Neighbors: For 20 years, Grays have lovingly maintained historic home of Jacksonville’s noted Civil War general

Mary Gray knew something was up the day her husband Ron asked her a question.

“Ron came home one day and said ‘we’ve collected Jacksonville memorabilia for years. How would you like to have the ultimate Jacksonville collectible?’” Mary said. “And I thought ‘oh no, there’s going to be a Ferris wheel in my front yard!’”

But it wasn’t an iconic Eli Bridge Co. Ferris wheel that Ron, who has since passed, was talking about. It was much bigger than that. The Grays were soon to be the owners of the historic Gen. Benjamin Grierson Home on East State Street in Jacksonville.

The previous owner of the house, Charlotte Cleeland, had died and Ron and Mary Gray decided to buy the Grierson Home in 2003, committing themselves to restoring and maintaining the famous Civil War general’s residence.

“Ron knew Mrs. Cleeland when he was managing the Holiday Inn and he decided to name the restaurant there Grierson’s,” Mary said. “He and Mrs. Cleeland were like two little elves. They would sit in the restaurant and talk and have coffee. The more they talked, the more that he got involved with Grierson.”

Ron was already involved in the annual Jacksonville Civil War re-enactment event held at Community Park in General Grierson’s honor before it was discontinued. After much discussion, Ron and Mary decided to take on Grierson’s home as well. They paid $85,000 for the house and over the years spent $60,000 on its restoration.

“I was just beginning my career with ReMax at the time and I knew that he needed something to do because he was retired and he was bored,” Mary said. “Our philosophy was, when you buy an older home like this, you’re a short-term caretaker. If you want the house to survive, you have to do what needs to be done.”

A lot needed to be done. Mary said that Cleeland had been a good caretaker of the home, but the 150-year-old structure still needed completely new electrical and climate control systems, for starters.

“When we initially got here we kind of felt overwhelmed. We had to sit down and re-think everything, to figure out how much time, money and energy we could put in,” Mary said. “Thank goodness for Joy Becker. Farmer’s State Bank and Trust Co. was very supportive of us, they are very committed to preserving history.”

The Grays decided to use boilers instead of a newer furnace system, one of many decisions they made to maintain the home’s original historic character.

“Ron was bound and determined to keep the windows and I’m glad we did. Watching the light come in those big windows in the bedroom is golden,” Mary said. “We didn’t want to move any walls and we wanted to keep it in the time period of 1865 to 1890. But the keeping room and the kitchen needed to be reconfigured to make them more functional, because this is where we lived.”

The couple had previously owned an older house on Westminster Street near Illinois College, “so we had dealt with an older home for years. We weren’t scared of it and we really jumped in,” Mary said. “With older homes there is always a list of things that you have to do, and in fact I’m working on a new list right now.”

Mary said the Grierson Home walls are three-bricks thick, made with bricks that were likely made on the property. The 4,500-square-foot house also features a large walk-in attic with a stage and two small dressing rooms where Grierson, a music teacher by profession, would conduct lessons for his students.

The Grays filled the house with period furniture they acquired piece by piece.

“Every piece of furniture in this house has a story,” Mary said. “I gave it to Ron, Ron gave it to me, we bought it together, we hauled it in a snowstorm from St. Louis, we stood at an auction all day to buy it.”

Mary said friends and the Jacksonville community were very supportive of their restoration efforts, and the Grays returned the favor by holding open houses during the Civil War re-enactment events in which Ron was still heavily involved. Ron’s health was declining at the time, and Mary feels the Grierson projects kept him going because of his passion for local history. Ron Gray died in 2016.

“Ron always said that when he passed away that I would have a for sale sign in the yard the next week,” Mary said. “But that hasn’t been true, and that really surprised me. I have come full circle and have realized that it’s important and I actually enjoy living here even though it’s a lot of work.”

After 20 years in an older house, Mary said she is downsizing some of the things that Ron collected.

“I will be re-doing the kitchen, and next spring I will do more landscaping on the almost two and a half acres here,” she said.

Mary said the front part of the Grierson Home dates from around 1850 with other portions added in ensuing years. His wife, Alice, lived there when Grierson went to fight in the Civil War, during which he led a daring cavalry raid through the Confederacy that made General Grierson a household name at the time.

Alice later joined Benjamin in Texas where he commanded a regiment of Black troops, who came to be known as the Buffalo Soldiers, in the American West from 1866 to 1890. When Alice died in the 1890s, Benjamin married widow Lillian King in 1897 and he returned with his new wife to Jacksonville. Since Grierson’s original house had been sold, the Griersons lived in another Jacksonville residence after his return.

The Griersion Home was eventually owned by MacMurray College and bought by Joseph and Charlotte Cleeland in 1960s. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Mary would like to open the house for tours in the near future, and hopes that traditional local history tours for seventh-grade students will once again include the Grierson Home on the agenda.

“I’m happy to be here, I’m happy to be able to maintain it, and I do get a lot of help from a lot of family and friends,” Mary said. “We need to keep as much history going here as we can and I think Grierson is a big part of that.”