Archive for Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Remembering life in ‘the big house’

August 30, 2006

Barbara Nicks and Mary Anne Baier are accustomed to seeing their mother's maiden name in print.

The Caenen family history has been told and retold several times. The family's home on Johnson Drive, often referred to as the Caenen Castle, is as much a Shawnee icon as the Aztec Theatre or the city gazebo.

If anything is more famous than the house, it is its builder, Remigius Achille Caenen, known as "Remi." Nicks and Baier's mother, Delia Baier, was Remi's youngest daughter. He lived with her, and she took care of his finances, for the last several years of his life, so the sisters have several fond memories of their grandfather.

"He never got after us kids," Nicks remembered. "The ice cream man would come around, and he'd buy us all ice cream."

Through the years, the family home has been several things: a nursing home, a restaurant, even a haunted house. People started calling it Caenen Castle when it was the Castle Restaurant. Now known as Renee Kelly's, it once again serves as a dining and private event establishment.

But most importantly, it serves as a symbol of Remi Caenen -- of his family, and of the prosperity he found in Shawnee and shared with the community.

Early settlers

Remi Caenen was born March 27, 1853, in Poperinghe, Belgium. His parents, Livinus and Mary Teresa Caenen, brought their six children to the United stated in 1856, arriving in the port of New Orleans. One of their daughters, Mary, didn't survive the trip and was buried at sea.

The Caenens moved to Cahokia, Ill., just east of St. Louis, a capital of the French Colonial Empire. Family history says the 14 acres of land the family settled on was part of the land given in 1824 to Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, for his service during the Revolutionary War. Some family members even thought they were in some way related to Lafayette.

Livinus and Mary had two more daughters in Cahokia, though one died shortly after birth. The Mississippi River flooded in 1858, taking everything the family had. A book written by a Caenen descendent records that Remi's sister, Sophie, rescued her three younger brothers and sister from the floodwaters.

The family sold jewelry and managed to make it several more years, and in 1868, they traveled by barge on the Missouri River to Westport, Mo. Livinus bought 80 acres in Lenexa, where the family farmed.

The three Caenen brothers eventually split the family farm, and Remi became a horse and livestock trader. In 1879, he bought 100 acres of land west of Shawneetown from Lloyd Reitinger, who had purchased it from Joseph White, a Shawnee Indian.

A year later, he married Mary Ann VanHercke, and they lived in a frame house on the property they called "the old Indian house," probably located on Long Street. From 1887 to 1893, he operated a dairy of 80 cows. Since there was no refrigeration, he would rise at 2 a.m., milk the cows and then take the milk to Argentine area of Kansas City, Kan., by 5 a.m., using a milk tank hitched to a team of 12 horses. He repeated the process in the afternoon so people would have fresh milk for supper.

Building 'the big house'

By 1900, Remi and Mary Ann Caenen had nine children aged 1 to 19, and Remi envisioned a large home to house them all.

With his prosperous business, Remi had the necessary funds and started out that year by building a 90-by-100 foot stone barn. He hand-quarried the stone from his own land, a quarry his granddaughters say was on 55th Street.

But in 1901, Mary Ann Caenen suddenly died, and in the next two years, he also lost his mother, mother-in-law, his youngest sister, a brother-in-law and a young nephew. Remi's granddaughters say he slipped into a depression for years, putting off the castle-like home he had planned to build. He also suffered from rheumatism, they recalled.

But his two eldest children, Emma and John, began making wedding plans, and it was about this time that he returned to normal life.

"He said something like 'One woman does not make the world,' and he had to go on," Baier said.

He still needed a home for the rest of his children: James, Mary Sylvia (Mae), Johanna (Jo), Remigius Jr. (Mege), Martha, Jeneva Rose, Delia and Achille.

Remi hired a Mr. Hedland, whom he paid $4 a day to dress the stones. Most of the stones were six to seven feet long, two feet wide and 18 to 24 inches thick. The home, which the family called "the big house," was completed in 1907, with 14 rooms, three fireplaces, two staircases, and its own gas lighting system. It was styled after a photo he had seen of a French castle.

Mae, the oldest daughter at home, got to pick out the bedroom furnishings from a store in Olathe, and the living and dining room furniture was moved from the old house, purchased by Mary Anne Caenen before her death. Baier still has one of the chairs her grandmother bought.

In 1917, with most of his children married off and his youngest son, Achille, serving in the navy, Remi moved with Jeneva Rose and Delia to a stone house he had built across the street from the "big house." His eldest daughter, Emma, and her family lived in the big house for a year, and then his son Mege lived in the house for another three years or so before they rented the home to a Dr. Elstone, who used it as a rest home.

The family recently discovered two photo albums, tattered and water-damaged but full of family pictures Baier and Nicks had never seen. The photos include a few scenes from building either the house or barn using pulleys, and family members visiting the rock quarry. There's also a photo of a frame house that Baier thinks must be "the old Indian house."

The poor man's friend

When Remi Caenen died in 1949, it was obvious that he had had a big impact on the area.

In 1908, Remi sold 40 acres of his land to James Rose, who platted the Monrovia and Pasadena neighborhoods. When Rose died, having had limited success in selling the lots, Remi bought the land back and dropped the Pasadena name.

In 1910, he platted his first neighborhood; 10 years later, he platted a second on other land. Family history says that in all, he bought and sold more than 3,000 acres in Johnson County. Achille returned home from the war and became a building contractor, building many of the two and three-bedroom homes in Monrovia.

Remi proved to be a fair and kind landlord. His obituary stated that "through the passing years, which brought depression, droughts and many misfortunes to those who had purchased home from Mr. Caenen, there was never a foreclosure nor any embarrassment. He was so rightly called 'the poor man's friend.'"

Remi managed to stay out of debt while being generous to those in need. Baier and Nicks contribute their grandfather's financial success to his frugality.

"He never owned more than one suit at a time," Baier said. "He was raised frugal... he'd been raised in hard times, and he did not waste money."

What is now Caenen Park was Remi's garden, and his granddaughters remember him working in the garden often before his health got too bad. They also remember him making the three-mile walk to Caenen Lake, south of Shawnee Mission Parkway, every day.

A 1939 newspaper article reporting on Caenen's 86th birthday stated he had "a cake with 86 candles, a keg of beer in the cellar, plenty of food on the table and something to say about the old-fashioned virtues of industry and battle." The article added Caenen blew out his 86 candles with one breath.

He would die nine years later, just a few months short of his 96th birthday.

"Mother said she didn't think he'd ever live to see her children, and he lived to see her grandchildren," Baier said.

All of Remi's children stayed in Shawnee but Emma, who moved to Colby, Kan., and Mattie, who eventually moved to California. Mae, Jo and Jeneva Rose moved to Paola. John had five farms in Olathe and Overland Park, giving one to each of his five children. Two of them were located where Johnson County Community College now stands.

Remegius Jr. farmed in Olathe before retiring to Shawnee. Achille stayed in Shawnee, moving no farther than Monrovia Street, and Delia did the same, moving no farther than to Halsey Street.

Out of all of Remi's siblings, he was the only one to carry on the family name, and now his granddaughters say it is only the sons and grandsons of Remegius Jr. who are carrying on the name.

But no matter what happens to the Caenen name, it will always live on in Shawnee, through the city's history and the streets and park named in Remi's honor. And even though "the big house" is now Renee Kelly's, everyone still knows it as Caenen Castle.

"Some people were saying they should knock it down," Baier said. "So we were very glad it was restored in a way that would honor its history."

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