helps to preserve and promote local history. Tickets for the tour cost $20 each or $25 if you’d like to use a shuttle service between stops (make sure to call ahead if you are interested in this option as space is limited).

This year’s tour will feature five diverse homes, including the following:

The home of Craig and Marsha Thompson, at 1416 Rockwell Trail. Built in 2017 in the Bliss Pointe Development, this home is a ranch-style dwelling with a lower level walkout that overlooks the bluff. The back patio and upper level deck of the home are the Thompsons’ favorite places to take in beautiful views of the area.

Another home overlooking the bluff is that of Brandon and Erika Schapekahm, 215 Court Street. This very historic home was built by Charles E. Prentis in 1892. Prentis was one of the five trustees when Vermillion was incorporated in 1893. Of course, Prentis Park was later named in memory of Charles’s wife after he donated land to create the park.

At 514 Burbank Road, meanwhile, at the home of Arnold and Janis Rokusek, tour-goers will find a late 20th century modified Cape Cod style home, built in 2005 at the bottom of South University Hill. One of the great features of this house is a large front porch. The semi-open floor plan with a center staircase is also an interesting and major focal point of the home.

Art and Lana Rusch, at 925 Ridgecrest Drive, will be ready to greet visitors at their home. Their house, built in 1969, also offers great views of the bluff. The Rusches have updated the ranch style house to meet their style and needs, recently adding a master bedroom suite.

Finally, at the home of Cleland and Pat Cook, 2711 East Main Street, tour goers will find a two-story brick Virginia Colonial home built by family members in 1981. A water-exchange heat pump is used to heat and cool the entire home. Deer, pheasants and other wildlife are frequently seen on the acreage.

Of course, the Tour of Homes is not complete without a final stop at the Austin-Whittemore House, which will be decked out for the season with plenty of holiday decorations. There will also be caroling, piano music, delicious refreshments, and plenty of time to socialize with friends and neighbors after touring is completed.

“Things get swinging around here toward the end of the night, after everyone’s pretty much back from the tour,” said Pravecek. “Last year, we acquired a piano from First Lutheran Church in Wakonda. We will have someone playing the piano. We have been known to break into Christmas carols every once in a while. … We will have Santa wandering through the crowd, and we hope everyone will have a chance to check out our first-floor bathroom project, which we’ve finally completed. We’re pretty excited about our new, old bathroom!”

The CCHS started work on the first floor bathroom project last summer, after landing a $2,000 seed grant from the Dakota Hospital Foundation. Additional fundraising and investment by CCHS members earlier this year helped ensure that the $30,000 project could be completed this fall.

“The Austin-Whittemore home was built in 1882, and all the comforts of home at that time weren’t what we think of today,” explains Pravecek of the project. “Originally, there was no indoor plumbing.”

When indoor plumbing was added, the bathroom was located on the second floor, a problem for visitors with limited mobility. So, adding a bathroom to the first floor has been an important goal for the CCHS, but it was not an easy endeavor. Because the Austin-Whittemore House is on the National Registry of Historic Places, major changes can’t be made to the structure. So, CCHS Board member Jim Stone had to create a special plan for a first floor restroom that would preserve the integrity of the house while providing for the needs of modern visitors. What Stone ended up doing was creating a bathroom space at the rear part of the building, in what was essentially a breezeway area.

“The addition for the bathroom isn’t visible from the street,” said Pravecek. “The bathroom is essentially off an area where the porch was, in what we have referred to as the breezeway to the outhouse.”

How the first-floor bathroom fits onto the historic home is something to marvel at, said Pravecek. So, on your tour, don’t forget to check out this new water closet!

Tickets for next week’s Tour of Homes may be purchased at the Austin-Whittemore House, Davis Pharmacy and from Lisa Johnson at the Spa at Wynie Maes. Hosts will check off their home on the ticket as guests enter. The ticket is also to be used for the reception. Further questions can be directed to Pravecek at 624-8266.

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