Retiring in vintage style: The Caroline Mark Home

MOUNT CARROLL – In many ways, Caroline Mark was a woman ahead of her time.

During the 1800s, the widow grew her estate from $90,000 to $600,000 through banking and farm investments after her husband, James, died crossing a river.

While being a savvy businesswoman during a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote was impressive enough, it was her generosity that left the longest lasting legacy.

Upon her death in 1900, she willed three-quarters of her estate to create a home for low-income senior women in the Carroll County area.

The Caroline Mark Home was established in 1906 on 5 acres of land and took in its first resident in 1908.

More than 110 years later, the home continues to provide a home for older women who aren’t ready for assisted living.

“We have a safe downstairs full of paperwork (from Mark). People will be surprised,’” Robin Kelley, the home’s manager, said during a recent tour of the facility.

The home was built specifically to meet the needs of low-income women. It can house up to 18 women; nine currently live there.

One of those women is Ruth Barr, 75, formerly of Dakota. She moved to the Mark Home after a heart attack ended her work as a school bus driver.

While Barr found it hard to leave her own home at first, she’s come to enjoy the Mark Home.

“It’s an awesome place. The food and the people are wonderful,” Barr said.

Barr hasn’t let her retirement slow her down. When she’s not visiting with her fellow residents, she works at the Freeport Pregnancy Center once a week and speaks at area schools on sexually transmitted diseases, sex trafficking and other topics.

Like Barr, other women don’t have to be retired to live at the Mark Home. Any woman who meets an asset cap, who can take care of herself, and who has lived for 6 or more months in Carroll or an adjoining county, can stay at the home for free. Public donations are accepted to help with costs.

One retiree at the home, Cathy Musser, 66, is formerly of Stockton. She moved to the Mark Home more than a year ago after she gave her son her home, so he and his family could live in a lead-free environment.

“It’s starting to feel more like home. I take part in a game night once a month here, and I’ve been doing a little volunteer work for Extension,” Musser said.

The sense of community at the Mark Home is part of why Joyce Schubert, 85, enjoys living there. She moved to the facility 7 years ago from Lanark, after her second husband died.

“I do not want to live alone. I love it here. It took about a year, but it really feels like home. We have freedom to come and go, and the meals are good,” Schubert said.

She stays active as a member of the Carroll County Senior Center board, and attends a Bible study.

The Mark Home may not be for everyone. Pets aren’t allowed, and bathrooms are communal. But a staff of six care for the grounds and provide meals, with a buffet breakfast, a full meal for lunch and leftovers for supper. Laundry facilities are available on the first floor, with more accessibility than when the home opened in the 1900s.

“When the home started, the ladies were allowed 12 pieces of laundry a week, not counting their linens,” Kelley said.

Another attraction is the facility itself, which retains many historical features and amenities. A screened-in porch offers a view of the woods. Various outbuildings, including an old smokehouse, pump house and coal house remain on the grounds.

A number of transom windows above the doors remain, while some of the rooms still have the low ceilings typical of the time when it was built. The home’s last original gaslight remains, and the library features books with accounts of the home from years ago. All of these features, and more, led to the Mark Home being placed on the National Historic Register in 1983.

“It was built to last, with iron, steel, brick and concrete,” Kelley said.

Some heart and soul went into building the home, too, a generous spirit that remains today, a testament to Caroline Mark’s belief that there’s no place like home.

Free tours of the Caroline Mark Home, at 222 E. Lincoln St., Mount Carroll, are available by appointment.

Donations to help with the home’s upkeep can be dropped off from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays at the home’s office, or made out to the Caroline Mark Home, 222 E. Lincoln St., Mount Carroll, IL 61053. Call 815-244-3862 or find Caroline Mark Home on Facebook for more information.