The Kiwanis club got a history lesson Wednesday afternoon, but no one was falling asleep.
The Kiwanians heard from Carolyn Kaye, the curator of the Stephen D. Lee home and museum. With the 75th Pilgrimage kicking off Monday, Kaye gave the crowd the 20-minute version of how the home came to be and how it still stands today.
The home was built by Maj. Thomas G. Blewett in 1844. He spent $80,000 on the home, which Kaye told the crowd would be nearly $4 million today. The cast iron animals in the front lawn were a part of the original garden. When Major Blewett died, the home passed to his daughter, Regina Blewett Harrison, the widow of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ lawyer, James T. Harrison. She added the wrought iron front porch. When Regina Blewett Harrison died in 1890, the home passed to her daughters, one of whom was married to Lt. General Stephen D. Lee.
General Lee was from South Carolina, and did not move to Columbus until after the Civil War. He died in 1908. The home was passed on to Miss Mary Harrison, who continued to live in it and the general’s son Blewett Lee, who was a lawyer in Chicago.
When President William H. Taft came to Columbus in 1909, he wanted to see the home of the late Stephen D. Lee, but Kaye said there was a hitch. Miss Mary Harrison said it would be improper for her, a single woman, to allow the President into the home — she had never met him, after all. Taft had a cabinet member from Columbus, Judge J.M. Dickerson. Dickerson got word to Blewett Lee in Chicago, and he made the trip to help his aunt welcome Taft into the family home.
When Mary Harrison died, Kaye said Blewett Lee sold the house and the block to the city for education. When the school was constructed, the home itself became the home economics wing. In 1959, the school burned down entirely in a blaze onlookers described as loud and hot. Kaye said firefighters from the Columbus Air Force Base were largely credited with cutting off the blaze before it could reach the home.
Kaye said it appeared those were the last days for the home. The school board voted to tear everything down. One woman wasn’t going to let that happen.
The late Florence Hazard, who founded the Columbus-Lowndes Historical Society, protested the decision. The historical society teamed up with the Society for the Preservation of Antiquities to form the Stephen D. Lee Foundation. They raised money to build a museum, Kaye said. The Columbus mayor at the time granted the society the home, but gave them no money. Kaye said the group worked grassroots style, once raising $75 at a BBQ to help keep the museum afloat.
Hazard’s daughter, Eulalie Davis, continues her mother’s legacy today. Davis is the head of the Stephen D. Lee Foundation. She said the house still needs money and dedicated workers to keep it up. Everyone in the foundation is a volunteer, the only paid employees are the cleaning crews who come once a week. Davis said that the board is active, and that their donations come from all corners of the community.
“This is a house that is a testament to volunteerism,” Davis said.
Davis said it takes a lot to keep the house going, but she feels a responsibility to continue her mother’s work.
The home will be featured prominently during Pilgrimage, but regular visitors can come to the home on Fridays. Kaye said there are usually around 20 visitors a month. She meets people for specially scheduled visits frequently, like last Saturday, when a Canadian man called Kaye from the home’s porch and asked for a tour.
She drove down and gave him one.