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Charles Mortimer House – 1884
Hartford, Michigan

Photo submitted by Larry and Lois Blyly in August, 2002

Webmaster note:

The Charles Mortimer home was a magnificent dwelling in Hartford that many middle-aged and older folks will remember, and younger people of the 20th century only wish they could have seen.   

I vividly recall stopping at the Mortimer home to sell Cloverine Salve in the 1950s.  Now, I have divulged my age, but I do remember the house well.  As a young child, I purchased Cloverine Salve to resell through my brother’s Grit Magazine – many of you may recall seeing their advertisements.  Cloverine Salve was much like Vaseline Petroleum Jelly and is still available today.  Patiently waiting on the front porch, I quietly repeated a sales pitch to myself while my inquisitive eyes traveled slowly toward the top of the front door and abruptly stopped.   A chilling tingle ran down my back at what I saw.  There was a rectangular shaped frosted window, in which was etched a single eye with 2 hands embraced in a hand-shaking type manner directly below the eye.  I moved slowly back and forth to see if the eye rotated to follow my movements.  I believe there was some decorative artwork, vine or ivy, etched around these objects, but I was so entranced by the eye and hands that I don’t recall what else was on the glass.  Thank goodness, no one was home and that was quite alright with me. I was scared to death and didn’t care to stay there long anyway.  My healthy imagination was probably overly exaggerated by the mystery stories I loved to read and pretended to write throughout my childhood.  Even as I grew older and passed the house on my way to town, my wandering eyes always crept up the doorway to the glass above to see…what???  I don’t know….I guess just to see if the eye was still watching me?
      Memories aside, this Mortimer house was a exceptional home with a mysterious beginning.  According to Roy (Bud) Davis’ book,
Paw Paw River Times & People, Volume 1 (pgs. 165-168), published in 1990, this was no ordinary house.  Enjoy the following exert from his book:

    Doc Hinckley was always proud of the stone house which had originally belonged  to his father-in-law, Charles Mortimer.  Mrs. Doc Hinckley (Jennie) was a Mortimer girl and her family was among Hartford’s well-known pioneers.

Charles Mortimer was born in England in 1845 and came to this country with his parents to New York state.  There, he grew up and learned the blacksmith’s trade.  Then he came to Hartford and settled, returning to New York only to take a wife and bring her back to the frontier.

The couple had three daughters and one son-one daughter was married to Doc Hinckley.  Another daughter married Al Warkenten, a longtime businessman in the tailoring trade.     

Jennie Mortimer Hinckley

(photo by Theo Cook Photography)

     Their grandchildren, Maurie and Delores Miller, still have the Miller Thermometer business at the site of the original Mortimer home.  The third daughter married Ed Hickey.                                               

    Charlie Mortimer wanted to build a house that would last.  In 1884, he bought a lot just south of Main Street on S. Center.  Then he contracted with a stone-cutting shop, owned by James R. Cook

Cook was born in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, in 1822.  He served in the Civil War – a long hitch – about 4 1/2 years as a member of the 85th Pennsylvania Volunteers.  Around 1880 he came to Hartford where he already had some relatives with established homesteads.  One was a sister, Mary Cook Graff, and her husband, Daniel Graff.

James’ wife died in Pennsylvania and he had left his motherless children safely with relatives.  When his son, William, was 14, James sent for him to come and join him in the marble and stone-cutting shop located on South Center Street.  William took to the trade immediately, and the two soon established their reputation as skilled stone cutters.

So, Charlie Mortimer laid out his plans with James Cook.  Out north of town some huge rocks were located.  A glacier had evidently deposited them many  years before.  This was on the Washington L. Thomas farm.  Part of that property is now known as the A.J. Watkins farm.  Next door is the Melvin Thomas property (a grandson of Washington Thomas), now owned and operated by Melvin’s son, Roger.  Incidentally, the present owner is a first cousin of one of my boyhood friends, Bernarde Thomas. 

When the cutting started, one rock stood above ground as large as a small house, with no way of knowing how far into the ground it extended.  Some local people estimated 75 to 100 cords in the total rock.

So, James Cook and son cut up chunks and hauled them into Hartford.  There, wetting down the rock thoroughly to make it cut easier, they divided the chunks into building blocks.  Several large boulders were in the field.  They started working on one that was a grayish sandstone…about 12 feet across and 4 feet deep.  The top was just below the surface of the ground.

Inset in the upper surface of the boulder, they could see a flagstone some two inches thick placed on top of the large rock.  On removing the covering they found a cavity in the top of the huge boulder.  It was about 6 feet long and 2 wide in the widest place, being narrowest at the ends and somewhat in the shape of a coffin. 

Cook had removed most of the dirt from the cavity when he struck into a quantity of iron rust.  This excited his curiosity and he and Will began to examine it.  He found it to be a tomb in proper shape for receiving the body of a person.  At the east end where the head seemed to have been, it was about 8 inches deep and, just below, where the shoulders would rest, it was two inches deeper.  From there to the foot it was cut in proper shape to receive the hips and legs and feet. 

On the right side, the cavity had been enlarged as if to receive some implements and contained a quantity of iron rust, evidence that iron had been placed there with the body.  Cook then began a search for the remains of a skeleton and found two perfectly petrified bones where the hips would rest, resembling the knuckles to the hip joints.

What happened next can only be explained, if not entirely excused.  Only eleven years before, in 1873, in far-off Asia Minor, a German archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann had uncovered the ancient city of Troy.  The study of archaeology was very new.  Small wonder interest in ancient things had not yet penetrated to the wilds.

And, in many ways, Michigan was still a wilderness.  Hartford had been incorporated as a village for only seven years.  People in this area had just not had the leisure time or the interest in the uses of the past to be concerned about the value of ancient burial sites.

James and Will Cook stood and looked at the hollowed-out rock.  Then the father said, "All right, we’ve got a house to build."  And they went to work splitting the huge bolder with dynamite, saws, wedges and mauls.  And thus in 1884, they began to build Charles Mortimer’s house on South Center Street.

Stories of the time had it that the crumbling dust in the stone sarcophagus was an Indian of great reputation who was given the unusual honor of being buried in solid rock.  A few even wondered if the stone was part of a meteor that had struck the earth, containing the body of a being from outer space.

The shape of the hollowed-out coffin, and the work entailed in chipping it out, would almost seem to rule out an Indian burial.  And the rust by the body’s right side suggests an iron weapon-sword or something that would be close at hand for the journey to the next world.  I have heard no other stories of Indians being buried thus.

There are legends about Scandinavian warriors and sailors who reached our land.  Could it have been one of the Vikings?  We will most likely never know because the secret of the dead person’s identity is lost in the mists of time.

In all the years I knew Doc Hinckley, I never heard him tell the story of the burial place in the rock from which their house was built.  Perhaps he had not heard it.  I got the story from another source, and if the Cooks’ stone quarrying team thought about it later, perhaps they would just as soon forget about the prehistoric tomb they had cut up to build Charlie Mortimer’s house.

Charlie Mortimer’s new house was the only one in Hartford to be build from the huge rocks located north of town.  Part of them were used in the porch of the Merriman house, which is now Hartford’s Public Library.

And the stone house endured, even after the death of Dr. Hinckley.  Then, it was torn down in the 1970s.  The stone blocks were stored and later used in the construction of a new house over near Lawrence.


Webmaster Note:

If anyone has other information about the Charles Mortimer home, please email the webmaster.

Information for this web site was gathered from personal interviews, newspaper articles, scrapbooks, personal photo albums, and other documented materials - many available to the public at the Hartford Public Library or Van Buren County Historical Museum.  Please report any typographical errors, updated information, or incorrectly stated information to the webmaster for correction.  Reprinting for personal and instructional purposes is permitted, however, unauthorized commercial reprinting of this information or unauthorized linking to photos-pictures on this site is strictly prohibited without written permission from the webmaster. 

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Pearls In Our Past - Hartford Michigan
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Revised: March 23, 2009