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Encyclopedia Dubuque


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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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Ham House Museum

HAM HOUSE. Mathias HAM was involved in contracting and several buildings were erected under his direction including the BARMIER HOUSE-757 W. 3RD.

Built in 1857 as an addition to a five-room stone cottage Ham had built in 1839, Ham House became a twenty-one room mansion built in ITALIAN VILLA ARCHITECTURE style. The stone used to build the front part of the mansion came from the construction of the DUBUQUE CUSTOM HOUSE AND POST OFFICE when the first shipment of stone did not meet the approval of the government engineers.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Library of Congress

First floor, the most elegant area of the home and the scene of entertaining, had four large rooms, fourteen foot high ceilings, and central hall featuring most of the home's decorative plaster work. Shutters folded back into the walls to be out of sight.

The second floor, with much less decoration, had five rooms while the third floor had seven. The roof is capped with an octagonal BELVEDERE that was used to watch the city for fires and the river for pirates. From this perch, Ham could observe a good portion of the two thousand acres he owned in the area. (1) It is also rumored that the belvedere on the home was used to warn local residents of revenue agents during PROHIBITION.

Fashionable features of the family living area included windows with shutters that folded into the wall. (2) A closet was unusual at the time when chests and wardrobes were used to avoid additional taxes. (3) Pine, used extensively in the home, was expertly "feathered" to resemble more expensive woods. (4)

The mansion was used so frequently by the Ham family for entertaining that it was called the "Southerner's Open House." When Catherine E. Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry Ward Beecher came to Dubuque to dedicate the DUBUQUE FEMALE COLLEGE, they stayed with the Hams.

Around 1905 the house served as the KEGLER CANCER CLINIC. (5) Sarah Ham, daughter of Mathias, leased the house in 1905 when in need of money and later tried to back out of the deal by claiming she was drugged into signing the contract. For many years, the Dubuque Park Board attempted to purchase the home for a museum. (6) This process ended in 1912 when Sarah sold the house for $9,500. (7) She continued to live in the home until her death in 1921. (8)

In 1957 Ham House and the MARSH MANSION were both under consideration as the site for a Dubuque historical museum by the DUBUQUE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY. (9)

In 1962 the possibilities for a museum site had changed. The chances of the Ham House being chosen was considered a 'dead issue.' A meeting of the Dubuque Cultural Development Commission in early March led to the decision that the Ham House was beyond consideration. (10) It was considered too far away from the center of the city to attract visitors. Another problem was that since 1961 the Park Board was using the first floor of the mansion. Offices were maintained and the rest of the space was used as living quarters for the park commissioner Richard Kramer and his family. (11) In April, 1961 the Park Board stated it would cost the city more than $27,000 to replace this office space and compensate the park commissioner for the lost of living space. (12) Preliminary negotiations in 1962 were already underway with officials of ST. JOHN'S EPISCOPAL CHURCH for the sale or lease of the Peabody house at 14th and Locust. It once had been used as the parish house of the church. (13)

In 1964 the Park Board offered the building to the Dubuque Cultural Commission as a museum. City Solicitor Romolo RUSSO, however, ruled that the commission, which was not a legal entity, could not accept the home. The reorganized DUBUQUE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY took over the operation. It was agreed that the park board would retain two rooms in the house as offices. Terms would probably be a ten-year lease at $1 per year. If the house was not used as a museum, it would revert to the park board. The park board paid a share of the utilities based on space and maintained the exterior and grounds. (14)

In 1976 the house was named to the NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES.

The Ham House received eight years of research and restoration ending in 1989. (15) In the late 1980s, Curator Tacie L. CAMPBELL determined that wall-to-wall carpets had been laid in the dining room, hallways, and parlor. Finding authentic reproductions of the carpet led to contacting a factory that wove carpets in Kidderminster, England, to make reproductions. Strips twenty-seven inches wide were hand sewn by Delbert Mullein of Galena, Illinois. Ron Post applied gold leaf to ceiling moldings. (16)

Three rooms in the home's lower level were restored with evidence they were used as a kitchen and dining rooms in the 1870s and 1880s when day boarders stayed in the home. Ham, a Southerner from Tennessee, carried north decor ideas of the South. It was found that two of the parlor rooms were originally painted peach and that the dining room walls were painted a neutral color in an effort, perhaps, not to clash with the color of ladies' dresses. (17)

On the grounds of the museum stands Iowa's oldest building, a LOG CABIN, a 1906 caboose once used by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad; and HUMKE SCHOOL, a one-room country schoolhouse built in 1883 in Center Township and moved to its new location in 1970. In the spring of 1989 an archaeological excavation on the grounds was conducted to find the foundations of several buildings that once stood nearby.




1. "Ham House Was 'The House of Southern Hospitality," Telegraph Herald, June 2, 1957, p. 40

2. Ibid.

3. Docent's tour

4. Ibid.

5. "Ham House Was..."

6. "Ham House Near Eagle Point Sold," Telegraph Herald, May 20, 1912, p. 7. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=s-BBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=BqoMAAAAIBAJ&pg=2869,2233462&dq=eagle+point+park+dubuque&hl=en

7. Ingerson, Ralph. "Bought by City in 1912 as Home for for Museum," Telegraph Herald, March 2, 1961, p. 1

8. "Ham House Was..."

9. Ibid.

10. "City Board Seeks Site Downtown," Telegraph Herald, March 14, 1962, p. 1

11. Ingerson

12. "City Board..."

13. Ibid.

14. "Park Board to Lease Ham House as Museum," Telegraph Herald, March 3, 1964, p. 1A

15. Blocker Sue, "Museum Celebrates End of 8-Year Project," Telegraph Herald, April 26, 1989, p. 2

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

Dubuque Folklore. American Trust and Savings Bank. 1976