The history of the Jennie E Caldwell Home goes back to Jennie’s grandfather, Edward Sumner. Born in Vermont in 1811, Sumner came to Benton County in 1846 and purchased his first land, the so called ‘Indian Float’ which was twelve miles long, and four miles wide, from an Indian trader named Alex Coquilland (who is given credit for establishing South Bend) for 4,000$. Mr. Sumner was a noted cattle baron during the Civil War. The price of cattle was high, and that was when he made his fortune. He was one of the wealthiest cattle barons in the Midwest. At one time, Mr. Sumner owned 36,000 acres of land that extended from Indiana to Illinois.
Jess Minerva, Jennie’s mother, married William Bennett Fowler. William and Minerva Sumner Fowler had one child, a daughter named Jennie E. Fowler. Jennie was born in Watseka Illinois in 1865. She was educated in the public school in Earl Park and attended Dearborn Seminary in Chicago for about two years. Jennie was described by her friends as a ‘rugged, buxom girl who loved the outdoors’. On January 26th 1887, at the age of 22, Jennie Married Harry Caldwell. Harry was an educated and accomplished scholar. At the time of their marriage, Harry was a private secretary to Governor Oglesby of Illinois. Harry was also a member of the Illinois State Legislature from 1903-1905. Harry and his young bride spent several months in Springfield Illinois before they moved to Chicago and made their home with Jennie’s grandmother. Harry then began a successful law practice. Harry was born in 1852 and died on December 4th, 1908.
In 1892, Harry and Jennie moved to Earl Park and into the Caldwell Home. While living in the home, they were very happy, even though Jennie miscarried in 1890 and then could not have children. Jennie cared for the home, managed her employees and paid her servants. She kept in close contact with her neighbors, and was a charming hostess. Many cultured ladies and gentlemen enjoyed her kind hospitality, vivacious conversations, wit, good humor, and cheerfulness. George Ade was one of her many guests. Jennie was always interested in the farmers and families who farmed the Caldwell land. When one of the tenants or his wife was ill, Jennie would hire a nurse to help out and even go herself to help when needed.
Jennie traveled extensively by train, which stopped at the Caldwell Home to pick her up, and also in her Marman car. When her can could not be fixed, she had the help hook horses up to it to pull her around.
Jennie died January 20th, 1912 of Brights Disease. She was 47 years of age. At the time of her death she owned 6,311 acres of Benton County farm land. Some of the land in the town of Earl Park, and the remainder in Richland and York townships. Jennie left her magnificent home and entire estate for the care of financially helpless women and their children. The original home (which Jennie had lived in) opened January 15th, 1917, and burned to the ground on may 5th of that same year. In the fall of 1918 the present home was built of brick and stone at a cost of $35,000. The original home consists of 26 rooms, a full basement, and attic. However, the home never functioned as intended by Jennie, due to financial difficulties. Mrs. Caldwell’s relatives sued to break the trust, and two or three attempts were made to open the home, but prolonged and costly litigation in the courts almost depleted the estate. By 1943 there were only 2,000 of the 6,000 acres left, and the indebtedness of approximately $20,000. In 1943 three new trustees were appointed and under their management and hard work, they revised farming operations and the trust was once again solvent. The home was actually opened as a retirement home for unmarried women in 1950. On May 2nd, 1976 the home was redecorated and a new roof and eaves installed. Carpeting was installed throughout the home.
The home today has a staff around the clock to care for the ladies, cook and clean. Each lady has her own room, and can enjoy all the other spacious rooms in the home. Meals are served in the beautiful dining room. The ladies guests are always welcome at meal time. Birthdays are special days as the cook prepares the birthday ladies request for the day. Once a week, the beautician comes to the home to do the ladies hair, keeping them beautiful. In the chapel, services are conducted every other week, with pastors from the area coming to offer services. The nurse visit’s the ladies each week to check their health needs. Our nurse or administrator take the ladies to the doctor or dentist appointments as needed.
The Caldwell Home still has many articles from the Sumner-Caldwell family days. A blue set of china dishes graces the dining room. Many books are in the homes book case that Jennie autographed to her beloved father, William Fowler, and her husband, Harry Caldwell. The home also has the will case books dated September 1913.
There was a lady that was cared for at the home by the name of Iretta McClure Kaiser. Iretta was born in Earl Park. Her father became very sick when Iretta was about 9 years old. Her mother sent her with a little blue pail out to the Caldwell Home where Jennie’s family would milk the cow and fill her pail with fresh milk. While they were filling the pail, Iretta would be given freshly baked cookies and milk. Iretta remembers when her sister Grace was born, Jennie sent a complete layette from Chicago. She remembers Jennie as a wonderful person who always helped other people. After Iretta’s husband passed away she came to the Caldwell Home where, through Jennie’s continued generosity, they cared for her until her death.
Located one half mile directly south of the Caldwell Home is the Sumner Cemetery. The private cemetery is maintained by the Caldwell Home Trustees and contains the remains of the Sumner, Caldwell, and Fowler families, as well as faithful workers of the Sumner family. Also resting there is a former lady of the Caldwell home. The cemetery has a black wrought iron fence surrounding it. A large 22 foot granite monument stands in the main part of the cemetery. This is a statue of Edward Sumner with the bust of his wife Abigail at his feet. The monument, constructed of stone, was shipped to Benton County from New York at the cost of about $10,000 in 1880.
The Jennie E. Caldwell Trust is administered by the Board of Trustees, appointed by the Judge of the Benton Circuit Court. The Trustees manage the Home, the land it is situated on, and about 1900 acres of farm ground that supports the home. The Trustees, along with the Administrator, keep the Home in good condition and make decisions regarding the well being of the ladies who reside there.
Ladies who are interested in coming to the Caldwell Home must meet certain requirements. They must be a resident of the State of Indiana. They must be at least 70 years of age, unmarried, and they must be in reasonably good health and able to care for herself and her room.
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