Looking back on - Dismukes house

DOWNEY - The city of Downey is fortunate to have many of its historic structures still intact.While many historic church buildings, ranch homes and restaurants did not make it into the 21st century, several, including the Rives Mansion, the Parley Johnson residence and Gallatin Elementary School, still stand. Today, both the Rives Mansion and the Parley Johnson estate reflect the lifestyles of Downey's most wealthy and prominent residents who lived in luxurious homes, surrounded by rich, ample orange groves and dairy farms. However, not every Downey citizen lived in a large ranch home in the late 1800s and early 1900s. For many local pioneers, small box houses were the norm as the early settlers developed vibrant communities and started new families. Built in 1887, the Dismukes house, located near the corner of Rives Avenue. and Imperial Highway, tells the story of the average Downey farming family and their long journey to start a new life in California. In 1865, after the Civil War had come to a destructive end, thousands of families living in southeastern states with shattered hopes and communities began to travel west. Along with a rush to find gold, these displaced families were also in search of a place to put down new roots. Many towns and cities sprang up along the thousands of miles of trails to the west. Downey was founded at trail's end. Among these displaced families from the south was the Dismukes family. After settling in Downey, Edwin Price Dismukes built a 20-by-25 foot farmhouse in 1887 for his wife, Maude Adams Dismukes. Like many Downey residents of the time, Edwin was a prosperous rancher and nurseryman with a growing family. Using mostly redwood and pine, Dismukes built a "plank house," a common construction in the late 19th century. The house is made by framing a mudsill with nine-foot, 1-by-12 inch planks on end and nailing a surrounding 2-by-6 board horizontally to the planks as to make a box. The planks support the ceiling and roof while the walls are held up by tongue and groove siding. Inside, the home features an open living room space where chairs, tables and other furniture would have been placed. Three large, rectangular windows provide much sunlight for the room, which still sports its original redwood floors. To the left are two doors, one leading to the sole bedroom and the other opens up to a small kitchen. When first constructed, the original white-washed home, which featured a classic white picket fence, faced College Avenue, now Paramount Blvd., near the intersection of Paramount and Firestone Boulevard. When Firestone was extended west of Paramount in the early 1930s, the house was turned to face the new boulevard. The Dismukes house would remain at this original location until owner Bob Kiskadden donated the cottage to the Downey Historical Society in 1986. Before the Historical Society took possession of the house, it was set to be demolished to make way for a parking lot, but on July 8, 1986, the City Council voted unanimously to move the house to Apollo Park for restoration. While the Historical Society paid more than $5000 to restore the Dismukes home to its original condition, the city paid for its moving costs with a $5,000 Community Development Block Grant. In a 1986 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Public Works Commissioner Laura Nash reflected on the historic move. "This is the first time the city has helped move a historic house and we are really excited about it," she said. "This house is really representative of the pioneers that made Downey what it is." After its move to Apollo Park, the Downey Historical Society spent nearly six years reconstructing the Dismukes house, which is today opened occasionally for tour groups who desire to remember Downey's provincial past. The Dismukes pioneers are no longer here to tell their story, but their small farmhouse still speaks, sharing a unique American story of an average family hoping to start a new life in the western frontier.

********** Published: March 19, 2010 - Volume 8 - Issue 48