On the wooden panels beneath the windows in the main parlor of the historic Alexander Faribault House are three landscapes — painted by Faribault’s father, Jean-Baptiste Faribault.
After 160 years of dust, soot, cigarette smoke, sunlight and other elements, the paintings have aged, dulling what may once have been rushing blue waters and mossy riverbanks beneath evergreens and oaks.
These three iconic pieces of the Alexander Faribault House were highlighted in the 1970 application to have the home included on the National Register of Historic Places.
“One of the most unique features of the house are the wood-panel paintings done by Faribault’s father, Jean Baptiste Faribault,” it read, highlighting artwork painted by the man Faribault County is named for.
The Rice County Historical Center is hoping to preserve the historically significant paintings following a planned restoration of the Faribault House, and it’s taking great pains to gingerly remove them from the spaces they’ve long occupied so as not to damage the treasured works.
Fur trader father
Born in 1773, Jean-Baptiste Faribault aspired to be an artist, but was denied the opportunity to be the military artist for the British in Montreal by his father who wanted him to be a lawyer. Jean-Baptiste didn’t become a lawyer, but instead left home to be a fur trader along the St. Peter River — now known as the Minnesota River — and the Des Moines River.
He married Pelagie, a Dakota woman, and they had eight children, including Alexander, their oldest.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Alexander Faribault, the city’s founder, became a fur trader. In 1827, he had trading posts at Mde Ti-tan-ka Tan-ni-na, now known at Cannon Lake and Mde Ska-ta, now known as Sakatah Lake, among other trading posts in the area.
Because Alexander Faribault wanted to live near the confluence of the Cannon River and the Straight River, so he had what’s now known as the Alexander Faribault House brought from Hasting to the west bank of the Straight River.
Just as many landowners in Faribault today can find Alexander Faribault in their property abstracts, legal documents that chronicle transactions associated with particular parcels of land, Alexander Faribault developed the land surrounding his trading posts after the 1851 Treaty of Traverse, which transferred ownership of much of southern and western Minnesota from the Dakota to the United States.
Alexander Faribault had his last home milled in Hastings and delivered by ox cart. As most of the homes at the time were made of logs, the Alexander Faribault House was the first framed house in Rice County.
It was in that house that Jean-Baptiste Faribault picked up his paintbrush and was able to be the artist he always aspired to be.
The Alexander Faribault House was donated to the Rice County Historical Society in 1945 by the Save the Faribault House Committee, which could not gather enough funds in times of war. The Rice County Historical Society has been working to keep history standing ever since.
Susan Garwood, executive director of the Rice County Historical Society, said while the house is safe to be in, it has issues with water infiltration, and its mortar and beams. She said the society hopes to have the work done soon it doesn’t have to continuously fight the elements to keep the house in good condition. The house has been scraped and repainted at least 15 times throughout its lifetime due to structural issues.
“We want to preserve the house for another 160 years,” Garwood said.
The society has applied for a grant to help fund the restoration. Grants will be rewarded by the Minnesota Historical Society through the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment in December or early January.
“The restoration wouldn’t jeopardize the integrity of the house,” Garwood said. “If we do it right, no one will be able to tell.”
But with the house possibly undergoing restoration, the paintings have to be removed to ensure they’re not damaged during construction. Leaving them in place would risk of damaging the paintings.
A Collections Assessment for Preservation Program Grant recommended the paintings be a high priority in future conservation. The assessment, through the Institute of Museum and Library Services, ended in January and allowed conservationists and historic building architects to evaluate the 90,000 historic items in the Alexander Faribault House, including the house itself.
With the recommendation, the Rice County Historical Society is able to have the paintings evaluated by the Midwest Art Conservation Center in Minneapolis to determine the restoration treatment and cost. Once that’s complete, a separate grant proposal can be written to help have the paintings restored.
The process is long, but Garwood says that the possibility of keeping history alive is worth the time and effort.