Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Martin-Boismenue House, East Carondelet, Illinois.

I was granted special access to the inside of the Martin-Boismenue House (Pierre Martin & Nicholas Boismenue) for a photo shoot on October 10, 2015. The house is currently owned by the State of Illinois' Historic Preservation Agency.
The Martin-Boismenue House used to hold two annual open houses where the public was invited to view the interior of this late 18th-century homestead and to interact with costumed interpreters to learn about French Colonial America. Traditionally, these open houses were held during the Fete du Bon Vieux Temps in February and the St. Nicholas Tradition event in December, but they have not been held for over 15 years.
The exterior is awe-inspiring with its vertical log construction. As you can see from my photographs, even the hardware is very old. Notice the double door entry into the half-basement on the rear porch. I did not get into the basement at this time. The roof shingles have gaps that allow rain into the attic and are generally in rough shape.
The Pierre Martin Family was an old and large French Canadian family. Pierre Martin was born in La Rivenue Parish, Quebec, ca. 1745. He had arrived in the Illinois Country and was living in the village of Cahokia by 1770, the year he married Marie St. Yves. Pierre, at 42 years old, was listed in the 1787 census as the male head of a household living in Cahokia with two children. Pierre Martin was a Revolutionary War veteran.

In the 1790 census, Pierre was listed as the head of the household in the village of Prairie du Pont (East Carondelet), Illinois. He apparently acquired the property this year as an improvement claim, which requires that he farm the land and build a house. It is, therefore, assumed that the Martini Boismenue House was constructed in 1790. In 1794, his Prairie du Pont property is described as consisting of a house, barn lot, garden, and other small outbuildings.

The Martin-Boismenue House is a surviving example of the French Creole poteaux-sur-sol (post-on-sill [1]) construction and one of the oldest structures of its kind in Illinois. This type of construction utilized upright hewn logs that were seated on a horizontal log sill, and the spaces between the logs were filled with pierrotage chinking [2] of mortar and rubble.

The original building measures 20 x 35 ft and consisted of two rooms separated by a receiving hall and one room or half basement with a separate rear entrance. The larger first-floor room was the parlor, or salle, and was a multi-purpose living area. The smaller first-floor room was the sleeping room, or Chambre, and was a more private area.

Limestone fireplaces were located at each end of the house, including one in the half-basement. There is a large attic that runs the entire length of the house. The house contained a stone cooking fireplace situated in a half basement, or souterrain, a rarity among similar structures that may reflect the prosperity of the owners. The basement likely functioned as a workspace and living quarters as well. The original house is approximately 80% intact.

A common feature of Creole architecture is the broad open porches, known as galleries, located on the front and back of the house. The galleries offered additional living space in fair weather as well as to keep the sun and rain off the whitewashed walls.

At the end of the 18th century, the majority of European settlement in the middle Mississippi River Valley was confined to a sixty-mile strip between Cahokia and Kaskaskia (the Ste. Genevieve area). This fertile river bottomland, now known as the American Bottom, was the breadbasket for the Louisiana Territory. The principal crop grown was wheat, but other commodities included corn, pumpkins, oats, barley, flax, cotton, and tobacco. Farmers in Pierre Martin's era would use a common field called the le grand champ. Martin would cultivate and harvest his crops with the help of his family, his one or two slaves, and hired day laborers. Once harvested, Martin would have transported his crops south to Kaskaskia, where they would then be shipped to New Orleans.

In 1806, Pierre Martin put up the two lots with a house and barn in Prairie du Pont and two common field tracts as collateral for a loan to Jean Francois Perrey. In the same year, his wife died, and his death at age 62 followed the next year. With Martin's debt unpaid, the probates indicate that Perrey was compensated out of the estate sale. The barn and lot were sold for $13.00, and the house - described as "avec souterraint" (finished basement) - was sold for $96.00 to Baptiste Gendron. 

Throughout the early 19th century, several owners were indicated, and during the late 19th century into the early 20th century, it was owned by members of the Boismenue family. The Boismenue family of French Canadian descent appeared in the records at Cahokia in the 18th century.

It was not until 1980, when the Martin-Boismenue House was destined for demolition, that it became evident that the building was of vertical log construction. When workmen began to strip off the modern siding from the front of the structure, the distinctive vertical log timbers of the original building were exposed. Within 24 hours, a local group of citizens was organized with the intention of saving the structure for its historical significance. This group formed the Prairie du Pont Preservation Society and purchased the house with a bank loan.

Today, the Martin-Boismenue House has been refurbished by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and the interior has been furnished with period pieces. It's a glimpse at how the average residents of the Cahokia area lived and worked in the Lewis and Clark era.

The Martin-Boismenue House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on February 9, 1990. It is located at 2110 1st Street, East Carondelet, Illinois.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

As for the interior, the two rooms are in good condition. The larger room, the parlor, seems to have the original wood flooring. The photos do not do justice to the feeling of standing on the ancient wood planks. The sleeping room's floor looks to be pegged wood planks, but, it may be a high quality more modern flooring.
The stairs to the attic are very small, making an "L" shape turn at the bottom. The top of the staircase comes to an abrupt end at the stone fireplace chimney, make you take a big step up and to the right onto the floor. The steps were so narrow, I did not take the final steps.

[1] A sill plate or sole plate in construction and architecture is the bottom horizontal member of a wall or building to which vertical members are attached. 

[2] Pierrotage is a stone and mortar filler used between framing. Chinking is the material that fills the gap between logs in a log home. Chinking was a two-part process whereby two fillers were used to close gaps (or chinks) between the logs. The materials used for the rigid filler varied and were merely a product of local materials. Clay, stones, poles, wood chunks, and split wood shingles have all been used. The soft filler served to fill small cracks and crevices around the rigid fillers and provided a surface for the daubing to adhere. Oakum, moss, clay, straw, paper, cloth, and even dried animal dung were typical soft fillers.

Daubing was the outer finish layer. If maintained, it effectively sealed the interior from exposure to the intrusion of the elements and from vermin. Mortar was perhaps the most popular daubing. It was comprised of solely clay, mud, or dung or consisted of a mix of lime and water. Binders included sand, hair, straw, ashes, flour, sawdust, and shredded newspaper.


  1. Interesting story! Makes me want to include a visit next time I am in southern Illinois. Wondering if they allow visitors inside at any time.

  2. The Martin-Boismenue House hasn't been open to the public in about 15 years.

  3. It's interesting how construction has evolved with regards to being a healthy place to spend years of living. Though LEED building construction has changed how we approach this today, it sure is evident that a house like the Martin-Boismenue House was just a little closer to nature than we are now. Thanks for another good read!

  4. I find it interesting that a French Canadian is also a veteran of the Revolutionary War. I pray it doesn't leak. Thanks for the very interesting photos for a virtual tour.


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