When I say vanished, I don’t mean like a David Copperfield illusion (“Now you see it, now you don’t”). But for those of us that saw the Chester House on a daily basis (later known as the Wasy House), it certainly had vanished.
For decades it had sat, empty and dark, on Ainsworth Road in the northernmost section of Deep River County Park. It was a simply a long-decaying eyesore.
Then one early spring day in 2021, workers parked two 50′ dumpsters next to the house. Two days later a county dump truck and an excavator rolled in and began hollowing out the 140-year-old mansion like a pumpkin. They scooped out bucket after bucket of bright-red brick, shattered glass, plaster, and wood flooring. Sometimes the excavator operator expertly toppled entire walls into the dumpsters. In less than two weeks, all that remained was a square of flattened dirt, tattooed with excavator tracks, and surrounded by ancient silver maples.
Did Lake County Parks & Rec “kill” the Chester House? Was it a hurried demolition to haul its bones away and bury whatever was left in a shallow grave? As entertaining as all that sounds, in truth, the Chester House died a long time ago.
Built in the 1880s, the Chester House, which really could be labeled a mansion, presided over the farmlands of Ainsworth, a now-defunct unincorporated patch of land legally swallowed by Hobart in the 1990s. The home’s original owner was a self-made farmer turned politician named Henry Chester.
Chester’s family had settled in Lake County in the 1840s, when it was mostly forests, fields, and marshland. Locals praised his iron worth ethic, and the only lapse in his constant farm labor came in 1861, when he fought for four years in the United States Army during the Civil War. He had three wives, several children, and dabbled in local politics, passing away in 1910 at the proud age of 75. A life well-lived.
His home was an extraordinary piece of regional architecture, especially among the vast stretches of farmland and cottage-type homes. Three stories tall, the Chester House’s expensive brick walls were over a foot thick in places. Intricate Victorian gables decorated each of the home’s three porches, in the days when such fine woodworking could only be handmade. His family stretched their legs out in over 5,000 square feet of living space, warmed by multiple chimneys, and later an oil fuel hot water boiler. Like I said, a mansion
Then he died.
Tracing the history of the Chester House* is like following all the “begats” in First Chronicles: you really only need to know it started with Adam and ended with Israel. In this case, the Chester House started with Henry Chester and—after a century of changed hands and remodeling—ended up in the arms of the Lake County Parks and Recreation Department. By then, it was known as the “Wasy House,” named after one of its later owners, Chester Wasy.
*If you really want to trace the known history of the Chester House, check out the Ainsworthiana blog. Extraordinarily well-researched and well-written, the author’s work brings regional history to life.
By the time it reached county hands, decades of poor maintenance wire on the Chester House. The concrete basement leaked like a sieve, the delicate plaster walls crumbled, and the roof needed replacing. For a few years it served as the park manager’s home, then briefly as a rental home…and then it was deserted.
Deserted homes never last long. Not only could any passersby readily see the home from Ainsworth Road, but the home was still massive with many MANY windows. It didn’t take long for vandals to systematically shatter those tempting windows.
Then came squatters, and county workers would find hordes of food in the old cabinets and traces of small fires lit willy-nilly inside the house. Addicts occasionally showed up with the squatters. Then came ghost hunters, who chased the colorful myths that surrounded any home left empty too long. Then urban explorers, who simply wanted to peek inside.
“The creepiest thing,” a county employee said, “is when we used to pass by the house years ago late at night and you’d see lights moving around in the windows. Just kids trespassing but still eerie.”
The park would regularly tighten up the house, finally slapping up 3/4′ plywood on every first floor window and doorway, burying them into the framing with 3″ wood screws. Workers dumped tall piles of dirt and rocks to prevent explorers from shimmying through the basement windows. Staff monitored the Chester House daily and painted white X’s on the plywood, so they could see in shadows or from a distance that plywood had been removed.
This worked for a few months and the house’s only occupants were the squirrels, birds, and raccoons that scurried through the second-floor windows to make their homes.
But it didn’t last long.
The house was lost to vandals, squatters, and the curious last summer, when a determined visitor simply ripped the entire door frame out of the brick. It was a lesson in escalation, and the park staff could not compete with people that determined.
A staff member relayed when he was most concerned about the potential dangers of the Chester House. Although he had worked around it for several years, he never once set foot in it. “I trust its brick walls,” he said, “but not its floors or stairs or foundation or roof. I’ve falling through a floor before, but falling through THAT floor and ending up in that serial-killer-looking basement…? Pass.”
With barricades useless, the Chester House yawned open to the elements through the fall and winter…until the dumpsters showed up this spring.
Steps could have been taken to preserve the house. A minimum of heating and cooling to prevent the dramatic shrinking and swelling. The county could have installed motion alarms, or at least buttoned up the doors and windows FEMA-style. Pumps to keep water out of the perpetually-flooded basement. All easy enough on paper, but HVAC, pumps, alarms, and plywood are not cheap.
In reality, the 140-year-old Chester House died from an adjective: historical. The two words, historic and historical, seem so much alike that they’re often used interchangeably. That’s a mistake. Historic means “relevant to history.” Historical simply means “old.”
And despite the Chester House’s standing as an ancient mansion among Lake County’s cornfields, or the legacy of Henry Chester, or the hundreds of lives that once resided between its thick brick walls, nothing historic really happened at there.
What’s the difference? The difference is municipal, county, state, or even federal subsidies for its preservation. The difference is an approved application for the National Registry of Historic Places. Among other benefits, a place on that registry grants a site protected status. Several buildings in the Deep River County Park are already included on the same registry.
Luckily, bloggers like Ainsworthiana have done the arduous work in preserving the Chester House’s history, but even that will fade in time. Twenty or thirty years from now, it will be a forgotten and overgrown patch of weeds and long grass, or a playground, or even cluster of young maple trees.
For those tempted to visit the site, I need to offer a word of caution. Since the house had just been removed and the void left by the basement/foundation just filled in with fresh dirt, the site still needs to settle…much like a fresh grave. After a few months and some heavy rain, county workers will return to fill in low spots. Until then, it’s hazardous.
There’s nothing much to see there anyway. A square of dirt. A circle of maples. The remnants of the shards of a concrete driveway. In fact, the only sign that it was ever a residence of any kind is in a far corner, near the edge of Ainsworth Road. It’s a touching artifact—not historic or historical but something else entirely.
A child’s swing, lolling in the breeze, dangling from the limb of a maple tree.