Hartville’s Steele Mansion was built in 1890.
HARTVILLE – The historic Steele Mansion is so striking that it convinces lawmakers to stay out of national politics.
Twice in its history, owners of the French-Renaissance-style mansion have been offered prestigious appointments in Washington D.C. — and both times, they’ve opted to stay in the Ozarks.
Those positions, extended nearly 75 years apart, illustrate only two of many historic accents tied to the landmark. Native Americans used the area as a campground, proven by arrowheads and spearheads still found in recent years. Its front yard witnessed a Civil War battle. After it was built, Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder — friends with its owners — likely visited from nearby Mansfield.
Today, the home resolutely watches over town from its position high on a hill. “It reminds of a different way of life,” says Arita Bohannan, its current owner. “It is a magnificent place. It’s one of those places you miss when you pull out of the driveway.”
Building the mansion
The Steele Mansion began with “Captain” E.C. Steele, a Civil War soldier for the Union who came from Illinois.
In a twist of fate, the land where his mansion would be built was also involved in the war.
In January 1863, the home’s front yard served as field headquarters for Confederate General John Marmaduke during the Battle of Hartville. The brief and bloody battle, a Confederate victory, resulted in around 400 casualties.
Steele’s initial connection to Hartville came after the war, when he herded cattle through the area with his brother.
“He determined that someday he would return to live ‘where the water was so clear in the stream that you could see the pebbles on the bottom,'” noted his grandson in “History and Families of Wright County, Missouri,” a book about the area’s history.
In 1869, Steele did return. At that point, however, he wasn’t a legend. He was simply a 22-year-old who saw it as a beautiful place to settle. He married 20-year-old Elizabeth Austin two years later, and started working and serving the community.
He opened a drugstore, was county clerk and postmaster, built a gristmill and sawmill, raised thoroughbred Shorthorn cattle and in 1890, founded the Wright County Bank. At one point, he also started his first of four terms in the Missouri House of Representatives.
That period was a big one for Steele: Around that time, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison approached him about serving as U.S. Commissioner of Pensions. The national office required him to move from Hartville to Washington, D.C.
It’s unclear of just when that offer came. History shows that Harrison took office in 1888, so it probably was around that time. Since the mansion was built in 1890, it’s likely plans for Steele’s home were already in the works, or at least in his head.
He passed on the opportunity, electing to stay at home in Hartville.
By that time, it seems Steele was a revered force around town. The honorary title of “captain” was given him by locals, perhaps for a combination of his service and wealth.
“They said in town that he was the first to wake up and the last to go to bed,” says Bohannan, the home’s current owner, of his hearty work ethic.
His wife, Elizabeth, seemed to be cut of the same cloth. Despite their resources, she continued to do most of their housework and cared for their children. She even baked 12 loaves of bread nearly every day, and cooked for as many as 40 farm workers during hay season.
The home where she baked, cooked and cleaned, however, was one where some might sit in the lap of luxury.
Comprised of 15 rooms, some of its early features included two parlors, a dining room, kitchen, pantry, porch, library, four bedrooms, tower room and attached two-story stone building. Most of the materials used in its construction were found on the property or very close by.
“The maple, persimmon, walnut, cherry and oak wood used were felled on Steele land,” noted a 1982 article in the Springfield Leader & Press. “The stone for the 16-sided auxiliary building, the house foundation and the base of the 300-foot front fence were quarried and dressed here. The bricks for the house were made near the site of General Marmaduke’s field hospital.”
Adjacent to the house, the aforementioned stone building housed “the bake oven, smoke house and upstairs quarters for the hands who sometimes numbered almost 40,” noted the article. “On the top of the stone house, there is a bell tower which was used to summon the workers.”
The bell still tolls.
In addition to its sheer size, the mansion was luxurious in other ways. It contained Missouri’s first private elevator, as well as the county’s first hot air furnace and first phone. “They said that the phone line went straight to the bank,” says Bohannan.
Of course, a house that size also had room for a few legends.
“Everybody had a story about it,” says Traci Crewse Bohannon with the Wright County Historical Society. “The one I always heard was that it was there during the Civil War, and they had kept slaves chained up in the roundhouse.”
Others said that the building was connected to a tunnel that allowed slaves to escape to the Gasconade River. However, there’s no truth to either tale.
Dates alone make them impossible. The Civil War ended in 1865, and the home wasn’t built until 1890. Such stories are further disproven by the fact that Steele was a fervent abolitionist.
Mechanics behind the home’s elevator are still around in 2017.
His high home on the hill, however, didn’t make Steele high and mighty. An orphan, Steele made it a priority to visit the local school each Christmas to give each child a sack of candy.
Unfortunately, Steele didn’t get to enjoy his prized home for very long. In 1901, only 11 years after it was built, Steele died at 54 years of age. According to Bohannan, his death was due to a winter storm.
“He went out to check the livestock, and came back frozen to the saddle,” she says. Newspaper note he lingered for around nine months before passing away in August 1901.
(Side note: The tragedy of his death does reveal an interesting fact. According to an article in the Springfield Republican in August 1910, it seems that Elizabeth Steele took over as president of the bank after his death.)
The Steele Mansion circa 1920s. (Courtesy of Arita Bohannan)
If Steele’s death wasn’t tragic enough, less than two years later, the property suffered a devastating fire in 1903 and resulted in around $12,000 in damage — approximately $300,000 in 2017 when adjusted for inflation.
“Mrs. Steele has many friends to join her and share her burdens of sorrow over the loss of so much property,” recorded the Houston Herald in April 1903. “Out of thirty-one horses, only two are left.”
Elizabeth Steele passed away in 1934 and was buried alongside her husband. Today, a monument marking their graves stands directly in eye line with their beloved mansion high on the hill.
The Steele Mansion is located behind the small, white building on the hillside. It is in line with a monument marking the couple’s graves.
After the Steeles passed from the picture, the home’s trail of ownership becomes a bit muddy.
“Other families lived in and loved the fine old house and left their imprint but gradually it became virtually derelict, a place for grain storage and a roof for transients,” noted the Leader & Press. “When it was almost beyond repair, a series of owners started the Steele Mansion on the long way back to restoration.”
The authors of that article — John and Babbie Stull — were some of the individuals who helped bring the mansion back to glory.
The Stulls weren’t from anywhere near the Ozarks originally, but they made the region their home in 1979. The move was a drastic one: John Stull, a veteran state senator in California, had served constituents in metropolitan areas for 12 years before moving to rural Missouri.
“Stull gained the reputation as a conservative’s conservative during his 12 years in Sacramento, raging against a myriad of things, from anti-Vietnam War activists to teachers who he thought were not doing their job,” noted the Los Angeles Times in January 1980, in an article checking in with the Stulls post-move.
There were a variety of reasons for their relocation, but apparently one was simply desire for change. The specific destination was prompted by a cousin, who shared about the beautiful Ozarks region and its benefits as a place to live. The argument was convincing: After Stull retired in 1978, the couple quickly made the move to Missouri.
“Stull renamed the mansion ‘Senator’s Rest,’ but said … in between dealing with the gas man and stacking firewood, that ‘I should have named it Senator’s Work,'” noted the Los Angeles newspaper.
John and Babbie Stull (Courtesy of Arita Bohannan)
Stull had a chance to escape that work a few years later when a new call came. This time, it wasn’t from the gas man: It was from Ronald Reagan, who had just been elected President of the United States.
It wasn’t the first time the duo had chatted. In fact, according to Stull’s obituary, they were actually well acquainted.
“John Stull and Ronald Reagan were close friends as well as political conservatives while John was in the legislature and Reagan was governor of California. John was instrumental in holding the minority party together to support Reagan vetoes and to negotiate the Reagan agenda with Democrats. As the Republican Cacus Chairman, John Stull was one of the most powerful men in the state legislature.”
Then California Governor Ronald Reagan and John Stull at Stull’s going away party in 1978. (Courtesy of John Stull/the Springfield News-Leader)
Those connections softened the surprise of the President’s call in 1980. Stull recounted the conversation to a Springfield News-Leader reporter in 2004, soon after Reagan passed away.
“‘John, as you know, I have a lot of jobs to fill here and I’d like to fill them with people I know who can get the job done,’ Reagan told Stull.
“They talked a little more and then Stull told Reagan, ‘Governor, I haven’t had a lot of time to think about it. Can I call you back?’
“Reagan gave Stull a private number and a few days later, Stull turned down the offer.
“‘I told him I was happy on my hill in the Ozarks,’ Stull said.”
After passing on Capitol Hill, the Stulls remained on their one in the Ozarks for the rest of their lives. Babbie Stull passed away in 2003, and her husband in 2011.
After his death, the historic Steele mansion went up for sale — but buyers Brad and Arita Bohannan were already waiting to swoop in from New Orleans.
Despite their life down south, the Bohannans are locals by default. Brad Bohannan grew up in Hartville, still had family nearby, and spent years regaling his wife with stories of the house. After routinely driving past when visiting the Ozarks, Arita Bohannan wrote to the Stulls to compliment the mansion.
“We began to exchange letters, and eventually we were invited to visit him at Senator’s Rest,” says Bohannan.
That visit, finally revealing the home’s interior beauty, propelled their dream of owning the landmark. “I just fell in love with it,” she says. “I can imagine back then. It was quite the bragging point for Steele.”
The Bohannans inherited a variety of John Stull’s political memorabilia with the mansion’s purchase. They plan to display such items, along with historical photos, at the home to help tell its story.
After purchasing the home in 2011, the Bohannans quickly commenced further restoration efforts.
One of the first things to change was the name: Senator’s Rest was out, and Steele Mansion came back. Other tasks, however, took a bit more time and muscle. Family members were recruited to help, even coming up from Louisiana to pitch in.
Among other projects, the Bohannans have replaced windows, dealt with wall-related issues (and the fact that there’s no sub-floor), and stripped the hardwoods of carpet and coats of paint.
“Each and every piece of wood bows,” Bohannan says. “So you had to (strip) each board by hand. It took forever to do the floor.
“It has its challenges. But that’s all part of its magic.”
Many unique details comprise the home.
In addition to its physical transformation, another change is putting the mansion back in the public eye. The Stulls were very private people, and the home was virtually completely closed to the public during their ownership.
The Bohannans, however, have a slightly different approach and are working on ways to share their home with the world. Civil War reenactments have been held on the lawn, students have visited, it has its own Facebook page, and the family has even toyed with using it as a bed and breakfast.
“It’s a very sentimental and emotional place for us,” says Bohannan. “We’re really proud of it.”
Want to learn more?
If you’d like to follow what’s going on at the Steele Mansion, connect with the historic home on Facebook.
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“Captain’s dream house,” John and Babbie Stull, Springfield Leader & Press, Oct. 3, 1982
“Far from the maddening legislature,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 14, 1980
“Fire at Hartville,” Houston Herald, April 30, 1903
“History and Families of Wright County, Missouri,” 1993
“John Stull,” Springfield News-Leader, June 19, 2011
“Ozarks remembers Reagan: jokes, jelly beans and prayer,” Steve Koehler, Springfield News-Leader, June 11, 2004
Wedding announcement, Springfield Republican, Aug. 27, 1910