144 West Church Street
Written and Researched by Ruth Ann Montgomery
Evelyn Mayo was in the midst of a crisis when she moved to Evansville in 1894. She had been living in
Cooksville with her sixty-nine year old husband, Joseph. On a cold January day, Joseph left home to pay his
taxes. On the return trip, he had a stroke and fell off the sleigh.
A passerby thought Joseph was intoxicated. He put the paralyzed man back onto the cutter, wrapped the reins
of the horse around the dashboard and sent the horse and injured man on their way.
A Mr. Sperry recognized the vehicle and realized that Joseph Mayo was not drunk, but very sick. He stopped
the horse and took Joseph into a nearby house. Evelyn and a doctor were called to Joseph's bedside.
He lingered a few days, but the exposure to the winter elements and the effects of the stroke were too much for
Joseph and he died a few days later. After the funeral, Evelyn tried to bring her life back to normal.
She visited friends in Evansville for weeks at a time. For a short time, Evelyn lived in Evansville with a Mrs.
Bishop. She closed her house in Cooksville until she could find a renter and finalized plans to make Evansville
her permanent home.
Evelyn purchased a lot on Church Street from Mrs. Reuben Winston for $600 in June 1894. She then made
plans with William Libby to build a very large and decorative house during the summer. The Tribune reported
that the house was well underway by the early part of July. When the house was finished, the second floor was
made into living quarters for rental purposes and Evelyn Mayo lived on the first floor of her new house.
Ten years after moving into the house, Evelyn decided to sell and the house was purchased by local merchant
Verne A. Axtell and his wife, Maude. The new owners paid $2,900 for their new home. The Axtell's and their
daughter Ann moved into the house in April 1904.
Verne Allen Axtell was a native of Brooklyn. His father, Benjamin, had operated a general store in the little
town. When Benjamin died in 1879, Verne was just eleven years old. Verne's mother, Anna, took over
management of the store and he helped whenever he was not in school. He was sent to Evansville to attend
high school and graduated in 1884.
Ten years later, in June 1894, Verne married Maude Winston. Maude's parents were Evansville residents that
had moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa where she was born in 1867. When she was two years old, Maude's mother
died and her father sent her to live with her uncle and aunt, Nelson and Eliza Winston in Evansville. Nelson
and his sons operated a general store. The Nelson Winston home was on West Main Street.
Maude was treated as though she was the Nelson Winston's own child. She was a student at the Evansville
High School at the same time as Verne Axtell and she graduated just a year after him in 1885. She then spent
two years studying music at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.
Trained as a music teacher, Maude went to teach in Holdrege, Nebraska for a year then returned to Evansville
to teach music. To supplement her income, she also traveled to Brooklyn to give music lessons and once
again became aquainted with Verne Axtell. They were married in June 1894 and made their home in Brooklyn,
where Verne was now managing his family's store.
Verne and Maude frequently came to Evansville to visit friends and relatives. Concerts at the Magee theater
and other entertainments enticed the young married couple to the village. Verne's mother moved to
Evansville in the late 1890s and purchased a lot from Nelson Winston and built a large, beautiful home on
West Main Street.
After his mother was no longer associated with the Brooklyn store, Verne took Erwin Shaw as his partner. In
November 1899, Verne Axtell announced that he and Shaw were dissolving their partnership and selling the
store in Brooklyn. The stock of goods was to be sold to Charles Tuttle. The Brooklyn news report in the
November 18, 1899 Badger told readers: "V. A. Axtell has not yet announced to the public what line of
business he will take up but it is feared Brooklyn will loose him."
The business change surprised many who had not known that the Axtell's had decided to make Evansville their
home. In February, 1900, Verne became a partner with H. A. Langemak in the Economy Store. It was a
congenial and long lasting partnership that developed between the two men and the Economy Store became
one of Evansville largest mercantile businesses.
When they moved to Evansville, the Axtell's joined the Congregational Church. Both Maude and Verne took
an active part in leading the activities of the church. Verne became superintendent of the church's Sunday
School and served in that position for thirty years. Maude became superintendent of the primary department
of the Sunday School and held that office for 33 years.
For many years, Maude shared her musical talent with members of the congregation. She sang solos and
directed the youth choir of the church. Their devotion and faithful service to the congregation earned them
honor and recognition.
Maude was also the soloist for the Eastern Star organization in Evansville and was a past matron of that order.
She shared her musical talent with Evansville groups for many years.
In 1904, the Economy store moved into new quarters on East Main Street. Langemak and Axtell took a new
partner, Jud Calkins. The store had obviously proven successful for the men. Calkin's expertise was in the
grocery business and Langemak and Axtell had changed the image of the small general store into a grand
shopping center, rivaling those large department stores found in bigger cities.
Axtell was a highly respected businessman and did not hesitate when he was asked to participate in various
city, business and social activities. Verne served on the Evansville City Council starting in 1905. He was
selected as the Alderman of the Second Ward, when the wagon maker, John Evans died unexpectedly.
In 1907, Verne Axtell, became one of the major stockholders in a new bank that formed in Evansville, the
Farmer's and Merchant's Bank. He was named one of the first directors of the organization.
Three years later, Verne also invested in Canada wheat land with several other Evansville businessmen,
including T. C. Richardson, a rival in the mercantile business. Cooperation and trust are indicated by these
business arrangements amount Evansville's businessmen.
For recreation, the Axtell's spent several weeks during the summer at Lake Kegonsa in a camping colony
known as the Evansville Camp. Many of the same families who went to First Lake, as it was often called, also
got together during the colder months of the year in an organization called The Camping Club. Members of
the club entertained each other at dinners and informal gatherings. The Axtell house was frequently the
scene of these activities.
The Axtells had one child, a daughter, Dorothy, who grew up in the house at 144 West Church Street. She
graduated from Evansville High School in 1918 and then went to the University of Wisconsin. After Dorothy
graduated from college in 1922, she left home to teach art in the public schools in Cleveland, Ohio.
While living in Cleveland, Dorothy met her future husband, Irving Geise. After a short courtship, they returned
to Evansville to be married in her parent's house on West Church Street in late summer 1923.
Rev. D. Quincy Grabill, of Fort Atkinson, who had been a popular pastor at the Congregational Church while
Dorothy was growing up, performed the evening ceremony. Nine bridesmaids, dressed in pastel shades of
taffeta and georgette crepe, gowns lined up to watch Dorothy descend the stairs of her childhood home. She
was dressed in a white crepe and satin gown and carried a bouquet of white roses and lilies of the valley.
Eighty-five relatives and friends witnessed the home wedding. They were then served a dinner in the rooms of
the home that had been decorated with lavender and white gladioli and asters. After a short honeymoon,
Dorothy and her new husband returned to Cleveland to live.
Over the next few years, Verne and Maude opened their home to other relatives. Their daughter, Dorothy,
grandchildren, a sister and a sister-in-law, all came to share the house with the Axtell's. The apartment that
had been planned by Mrs. Mayo, once again became living quarters for family members who needed shelter.
A sister-in-law, Agnes Rye Winston, was the first to take up residence with the Axtell's. She had been widowed
in 1924 and for a few short months after her husband died she lived with Verne and Maude at their home on
the corner of Church and Second streets.
In the 1940s, Dorothy and her two children, Ann and Robert, returned to Evansville and moved into her
parent's home. Dorothy had returned to help care for her aging mother and father.
Maude became an invalid and had to give up the church and social activities she loved. She died in the home
that she had lived in for forty years on January 1,1944 and the funeral was held in the Congregational
Church. Dorothy, her children, and her father, Verne, continued to live in the house. It was a tragic year for
Verne, as his sister, Annie Axtell Green died later that same month.
In 1948, Verne deeded the property to his daughter, Dorothy, but he continued to live in the house with her
and his grandchildren. The Axtell's grandchildren graduated from Evansville high school and Ann and Robert
chose the college their mother had attended, the University of Wisconsin. They used their grandfather's home
as a week-end retreat from their studies. Swimming was one of the few athletic activities open to women, and
in 1951, Ann was a member of the University's popular synchronized swim team, the Dolphins.
The Axtell's only daughter, Dorothy, died at the age of 51, on January 13,1952. Her children were both juniors
in college. Verne Axtell continued to make a home for his grandchildren until they graduated from college.
After graduation, Ann went to Lowell, Massachusetts to work in the YMCA. Robert went into television work
and then took a job in Venezuela.
The large old house seemed empty once the grandchildren were gone and Verne invited his sister, Hattie, to
share the home on West Church Street. Hattie had worked in the Economy Store with Verne and his partners
until the store closed in 1934. For several years, she made her home with her sister, Annie Green, on West
In 1955, the Evansville Congregational Church celebrated Verne Axtell's seventy-one years of service to the
church. He died in 1958. The grandchildren, Robert Geise and Ann Geise Jordan, inherited the house.
The grandchildren were living elsewhere and had no interest in keeping the house so they sold it to Glenn and
Lauretta Morrison. They mortgaged the property for $65,000 in May 1959. The Morrisons also owned other
rental property in the city. The Axtell house was rented as apartments and the Morrisons operated a rooming
house in another home they owned in Evansville.
Lauretta died in 1965 and her husband, Glenn, died in 1967. The house became the property of their
daughter, who also maintained it as a rental property. Peggy Johnson sold the house in 1978 to Barb
Willoughby and Jane Pierce. In the 1990s the house became the property of Douglas and Margaret Le May.
People like the Axtells, who seem to live rather ordinary lives, often are the steadfast citizens who create the
business and social structure of a community. With little fanfare and often little recognition, they go about
organizing a business, creating jobs, providing recreation and entertainment, and giving time to the leadership
of religious activities. These are the foundations for the strength and the growth of a city. The Axtell home
provided a setting for all these.
(Photos for this story were taken from a special collection of Axtell materials donated to the Eager Free Public
Library by Ann Geise Jordan in 1989.)