1830s farmhouse burned to save on property taxes

SUMMERFIELD — The little dogs — Zipper and Molly — barked their heads off. Ruby Widicus looked out her kitchen window in the rainy darkness at 5 a.m. Saturday and could just make out several fire trucks.

The firefighters were parked at the end of the quarter-mile-long driveway to a farmhouse off St. Jacob/Summerfield Road where she and her husband of 58 years, Kenneth, call home.

"When the dogs kept barking I thought I'd better get up and look. The yard was full of fire trucks. I knew the time had come."

Right on schedule, the firemen arrived to burn down a much older and abandoned farmhouse about 100 feet away, a brick structure dating from the 1830s, with a large, wood frame addition from the 1850s. Until Saturday, it sat about 50 yards from the couple's current home.

Ruby Widicus was born Ruby Seibert in the old farmhouse 83 years ago and grew up in it. The familiar old building loomed just behind a knot of firemen, busy laying hose.

Their decision to destroy the old home, where Ruby's earliest memories were born, didn't come easy to the couple. It was based on unrepairable termite damage and property tax bills that never went away.

By destroying the old house, the couple hope to reduce their annual St. Clair County tax bill of $4,200 by maybe a fourth, or about $1,000. Just this fall, a county assessor visited the property and spent more than an hour measuring the old homestead, which has been vacant for years.

"It didn't matter to him that nobody has lived there since my mother died 20 years ago. You still have to pay taxes on it," Ruby Widicus said. Her husband agreed.

In exchange for allowing several local fire departments to train for several weeks in the abandoned home, the firemen agreed to safely burn the structure to the ground. That left only the clean-up costs, which were far lower than the estimated $10,000 it would cost to have a private contractor demolish the structure.

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