The trail of Pinkerton’s lost estate

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jun 21, 2013

Allan Pinkerton’s country estate, The Larches, was admittedly never truly lost. But it did disappear from the place of prominence it once occupied, rather like most of history’s notable real-life detectives other than Pinkerton, in fact. Like their stories, The Larches has still been there, just obscure.

And just as with Pollaky, Burns, and even the younger Pinkertons, present-day obscurity has not always been the case. Onarga, Illinois has never been a major destination, exactly, but once upon a time it was the regular retreat of a fairly famous man and played host to other powerful and connected figures.

That changed following the death of Allan Pinkerton in 1884. During research for my book, I read hints that The Larches had become “a ruin” by the 1960s, but some further investigation has recently turned up more details. A kind correspondent has replied to my inquiries with much fascinating information.

According to documents I’ve received, Pinkerton’s will expressed an ambition to preserve The Larches and keep it in use by his family in perpetuity, “But his sons William and Robert had other ideas.”

Apparently neither of the younger Pinkertons had the least interest in their father’s weekend retreat turned retirement estate. I actually find this only too easy to imagine, based on my impressions of the Pinkerton men. Though William and Robert respected their father, and devoted themselves to carrying on in the profession and business he established, they also departed significantly from his attitudes on many things.* Allan Pinkerton started out as an itinerant craftsman from the old country, and though he eventually became a wealthy American tycoon, in a number of ways he remained a surprisingly iconoclastic figure. By contrast, although his sons knew rough frontier life quite well they were very much conservative, urban businessmen and, frankly, somewhat dull in spite of their eventful lives. Their father nearly worked himself to death, but still took an interest in other things: the antislavery cause, writing a series of novels, and of course setting up a Scottish country estate. Neither William nor Robert ever found much time for anything besides, in the words of their biographer, “crime, criminals, and business.”

Thus it’s no great difficulty to imagine the Pinkerton brothers rolling their eyes as they made plans to dispose of Dad’s “folly,” for which they certainly had no use. It seems they demolished many of the buildings and converted The Larches to a farm (perhaps rented out) for around 25 years, then sold it around 1910. (By which time, I’m guessing, Allan’s widow had probably passed away and William may have felt he could finally dispense with the old pile entirely.)

According to my information The Larches was sold to a local family, and passed down through a couple of generations, but fell into neglect all the same. By around 1960, it was reduced to the dilapidated “ruin” condition described by both James Horan’s Pinkerton biography and the papers I’ve received more recently. Shortly thereafter, it was sold to a local nursery owner who seems to have made some efforts to preserve what remained. There is also indication that at least one effort was under way to restore The Larches as a historic site, by that point, but so far as I know it remained on the drawing board for a further 50 years.

Still, some interest in and hope for The Larches remains even after more than a century of obscurity and neglect. The most recent reports to reach me advise that “a local history buff” has made a deal with new owners, who intended to demolish the main house, to transfer ownership of the house instead in exchange for having it moved off the property.

…and that’s where the trail ends, for now; those like myself who might wish to make a pilgrimage to this historic site will have to wait and see what develops. One shall hope that a few years from now, just perhaps, I will be able to point toward visitor information for a Pinkerton museum in the restored Larches House.

* I some ways I’m also reminded of the reported gap between the Pinkertons’ contemporaries, Abraham Lincoln and his surviving son Robert; the latter reportedly found his father’s rural ways and attachments an embarrassment as well.

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The Pinkerton house has been moved (and, unfortunately, changed some) into Onarga. The artwork from inside the home is in possession of the Onarga Historical Society.


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