…one of Franklin County’s showplaces and one of the most beautifully landscaped little gems in the town of Brookville. But that was more than half a century ago.

This historic home sat unnoticed for at least the entire part of the 21st century, and if you didn’t know a house was there, you were as amazed as I was when all of the sudden one appeared about three years ago. For decades it sat tucked away at 233 Franklin Avenue, hidden by an abundance of overenthusiastic vegetation. The last permanent residents of the old home lived there for more than thirty years and preferred privacy, so they let nature take over.

Birchill is an extremely compelling house upon close inspection. Visually it appears old, but when looking at the house in detail –one who knows houses –can see that it is “really old.” Many of the architectural elements have been concealed with years of paint, but it’s obvious it has been added to many times. There appears to be a small original brick section in the middle of the complex that is significantly older than the rest of the house. It has brick lintels over the windows, which could suggest a construction time-frame of anywhere from the 18-teens to the 1840s.

Additions to the structure were probably made in the 1840s-50s, and the block addition was probably made in the early part of the 20th century with Riedman Brothers concrete blocks.

The south side of the house as it looked in 1945 before the Leffingwells started updating it.
(Courtesy of Lynn Knight.)

It is unclear exactly who built the original portion of the little house, but over the years, the property came under the ownership of some of Brookville’s most prominent residents including, James Knight, Elias Millis, Godfrey Seibel, Peter Werst (who was Seibel’s son-in-law), and Henry Leffingwell, whom you read about last week.

James Knight purchased this property in 1814. He was a civil engineer and one of the earliest settlers in Brookville. He helped to build the first jail and the first brick courthouse. He also operated an early tavern at what is now 300 Main Street in Brookville. Knight died in 1815.

There is very little biographical information about Elias Millis, who bought the property in 1856 and lived in this house. Starting around 1853, he operated a canal boat packet running weekly freight deliveries on the Whitewater Canal between Brookville and Cincinnati. Millis fulfilled his patriotic duty during the Civil War and served with the 68th Regiment of the Indiana Infantry in Companies F & S. He enlisted August 4, 1862, and was released with the rank of 1st Lieutenant and Quarter Master, on March 15, 1864. Unfortunately, Millis came home and soon died of an illness contracted during the war.

Godfrey Seibel was born in Bavaria in 1812 and came to the United States in 1836. By 1838 he was in Franklin County and built a brewery on the branch of Blue Creek. In 1864 he moved to Brookville and continued the brewing business. He also kept a saloon and boarding house opposite the county jail. He bought this property in 1874. After he quit the brewing business, he started a grain and lumber business which was carried on by his son-in-law Peter Werst. In 1893 Werst bought the old Kuhlman and Teepen distillery in Brookville and operated it until it was destroyed in the 1913 flood. Peter bought this house in 1899.

The west side of the house as it looked in 1945.
(Courtesy of Lynn Knight.)

This historic little house will best be remembered for its former glory while under the ownership of the Leffingwells. When Henry and his family arrived in Brookville to start the Luxor-Leffingwell Coach Company, they first lived in a beautiful apartment in the Samoniel’s building in the 500 block of Main Street.

In 1945, Ferdinand C. Werst, the grandson of Peter Werst, sold the century-old house and surrounding lots to Henry and Lucile. A lot of work needed to be done to the house and Henry hired a group of local men to make the repairs and updates. The renovated house and property soon became known around town as Birchill. It was named in honor of the house the Leffingwells left in Michigan, called Birch Home, named as such for the numerous Birch trees surrounding that house. Of course, the home in Brookville could not be christened Birchill without having Birch trees planted in the yard, which Henry and Lucile did.

Hal Leffingwell in front of the Koi pond.
Courtesy of Lynn Knight.)

Henry and Lucile loved flowers and gardens, and Birchill quickly became a true showplace. The property contained an abundance of ornamental trees, flowering shrubs, and perennials, as well as a Koi pond. Henry enjoyed cross-pollinating flowers and did so enthusiastically with Iris. Henry’s granddaughter, Lynn Knight, recalls the massive flower gardens that surrounded the house, and the special walkways that Henry had built for viewing Lucile’s rose garden. The place was amazing and absolutely beautiful.

Around 1948 Henry had greenhouses installed on his property. There were three total and they were jam-packed full of orchids.

In 1951, Portia Everett wrote about the Birchill venture in the Democrat of November 29, 1951.

At the time she wrote the article, Portia noted that the Leffingwell greenhouse installation was small but complete, and housed some 1,200 orchids in varying stages of development, all of which were carefully tagged. The tags were marked with data which included the pedigree and parentage of the plant and a catalogue number.

Henry Leffingwell in his greenhouse with his orchids.
(Taken from his advertisement in the Brooklet yearbook.)

Henry’s granddaughter recalled helping in the greenhouses. She said the orchid hobby, which quickly turned into another viable business for the Leffingwells, started in one small greenhouse by the old garage. The orchids had to be watered by hand every other day, and the task was done by the grandchildren. Henry typically had about 1,500 plants. Leffingwell’s orchids were well-known regionally and highly sought after by retailers. A vivid recollection regarding the superior quality of Birchill Orchids was recalled by Lynn. She said, “when I worked in Cincinnati, I would drop off orders from Birchill Orchids to the flower houses and distributors there. As soon as I entered the warehouses, I would hear the workers say, ‘Here comes the good ones.’”

A variety of events and gatherings happened at Birchill. For a time, it appeared to be the social hub of Brookville’s elite. Just one of the fancy parties held there was described in the July 3, 1948 Democrat. A garden party was held for the local Delta Theta Tau sorority pledges. The garden was decorated with Japanese lanterns lighting the way to the flower-decorated punch table which was surrounded by tables centered with summer bouquets of carnations, sweet peas, delphiniums, roses and pansies. While refreshments were being served, a display of aerial fireworks were enjoyed by the guests.

Lucile was involved in numerous groups and for a time served as the president of the Brookville Women’s Club, which also met at Birchill on occasion. Newspapers from all around noted homemaker’s clubs and women’s groups from the Tri-state area made Birchill a subject of their meetings, touring the greenhouses and gardens until as late as 1964.

Lucile Leffingwell (left), with Mrs. Frank Masters.
From the November 29, 1957 Palladium Item.)

Lynn recalled that upon retirement, Henry sold the orchid business to someone in Batesville. She said the greenhouses were dismantled by Kenny Rosenberger and reassembled on Smith Road where he lived at the time.

As Henry and Lucile aged, the Birchill house and property became too difficult to care for and was sold by Henry around 1965, at which time he had a smaller house built adjoining that property.

Birchill has never looked as outstanding as when the Leffingwells lived there. Today it has new owners, and we can only hope that they love it as much as Henry and Lucile, and can restore it to its former glory.

I neglected to mention in last week’s article about the Luxor factory that both proprietors of the company, Henry and Bill Dick Leffingwell, were military veterans. Henry served during WWI and was a private with Co. H of the 33rd Michigan Infantry. Bill Dick enlisted in 1942 at Indianapolis in the Army Air Corps. He was single at the time of enlistment and married Alvera Biltz of Brookville in November 1943. He was honorably discharged from service in November 1945 with the rank of 1st Lieutenant. Both men and their wives are buried at St. Michael Cemetery in Brookville.