Home Tour: 200-year-old rural Indiana saltbox is a labor of love and four decades of restoration

WEST HARRISON, Ind. — The year 1814 is scratched into the plaster just below the roof line of Doug and Ellen Dodd’s West Harrison home.

They should supplement that with a carving that reads “Restored and expanded by Doug Dodd, decorated by Ellen Dodd.”

The couple’s 43 years of painstaking work outside and inside the old saltbox house built by an unknown Indiana Pioneer 201 years ago merits that kind of permanent recognition. The home is just over the Indiana-Ohio border and just north of Interstate 74, about a 30-minute drive from Downtown.

“I saved that sumbitch from falling in,” said Doug in the 72-year-old’s native south central Ohio drawl that belies his Ohio State education but befits the remote surroundings he and his wife have conquered. “It really was on its way.”

Doug, a landscaper with a degree in ornamental horticulture, and Ellen, who worked 25 years at the Bright Veterinary Clinic and is the ultimate cat rescuer, bought the decrepit stone house on Indiana 46 on Jan. 29, 1972. It had been unoccupied for a year or so and had major structural issues.

Doug said his father told him to knock it down with a backhoe and start from scratch.

“This place was such a wreck,” Doug said. “You want to hear snake stories, we can tell you snake stories.”

And where there are snakes, there are mice, added Ellen, who grew up in Middletown and Springfield.

“We lived with snakes, yes, and the mice would come out and sit in a dCON box and eat poison right in front of you,” she said.

Seeing the Potential
But Doug and Ellen saw the potential in the house and the 15 acres it sits on.

Doug dug in – literally. He built a long driveway and a series of stone retaining walls and water flow system that keep the house dry. He added three second-story bedrooms to the house’s first addition during the brutal winter of 1977-78 and tore down a third addition that had been “redneck construction done in the 1950s.”

He replaced the chimney, shored up the foundation in the walk-out basement, replaced the roof and extended it over a side porch he added.

“I did most of the work myself,” Doug said, just as he has for his one-man business, Terrascape Nursery, for more than 40 years.

Doug also built a garage and an old-style barn into a bank a stone’s throw from the house’s back door. He installed a large patio and planted a handful of Norway spruce trees that have reached their full height, as well as interesting perennials such as a Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick shrub.

All of Doug’s landscaping other than the spruces is pretty much dormant now. And though he said he’d like to show it off when the property is in bloom in the spring, there is plenty of his carpentry and craftsmanship to see inside.

Filled With Antiques And Stories At Every Turn
Visitors enter the 3,000-square-foot Dodd house through what Doug believes was originally the saltbox’s side door.

They might have to dodge one or two of the couple’s 11 indoor cats. (Another 18 have their own Doug-made cat colony that resembles a conservatory.)

The main room of the old house is dramatically but safely sloped, dropping six or more inches from the front of the house to the stone fireplace in the back. It is well decorated with 19th- and 20th-century antiques, and the railroad tie beams in the living room’s cathedral ceiling pop out against the white ceiling.

But that’s not what catches the eye. There are two standalone features in the room: a four-foot-wide colonial style chandelier made by David T. Smith of Morrow, and a billowing green tree painted on the wall above the fireplace by the Dodds’ friend, artist Tom Greene of nearby Cedar Creek, Ind.

A third feature – the walnut mantel – has a story behind it Ellen likes to tell. The Dodds purchased it from the late antiques dealer Clark Garrett of Fairhaven, Ohio. The mantel fit so perfectly, the couple has their suspicions.

“I sometimes look at that and wonder if it was stripped right out of this house,” Ellen said.

The rest of woodwork in the room – mostly old oak, walnut and poplar – is highly crafted, in contrast to the room’s original stark and somewhat sloppy state. Doug did it all himself, using wood he reclaimed from old houses and new boards from a local miller, Wilhelm Lumber.

The balusters on the staircase that leads up to a loft lounge are reclaimed, but Doug added the posts and rail, using new wood that over the years has developed a matching patina from the many hands that have rubbed it.

An Entrance For Pigs and Chickens?
To the left of the front door in the corner is a hole in the original oak floor the opens to a tight spiral staircase leading down to the basement. It has a ground level door to the front yard and once was used as a root cellar and mudroom.

“We were told that pigs could go in and out of here, and I’m sure the chickens took the same route,” Doug said, gesturing to the door.

While Doug described all the structural work he has done to make it a dry living space, Ellen pointed out the highlights of the basement’s décor. More than 50 Longaberger baskets, less than a third of her collection at its peak, hang from the nine original oak branch beams.

In the center of the room is another pride-and-joy piece, a large authentic Civil War drum and leather stick.

“My dad found it in the hay loft of a barn and it was crushed into an oval,” Ellen said. “My dad gently worked it back to round.”

A third antique the Dodds are proud of is a wardrobe from the 1830 or ’40s they bought for $17 at a Clark Garrett auction. It was in “pretty bad shape,” Doug said, until he restored it.

“I’m a chainsaw carpenter, but this piece here, I’m pretty proud of it,” he said.

Back upstairs and through a second door in the living room is the dining room, which was part of the first addition built 20-30 years after the saltbox. The former kitchen serves as the dining room and is decorated in the period, from artwork to furniture.

Beyond the dining room is the kitchen where Ellen spends a great deal of her time enjoying her cats and plotting out the next piece of Fiestaware to add to her collection of some 550 pieces. (It is Ellen’s second largest collection – she owns about 2,000 Christmas decorations.)

Doug and Ellen designed the kitchen addition and he built it in 2003. It features a bay window and eat-in nook, knotty pine cupboards, walnut tongue-and-groove flooring, a backsplash using Louisville-made Hadley Pottery tiles Ellen had stockpiled for 23 years and a grand cupboard for the Fiestaware.

It was 1976 when she bought her first piece of the art deco dinnerware made in the Ohio River city of Newell, W.Va.

“I had an aunt in Kettering who had Fiesta, and I remember eating meals on it and thinking how cool it was,” Ellen said.

She was driving away from an antiques show in Northgate Mall when she passed an antiques shop up the road. Ellen stopped, went in and bought her first two Fiesta bowls.

So with all her collections, does her husband collect?

“Not really,” she said. “He just gripes about everything, but not me. I think this is what makes it a house.”

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