Like most old houses, a two-story home built around 1890 in New Cambria has layer upon layer of stories—both the kind you tell and the kind you build.

Kendra Swee’s old family home became a two-story house after a severe storm ripped the roof off the original one-story structure in the early 1900s when a previous iteration of her forebears lived there.

“They decided to make it a second story instead of putting the roof back on,” Kendra says. She and her husband, Wesley, along with their three children, are renovating the house that has passed down through the family. Her parents moved into the house—which her kids now call the Hunting House—in 1984.

Kendra’s Great Aunt, Almena, at the New Cambria house

“The home is beautiful. All oak woodwork, wood floors, pocket doors,” she adds. For now, it is a “getaway spot” for the Swee family, which lives at Maramec Spring Park outside St. James. Kendra jokes that maybe the slow-going restoration will be finished by the time she and Wesley retire.

Wesley is the director of the James Foundation, which operates the popular trout fishing and camping park. Kendra is the park’s interpretive services coordinator. She previously worked for Missouri State Parks for about ten years, six of those as chief naturalist for the State Parks System.

When the Swees aren’t renovating Kendra’s childhood home, they live at Maramec Spring Park in a home built between 1843 and 1846, an enviable location and experience for her kids, ages three, eight, and eleven.

“No one believes them at school that they live at the park,” Kendra explains.

Maramec Spring Park was the site of an iron works operation from 1826 to 1876 under the ownership of Thomas James. At its peak, the iron works and town had a population of a little more than five hundred people. The home the Swees live in there has been updated over the years but still sports flagstone paving, the original fireplace, and the pot bar that still swivels above and away from the flame. The bar is a living relic made by a yesteryear iron works blacksmith.

Maramec Spring Park home

Even with the idyllic scenery and tranquility of Maramec Spring Park, the Swees are sure to have some attention to their property 175 miles away at New Cambria, just north of the intersection of Highways 36 and 149, roughly 75 miles north of Columbia and 50 miles southwest of Kirksville.

“We’re going to be putting a lot of work into it to make it ours,” Kendra says, describing weekend trips to work on the old house or tend to the few hundred acres they own in northeast Missouri. Some of the property between Atlanta and LaPlata is in the Conservation Reserve Program. The New Cambria house property is currently being farmed and has a fishing pond, with plans to add pollinator habitat.

Fireplace at Maramec Spring Park home

The old house has around 2,250-square-feet with two stories and a full basement, four bedrooms, and two baths. Naturally, the house also has a host of treasured memories and tales of colorful characters. At the top of the classic L-shaped staircase, the handrail bars run from floor to ceiling. Was that by design, perhaps part of adding a second story rather than repairing the roof following the big storm 120 years ago?

Not quite. Kendra’s great uncle, Howard Gilleland, “was kind of ornery,” she says. “They had to run the railing all the way to the ceiling because he would jump off of it into the stairwell.”

The little daredevil also once hitched a ride on the train to Kansas when he was just twelve, she recalls.

Howard Gilleland died in 1980, but not before establishing himself as one of New Cambria’s most prominent and respected businessmen and leaders. He became a mortician and owned the downtown mercantile, selling caskets in the back parlor. The Gilleland and McElwaine Funeral Home at New Cambria is his namesake. The Gillelands were among the first settlers in New Cambria, putting down roots in 1865.

Howard’s wife, Almena, was one of the most important people in Kendra’s life. 

“I spent a lot of time with her. She was an amazing person,” Kendra says, adding that the Swees’ daughter’s middle name is Almena. Almena ran the mercantile for a while after Howard died.

Kendra lived in the house with her parents throughout grade school, high school, and the early part of college. Her parents moved to Cuba to be closer to the Swees and the New Cambria house became a rental. Kendra explained to the Our Old House Facebook group that the house did not fare well as a result.

New Cambria Home

“This was a detriment to the beautiful old home and now my husband, kids, and I are restoring her. It is currently being scraped and prepped for a new coat of paint,” she wrote.

The old house still has the original coal room in the basement and a room for storing canned goods. An old oil tank heat system sits a corner. The house now has propane heat.

“When I was a kid, we had an outdoor wood boiler system. When my parents moved in, it had no insulation,” Kendra recalls. “Our first winter, I remember a sleeping bag being over the front door.”

Whether the old house has stories of hauntings and things that go bump in the night, Kendra is doubtful, but she laughs at one memory.

“I never experienced that, but one friend had to be taken home at eleven at night,” she recalls. “She swore up and down that our house was haunted.” And there was that time when someone glanced toward the oval attic windows in the peak of the house “and it looked like someone was in the attic.”

Kendra is more interested in the verifiable, ancestral histories of old homes, which is why she frequents the Our Old House Facebook page.

“I really enjoy when I see peoples’ posts and they’ve found the old photos, old plat maps, things like that,” she says. “Many of us do a lot of research into the history of our homes.”

Kendra knows that younger generations tend to have less interest in their house histories.

“I’ve always had a connection to it because my family was some of the first people who lived there,” she notes. “It’s still a really deep part of my being – that town and my family’s heritage there.”

Kendra and her father continue to serve on the Bank of New Cambria board of directors.

Meanwhile, Kendra doesn’t worry that her own kids don’t share her sense of connection to the house.

“I think a lot of kids maybe aren’t connected to their community,” she adds. “They’re not going to always be disconnected. It’s a maturity thing. It may not hold true their whole life.”