For most of my generation growing up in Cedar Rapids in the 1950s and ’60s, the sprawling stone house on Linden Drive SE was Dr. Stark’s home, but the history of the house goes back much further.
The house was built by contractor and entrepreneur Mike Ford in the early 1900s. It’s had three owners in the past 100 years.
Ford was born in Iowa City in 1868 to Irish immigrant parents. His first job was in a grocery store.
A friend challenged Ford to join him in a barbershop. Ford learned all he could about the work, then moved to Cedar Rapids in the 1880s and started his own barbershop. The well-liked, “genial tonsorial artist,” as he was described in an 1888 newspaper item, often visited his sister in Iowa City, as well as “numerous other people’s sisters.”
Ford’s freedom didn’t last too long. On an early May morning in 1890, Ford married Elizabeth “Lizzie” Mentz. They lived in a home at the corner of Second Street and Fourth Avenue SE.
Ford expanded his barbershop in 1892, a new chair and another room to accommodate the porcelain tubs for his new Turkish bath service. The next addition was a handsome barber pole that literally out-shown any other. It had a flashing light on the top that could be seen for blocks.
A few years later, the contracting business caught Ford’s eye, and he partnered with R.C. Delahunt to do sewer, paving and construction work. When he again learned all he could about the business, he set out on his own, securing contracts for most of the paving work in the Cedar Rapids area, finally selling his barbershop in November 1905.
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He formed a company with two other partners to run five asphalt plants that served a 10-state area, and he became a stockholder in several brick companies, including the Purington Brick and Tile Co. in Galesburg, Ill.
The Fords sold their home at Third Avenue and Sixth Street SE in 1910.
Ford, who had worked with the Grande Avenue Land Co. building sewers in the new Ridgewood subdivision, bought two-and-a-half lots in the subdivision in 1907. (The land company’s officers were well-known Cedar Rapids leaders — George Douglas and T.M. Sinclair were co-presidents, Sydney Sinclair was vice president, Malcolm Bolton was secretary and J.W. Good was treasurer.)
Ford began to build. The Grande Avenue Land Co. sued him, saying it had the right to subdivide the land and establish building lines.
The lots Ford bought had building lines 40 feet from Linden Drive, but Ford was excavating 22 feet from Linden, the lawsuit claimed. The suit was settled in October 1911, and Ford kept his lot line.
The 4,400-square-foot house Ford built was a showplace. Designed by brothers Frederick and W.J. Brown and by Ford’s wife, it reflected Craftsman and southern California influences in its design.
“The beautiful home which M. Ford is constructing in Ridgewood is beginning to assume pretentious proportions,” The Gazette reported in August 1911. “It will be one of the most attractive homes in the city.”
The home’s design and stone work — by brothers John and Frank Klepach — won a prize and a full-page illustration in the American Carpenter and Builder magazine of Chicago.
Ford went on to indulge his newest passion, building theaters. His first in Cedar Rapids, the Palace, went up in 1912 on Second Avenue at Third Street SE, property that housed Merchants’ Barber shop, the successor to Ford’s old shop.
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When work started, Ford moved the barbershop to the curb, where business continued while the new building was built with two storefronts on the ground level. The barbershop then moved into the new building’s ground floor. Ford, who was seldom without a cigar, probably had a hand in choosing Frank Kopp’s cigar depot as the other ground-floor tenant.
The Palace was the largest of the local theaters, seating 730 people and showing four reels most days.
In 1915, he built the Strand (later the World) Theatre. As the time to open the theater neared, Ford was busy making sure everything was in order. He then disappeared until the audience was seated. He, his wife and their son, Leo, found seats in the back row.
The Cedar Rapids Tribune editor suggested the theater should have been named for Ford.
“We have not always agreed with this man,” the Tribune editor wrote, “and we do not expect to agree with him in the future, perhaps. But having witnessed so much of the vaingloriousness of others, who have done so much less, we cannot refrain from giving credit where it is due. Modesty in successful men is indeed refreshing in newspaper offices.”
Among his other theaters was the Palace at Vinton, as well as one in Waterloo.
By August 1918, Ford was one of the leading paving contractors in the state and won the contract for the Lincoln Highway Seedling Mile, an experiment to show rural residents what driving on a paved highway would be like and, presumably, turn them into advocates for more paving.
On July 6, 1920, Ford’s 52nd birthday, he went home for lunch. An hour later, he was dead, possibly from a stroke or cerebral hemorrhage.
His family continued to live in the Linden Drive home, selling it in 1946 to Dr. Cal H. Stark and his wife, Alyce Kennedy Stark, after Stark, a medical officer in the Army Air Force, returned from World War II. The Starks raised four children there, and Dr. Stark would live there until shortly before his death in 2001.
Jack and Sarah Else bought the home in 2004 and have undertaken a yearslong renovation of the historic property. They’ve researched the home’s history and see themselves, Sarah Else said, “as temporary caretakers, as stewards” of the home.
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