Barbara Drechsel, wife of Jacob Kirsch never wanted to own a tavern. It’s nothing she ever aspired to. In fact, she may not have wanted to own it, even when she did. And she assuredly did NOT want to own it quite the way it unfolded.
It pays to keep in touch with friends at the historical society. Jenny messaged me this week with the original deed by which Barbara came into possession of the Kirsch House which included the actual house where the family lived, hotel, restaurant, bar, cigar store, and railroad ticket office.
The outside of the document stated that this was a warranty deed conveying property from Jacob Kirsch to Barbara Kirsch and was recorded on March 28, 1887 at 9 in the morning. Jacob acknowledged that he executed the deed.
Seems simple enough, right?
The flip side is the actual original deed itself, complete with Jacob’s signature! Hurray!!! Original deeds are not kept by the county clerk, but copied by hand into the deed book.
I have absolutely no idea how the original deed came to be held at the local museum, but I’m exceedingly grateful that it did. Barbara Kirsch sold the Kirsch house some 34 years later, in 1921, and eventually went to Wabash to live with her daughter. Somehow, the deed found its way to the historical society a century after Barbara sold the Kirsch House.
The Deed is “Unusual”
This document itself was very…um…unusual.
To begin with, Jacob and Barbara were husband and wife. They were married in 1866, bought the Kirsch House property in 1875, had several children, and no, they did not get divorced. That was my first thought too.
I originally found the recording of the deed back in 1989 or 1990, but I had never seen the actual deed itself, nor the additional information it contained.
To begin with, Jacob states that he conveyed the property to Barbara for the sum of $10,000. Wow! I assumed it has been for the standard $1 and love, but it’s not. I wonder why not?
No place does it say that Barbara is Jacob’s wife. For a few years, I wondered if there was some mistake. But no, there’s no mistake.
Did money actually change hands? Doubtful. Where would Barbara Drechsel Kirsch have obtained $10,000 that was hers alone? Both of her parents were still living, so there was no inheritance.
What was going on?
What Does the Deed Say?
Being the ? part of in lots two hundred and eighty (280) and two hundred and eighty five (285) in the City of Aurora and bounded as follows towit: <metes and bounds>
My eyes kind of glaze over the metes and bounds when city lots are described, because I already know quite well where this property is located. Not to mention this handwriting is atrocious.
The interesting part followed the land description.
Also the following described personal property towit: All the household, dining room and kitchen furniture now contained in the house situate in the above described real estate; also all the barroom and office furniture, fixtures, liquors, cigars and all pertaining to the bar and office on said premises.
In other words, not just the Kirsch House itself, but the tavern, hotel, restaurant, cigar store, and railroad office business within the Kirsch House. Jacob also sold fine cigars and liquor, and now Barbara did too.
The 1880s ushered in the golden age of Cigars. Smoking cigars was considered very cultured, gentlemanly, and desirable. Trimming and lighting a cigar appropriately was an art in and of itself. Was Barbara a cigar aficionado? And a bartender when necessary? I bet she was.
This wasn’t just a formality. Barbara took her ownership very seriously as illustrated by her stationery.
In the newspapers over the next few years, I found a few mentions of Jacob as proprietor – muscle memory or an assumption on the part of the reporters perhaps, but eventually, I found stationery with Barbara’s name listed as proprietor.
Jacob died in 1917 and after that, everyone would have known Barbara owned the property and not thought anything of it under those circumstances. I’d wager most everyone knew about the 1887 transaction as well, because, everyone but EVERYONE knew about “the incident.”
The townspeople all might have known then, but it wasn’t until 2008 that I discovered the back story because, by the time Mom came along, no one discussed what had happened in 1886.
It had become an intentionally forgotten dark little secret.
The 1886 Drama
Jacob Kirsch was involved in a lynching in 1886, specifically on August 19th. This lynching probably isn’t exactly what you think when you think of a lynching.
A white man described in the newspaper as a “tramp bricklayer” by the name of William F. Watkins became drunk on the job (again) and was dismissed from a construction site in Aurora. He returned, even drunker, and stabbed Louis Hilbert, the man who had fired him, four times. The victim died on the spot – and the stabbing itself was witnessed by several men. That attack was calculated, intentional, cold-blooded murder.
Louis Hilbert was a well-liked and respected local contractor and a group of men attending the summer farmer’s fair caught and restrained Watkins, waiting for the constable. The crowd quickly grew, saw Hilbert’s lifeless bodying laying in a pool of his own blood, and became further enraged.
Watkins was taken to the local coal yard of the distillery a couple of blocks away and hanged from a derrick by a crowd of hundreds. Watkins was dead 20 minutes or so after he had killed Hilbert.
No criminal charges were filed against anyone.
February 26, 1887
Jacob signed the deed conveying the property to Barbara on February 26th of the following year. Apparently, even though neither criminal charges nor a civil lawsuit hadn’t been filed, Jacob knew something was in the offing.
Jacob was only 46 years old and a sharpshooter, but his signature looks shaky. Was he trembling when he signed?
March 3, 1887
On March 3, 1887, the Indianapolis, Indiana newspaper reported that a suit was initiated in Federal Court in Indianapolis by Watkins’s heirs against a group of men accused of murdering Watkins. The amount of the damages claimed was $10,000. The actual complaint was filed on March 2, 1887.
March 17, 1887
On March 17, 1887, the administrator of William Watkins’ estate filed a document in the suit against several men in the death of Watkins detailing their allegations and demands.
March 28, 1887
The deed between Jacob and Barbara was recorded.
It’s interesting that the amount of the transaction is $10,000, the same amount as the lawsuit’s demand. However, the lawsuit named several defendants in addition to Jacob. Perhaps the thought was that $10,000 was the MOST that could be found against Jacob (or anyone) – although at the time of the conveyance the suit had not been filed. Ironically, that deed would have confirmed to Watkins’s attorney that Jacob did have $10,000. Clearly, this conveyance was designed to protect the Kirsch House from the lawsuit and limit the damage to no more than $10,000 which was equivalent to over $300,000 in today’s dollars.
Of course, it’s possible that the deed was backdated to before the lawsuit was filed, given that it wasn’t recorded until March 28th. However, a notary witnessed Jacob’s signature on February 26th. Was that normal at that time? There’s no way to know without looking at other original deeds and original deeds are not generally available.
May 23, 1889
Two years later, Jacob offered to settle for $5, which Watkin’s attorney refused. The parties agreed to a trial without a jury, and the judge found in favor of the defendants. The Kirsch House would have been safe, but Barbara owned the Kirsch House, and everything in it, for the remainder of her life.
Barbara was no hands-off owner. She ran the establishment both before and after Jacob’s death – through a litany of tragedies described in this article about her life.
In fact, Barbara ran the Kirsch House just as any man of the time would have done, with one exception. A man would not have also done all the cooking and cleaning for both the family and the guests.
I can’t help but wonder why the property was never deeded back to Jacob after the legal jeopardy had passed.
A Female Proprietor
A female proprietor was unheard of – but Barbara did what she needed to do, although the couple appeared to have run the establishment together as long as Jacob was able. I know for sure he tended bar, at least from time to time.
Jacob and Barbara are pictured above in a colorized photo (thank you MyHeritage) sometime between 1905 and 1909.
Jacob had an unfortunate hunting accident in October of 1892 where he was shot in the side of his head. He was expected to die, but miraculously lived. The wound badly damaged his ear and face, and cost him his eye. He was fitted with a glass eye which he would pop out at will and scare the neighborhood children who came to visit with him as he sat outside under the awning in front of the Kirsch House.
Jacob was never the same, and if Barbara wasn’t already shouldering the majority of the responsibility for the Kirsch House, she assuredly was after the gunshot wound.
Surprisingly, Jacob continued competitive trap shooting after his accident with amazing success, winning a tri-state championship in the 1890s. Jacob progressively slowed down and his health declined until his death of stomach cancer in 1917. Barbara’s responsibilities increased.
The Kirsch House advertisements during this time read, “The house is pleasantly situated near the railroad depot and will be found the most desirable place in the city of Aurora at which to stop. Good wines, liquors, and cigars.”
I can’t help but wonder if the Kirsch House sported the obligatory stereotypical Cigar Store Indian, perched perhaps outside on the sidewalk or near the ticket window. The Cigar Store Indian became a very effective form of visual advertisement.
How did Jacob actually feel about Barbara owning the Kirsch House and all the contents? Was it perhaps a private joke between them, or conversely, no laughing matter.
The Kirsch House Back Then
When Mom, my daughter, and I visited the Kirsch House in the late 1980s, almost exactly a hundred years after Jacob signed the deed to Barbara, the building was 130-140 years old, built in the 1850s, and not in good repair.
The original bar was still present and functioning, and on the top of the bar was decoupaged a postcard from yesteryear.
You could see the public entry doors, at left, leading into the bar and public dining room, the barroom window advertising “Fine Cigars” and the family entrance into the parlor, at right. Guest rooms were located on the second floor.
Another view shows the depot and the black window, by the horse’s head, where train tickets were sold and freight shipped. That would have been the office referenced by Jacob in the deed.
The Kirsch house functioned as both a ticket seller for people and for shipping freight too. The door showing near the pole, at right, was the easy quick entrance into the restaurant/bar for thirsty travelers while they waited for their train.
During our visit, Mom found a brick that had fallen out of the wall of the Kirsch House, then known by a different name, when a window had been replaced. Mom asked if she could have the brick that was laying in the alleyway.
I took a photo of the postcards on the bar, and Mom asked her friend to paint the Kirsch House, with its celebrated awning over the sidewalk and neighboring depot on the brick.
Mom loved the result.
This painted brick lived with Mom for many years and now resides with me.
As of December 2021, the Kirsch House building is once again being repaired and restored, granted another chapter in its long life. Barbara, the 34-year proprietor, would be quite pleased that her Kirsch House lives on.
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