A Century of History

In 1916, Charles C. Barrett, and his wife, Esta Asher Reed Barrett, began construction of Indian Hill’s manor and coach house on an existing farmstead with land, barns, and fields that they purchased. Rockford, Illinois architect Charles W. Bradley designed their estate in the Colonial Revival style, then nationally popular for country estates. Noted landscape architect O.C. Simonds, champion of the naturalistic, native plant genre, designed the gardens and grounds. The estate was completed in 1918. Click here to read more about O.C. Simonds.

Born in 1855, Charles was from a prominent Nantucket, Massachusetts family. In the 1880s, he relocated to Chicago for his New York employer, Devoe and Raynolds Paint Company. After Mr. Raynolds moved the headquarters to Chicago and died, Charles became President. As a member of several Chicago’s elite clubs, Charles, a long-time bachelor, kept his yacht at the Chicago Yacht Club and lived at the Union League Club, when he married Esta in 1914. In October, 1918, he died during the Spanish flu pandemic and was buried in Nantucket.

During their short marriage, Charles and Esta resided in Chicago apartment hotels in the Hyde Park area and spent weekends and longer stays at Indian Hill Manor and enjoying their Rockford Country Club membership. As a widow, Esta continued this travel pattern until the late 1920s, when she moved permanently to Indian Hill Manor.

Born Esta Asher in 1868 on a southern Indiana farm, she moved, in 1884, with her parents and seven siblings to a Nebraska farm. Within a year, she married William Reed, a local newspaper owner. They had a daughter who died when a toddler, and a son, Harry. Prior to 1900, Esta, William, and Harry moved from Nebraska to Chicago where William was a printing salesman. During the first decade of 1900, Esta and Harry divorced, after she became an actress, appeared in the chorus of Broadway musicals, and went to Paris for further training of her soprano voice. By the time of her 1914 marriage to Charles, she had discontinued her musical career.

After Charles’s death, Esta increasingly became involved in managing the farm and estate. The small dairy operations bred Holstein cows, winning local and State competitions. The sunken garden boasted roses, irises, peonies and other perennials. From the 1930s to her 1947 death in a car accident, she wintered in an Art Deco-styled house in Miami’s Coconut Grove area.

Upon Esta’s death, her son, Harry Reed, inherited, took over management, and lived at the manor and farm with his wife, Lillian and their son, Charles. At Harry’s 1969 death, Charles (Chuck) Reed, inherited the estate. Having served in World War II, Chuck became a firearms safety instructor and Boy Scout troop leader – often holding campouts in the estate’s woods and jamborees on the lawn. Until his 1998 death, his efforts included planting thousands of pine, walnut, and other trees, maximizing wildlife protection, and placing some farm acreage in the Federal Conservation Reserve Program.

In 1971, while keeping the farm, Chuck sold the manor, coach house, and surrounding grounds to William (Bill) and Lucile Smeja of Elmhurst, Illinois. Bill Smeja started out with a gas station. With the post-World War II boom, he added Willy Jeep and car sales and a well drilling business, which led to real estate development. Lucile also was active in their businesses, while being mother of their six children.

With most of their children grown and gone, they wanted to move to a country place, so they bought the manor. Unchanged, since Esta’s death, with no furniture remaining, they proceeded to make repairs and fill the rooms with period furniture from Chicago area estate sales. In 1997, Bill died and Lucile continuing to live in the manor until her death in 2007.

In 2001, Bill and Lucile’s five living children created the Smeja Homestead Foundation, Inc., a private operating foundation, to preserve the manor and grounds and promote historic preservation and land conservation, and nominated the manor, farm and woods to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2010, the Foundation purchased the farm from Tim Ferrell, Chuck Reed’s adopted son, who inherited it at Chuck’s death.

With the farm and manor reunited, the barns and other buildings were stabilized and restored. In partnerships with the local Future Farmers of American (FFA) chapter and Stillman Valley High School, the farm and grounds are used for student horticulture, livestock, and farming projects with the profits going to support their work.

For more information about the history of Indian Hill Manor read Indian Hill Manor: A Crossroads of History, Mystery and Two Rivers by Janine Pumilia, Northwest Quarterly. Used with permission of Northwest Quarterly Magazine