“What’s that big house?” asked our 8-year-old granddaughter the other day as we drove down Buckeye Avenue.
“That’s the Seelye Mansion. They give tours. Would you like to go through it?” asked her grandmother Kathy.
Even though the tour takes about two hours which can be a long time for an 8-year-old, Gemma said she really wanted to see the inside.
So last Friday the three of us took the tour.
I have been in the Seelye place many times and have written many articles on its history and taken many photos of the rooms.
On Friday afternoon I joked with Terry Tietjens, who bought the historic building from Helen and Marion Seelye in 1981, that it took him, literally, 11 years to get his foot in the door. It just took me, a cub reporter fresh out of college, the chance to cover a fire.
That being said, Terry opened up his scrapbook and pulled out a copy of the 1981 Abilene Reflector-Chronicle with a center spread of those pictures of the inside and outside of the Seelye Mansion fire.
And, like the newly remodeled Dwight D. Eisenhower Museum which I recently have been in many times for special events, I have yet to experience the renovation of the whole thing.
Friday I took the Seelye Mansion Tour for the first time.
In the 1970s, about the time a young Terry became fascinated with the mansion, the building lacked any resemblance of white paint. Rumors were flying that the two sisters, who had never married, were selling off the furniture to be able to afford to still live there.
We, the public, were told Mrs. Jennie Seelye had held numerous Christmas parties in the ballroom and often entertained Fort Riley solders.
In 1981 (yes, 11 years after he first saw the building), Terry was able to get a foot inside. Of course that was after persistently visiting Abilene and Helen who volunteered with the Red Cross.
Terry and his twin brother Jerry agreed to purchase the 25-room building and allow Helen and Marion to continue to live there and sleep in the same room they had shared growing up.
That was right before the fire in the elevator shaft caused considerable damage.
The fire was probably caused when Helen, making her famous cinnamon rolls in the wood burning oven, failed to take the embers outside in the snow.
Terry and Jerry agreed to go through with the sale despite the fire damage and they refurbished the home back to its 1905 glamour.
Furniture and fixtures that had been sold were bought back and the 25-room mansion now contains the original furniture and the Thomas Edison light fixtures which were purchased at the World’s Fair in St. Louis. And we could touch them all, if we wished.
During the tour we learned about Mrs. Seelye’s poinsettia tradition, sang carols as Terry accompanied us on the Steinway grand piano, listened to a song on the 1904 Edison phonograph and in the basement bowled on one of only four remaining box ball alleys in the world.
Tour guide Michael Hook showed us 65 decorated Christmas trees and the over 700 nutcrackers, including some with the likenesses of Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Lion and Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz.
We were very careful not to break any of the Haviland China when Gemma got to push the secret buzzer with her foot on the dining room floor that Jennie would use to summon the staff during dinners.
A.B. Seelye made his fortune in patent medicines with the A.B. Seelye Medical Company. At one time he had over 500 salesmen traveling through 14 states. The Wasa Tusa they sold contained 65 percent “non-beverage alcohol, chloroform and sulphuric ether.”
The Seelye Mansion and Gardens is now in a foundation which Terry hopes will allow visitors to tour the home for many future years. In fact, Gemma later said she thought it would be fun to give tours there when she grew up.
If you get a chance, don’t just drive by but take a walk through this part of Abilene’s history. . . and take your children and grandchildren.