One of the oldest houses in Iowa is in Fayette in northeast Iowa, where it was home to the Kent and Paine families for more than a century and a social gathering spot for Upper Iowa University students and faculty.
Samantha Kent bought the house at 301 E. State St. on Oct. 15, 1859, from C.C. Cole, who’d built it a short time before.
Kent, a widow, moved to Fayette from Vermont with her daughter, Margaret F. Kent, where they joined the rest of the family — Samantha’s sons Munson and William and daughters Juliet and Phoebe.
Margaret enrolled in the one-building Fayette Seminary, a Methodist Episcopal school, later renamed Upper Iowa University, where she met Jason Lee Paine. They were married July 24, 1861. After the wedding, Jason and his parents moved into the Kent house, which would become known as the Paine house.
Jason Paine, an abolitionist and active Republican who supported Abraham Lincoln, was one of the first two students to receive a diploma from Upper Iowa in 1862. He was associated with the college all of his life.
Paine, while a trustee, took it upon himself to help a young student named John R. Mott, an Upper Iowa student from 1881 to 1885, was not doing well in debate and was thinking about dropping out. Paine spent Sunday nights coaching Mott on the fine points of debate. That lasted until Mott won his first debate.
Mott went on to attend Cornell University and win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946 for his work promoting international peace as head of the Young Men’s Christian Association.
Three of the Paines’ five children were born in the Fayette house — Edward Kent, who didn’t survive infancy, Charles Fawcett and Amy Leigh. Daughter Louie was born in Postville, where her father was a minister. The youngest child, Margaret E., was born in Cresco and named after her mother but with a different middle name.
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The Paines returned to Fayette in the 1880s and farmed. After Paine died in 1912, Margaret moved back in with her mother. The house was bigger by then, with an addition built in 1908.
By 1928, Margaret Paine was 93 and Fayette’s oldest citizen. She lived in the house her mother had bought in 1859 until she died in 1931 and the house passed to her daughters, Margaret E. and Amy Leigh.
The Paine home always figured in Upper Iowa University life. Faculty coffees were held there, and students were tutored there.
Margaret E. and Amy Leigh often entertained at the home, hosting gatherings to introduce new faculty members to the college community.
After the sisters retired in 1938 — Margaret E. had taught art at Upper Iowa and Amy Leigh had been a principal at a Nebraska high school — they set out with their sister, Louie Blagg, who’d married a Methodist Episcopal minister, on an around-the-world tour. In 1940, they traveled to Alaska.
Avid gardeners, the sisters belonged to the local garden club, which often met at the Paine home.
In 1945, Amy Leigh hosted a 50th class reunion for her Upper Iowa classmates. And in August 1951, the sisters hosted a tea in their home for Upper Iowa graduates who had been missionaries in the Far East.
In 1959, Fayette residents joined the sisters in celebrating the home’s 100th anniversary. A lunch at Upper Iowa University was followed by an open house at the Paine home hosted by Amy Leigh and Margaret. The original deed to the house was framed and hanging on the living room wall.
Guests were given a brochure, “The Story of the House,” the sisters had created.
It was pointed out that when Samantha Kent bought the house, two native conifer pines near the house had trunks the size of a child’s wrist. A hundred years later, two men had to join hands to circle the trees’ trunks.
The house had grown to more than twice its original size. The older part still had its original oak beams.
The celebration included a song written by LeGrand Maxwell of Upper Iowa titled “One Hundred Years.” Guests toured the 12-room home that contained many antiques and displays with tags attached about their history.
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Margaret, who had been in poor health most of her life, died at home on March 8, 1963. Five concolor firs were planted in her honor between Upper Iowa’s gymnasium and science building.
Louie Blagg died the following year. Amy Leigh was the last of the siblings to die, on Jan. 5, 1965.
Upper Iowa University was the beneficiary of the Paine sisters’ estates. Their home has been owned by other families since the 1980s.
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