Dexter's Vinkle-Steinbach House

Published In:
Community Observer, 1997,
1997

Author: Grace Shackman

The American Legion Hall was originally the home of an eccentric cabinetmaker

Henry Vinkle, original owner of the historic Vinkle-Steinbach House, is said to have built his own casket, and napped in it every day until he died and was buried in it. His house, built in 1840, is now the headquarters of Dexter's American Legion.

Vinkle, a trained cabinetmaker, set up business sometime before 1832 on the west side of the millpond, near Dexter's two mills and the main shopping area. For his shop, he used a barn that town founder Samuel William Dexter had built in 1826. Like other nineteenth-century cabinetmakers, Vinkle not only made coffins, he also doubled as an undertaker. Prior to the Civil War, funerals were held in homes, and the undertaker's job was to take the casket to the family and lay out the body. Soon Vinkle was handling funerals for miles around Dexter.

By 1840, Vinkle's business was prospering and he built an elegant Greek Revival home. "The house was built back in the time when there were very few nails," said Leon Agan, son-in-law of one of the home's later owners. The builders used "big logs," Agan said, and did the foundation and flooring by hand.

According to Agan, the three pillars in front of the house—which he always found "rather pretentious"—were "the outstanding edifice as far as the people going by were concerned." The year after Vinkle built his house. Judge Dexter built a very similar house not far away—with six pillars.

From the time the Vinkle family lived in the house until the time the American Legion occupied it, the home had only three other owners, all related: first Henry Jones; then his sister Helen Laney and her husband, Zerah Burr; and lastly Helen's daughter Mary Laney and her husband, Henry Steinbach. (Agan was married to the Steinbachs' daughter Frances.) Two weddings took place in the mansion: Adeline Vinkle to William Boston in 1869 and Mary Laney to Henry Steinbach in 1902.

Zerah Burr farmed on land that ran south of the property. His son-in-law, Henry Steinbach, worked as a traveling salesman, selling leather belting and leather supplies, mainly to steel mills in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Steinbach always traveled by train because he hated car travel. Although the train tracks went right by his house, he had to board the train at the station, four blocks away. (Once, though, the train stopped in front of his house because of an obstruction, and he just got off there.)

The Steinbachs built a swimming pool between the house and Mill Creek. Their children, Frances, Charles, and Burr, all enjoyed it, as did their friends, including the children of the Bates family, who lived just up the road. Harry Bates (now a member of the American Legion) and his sisters, Dorothy Bates and Jeanette Bates Turner, remember Mary Steinbach giving them cookies and milk after school.

The Bateses remember that Henry Steinbach, a small man, "a bantam rooster," liked to relax with a cigar in his leather reclining chair in a nook in the living room. Mary Steinbach and her mother hosted many Methodist church functions, including quilting bees. It was a large enough home to set up the quilting frame and to lay out a potluck lunch inside.

Dexter war veterans organized a chapter of the American Legion in 1948 and bought the Vinkle-Steinbach house for their headquarters the next year. They filled in the pool and tore down the barn, replacing it with a picnic pavilion. Two additions to the house were built: a meeting room to the east in 1957, and an enlargement of the lounge on the west in 1984. The additions are placed far enough from the front house line so as not to obscure the pillars nor alter the majestic look of the house. The inside, however, has been totally remodeled with an open room plan, wood paneling, a new fireplace, a bar, ceiling fans, and three televisions.

Today 290 members enjoy the house, relaxing in the lounge, attending meetings in the hall, and working on a wide variety of service projects for the community and for other veterans. "We're proud of what such a small community can do," says Legion adjutant Larry Stalker. The old Vinkle-Steinbach House not only serves all their needs, but is much more homey and cozy than a new building would be. According to Legion member Harry Bates, "This is about as good as Dexter has to offer."

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: Henry Vinkle's colonnaded home aroused the envy of Judge Dexter himself.