Rotarians learn about museum in Altamont

May 29, 2019

By Tina Suarez-

Rotarian Curt Lackey spoke at the May 20 meeting of the Centralia Rotary Club about the Dr. Charles M. Wright House Museum in Altamont, Illinois. His great grandfather, Charles Montague Wright, built this house. Born in Ohio, Charles M. Wright went to medical school in Philadelphia and then, after graduation, used all the money he had saved to go as far west as he could, traveling by stagecoach on the National Road. He ran out of money in Effingham County and settled there. He practiced medicine in several towns, eventually ending up in Altamont. He was very frugal and had saved quite a large amount of money—enough to start the first bank in Altamont, investing $100,000 for capital. He was also able to eventually build a stately Victorian style home which still stands today and is now a museum.

The house was built where there was originally a two-story white columned frame house that was the first Wright family home. The frame house was moved across the street and it remained occupied by the Wrights while their new house was being built. There were a number of out-buildings on the 28 acres purchased by Mr. Wright: a large barn, a carriage shed, an ice house, a smaller barn and chicken coop, a summer kitchen, a smoke house, a fruit cellar and a wood house. There were also pastures for the horses necessary for Dr. Wright’s medical practice as he would often have to ride ten miles or more by horseback to see patients.

The Wright House was built in 1889 and Dr. Wright planned the house and most of the details himself. The builder agreed to build the house for a total price of $17,965 with the owner furnishing the materials. The total cost, not including furnishing, was approximately $35,000. The house was built with over 400,000 bricks instead of wood. The walls of the first floor were 18 inches thick and the second floor had 13 inch thick walls. This made the walls very strong but hard to wire for electricity and other updates later in its existence. There are 18 furnished rooms with seven bedrooms, a full basement and attic, and a ballroom on the top floor. Most of the original furnishings are still in the rooms. The ceilings in the house are 7.5 feet high in the basement, 11 feet high on the first floor and 10.5 feet high on the second floor. The woodwork throughout the house is either cherry or oak, depending on the room.

Dr. Wright’s House had an artificial gas lighting system fueled by the fumes of gasoline stored in a tank north of the house. This system, called the Springfield Gas Machine, was used until the mid-1920s when the house was wired for electricity. The house had a water system which was originally supplied from a double tank cistern filled automatically with rain water from the roof, which was lifted by a large hand pump, through a lead piping system, into a lead-lined tank in the attic. The water moved by gravity to the kitchen and bathrooms from the upper tank. The kitchen also featured a separate hand pump that pulled water directly from one of the cisterns. In the 1920s the house was connected to city water. The original heating system was run by coal. There are several fireplaces, each having an onyx mantelpiece.

Three generations of Wright families have lived in this house, Dr. Charles M. Wright I (Curt’s grandmother’s father), Dr. Charles M. Wright II (or, as Curt called him, “Uncle Doc”), and Charles M. Wright III (a lawyer). Curt has many fond memories of visiting with his grandmother and other family at this grand house.

After retiring as a corporate attorney for Shell Oil, Charles Wright III moved back to Altamont to live in the old family home. After his death he left the Wright Family Home in a trust to be preserved and maintained. However, today they also have special events such as wine and music on the lawn, Christmas trees at Dr. Wright’s house, and school and youth tours to help raise funds for its upkeep. Regular house tours run from April through October on Sundays from 2 to 4 p.m.

Pictured: Curt Lackey