Cailín Murray and Russell Irving met outside the historic Thomas Neely home four years ago during what can technically be described as an act of trespassing.
For decades, the home had stood abandoned and in disrepair, an eyesore in Muncie’s historic Emily Kimbrough Neighborhood. Murray, a Ball State associate professor of anthropology, had assumed that the ramshackle home was uninhabited. She entered the yard to see and document “where there is material cultural heritage that still exists.”
“I’m walking around the outside of the house taking pictures and poking my head around,” Murray said. “All of the sudden I hear this voice.”
“May I help you?”
At the time, Irving was living there.
The interior designer and historic preservationist didn’t call the police. Instead, that awkward moment marked the beginning of a friendship and an informal town-and-gown relationship.
From May 2017 to September 2018, Irving transformed the home into The Neely House, an upscale dining experience that pays homage to Victorian-era culture and the Neely family’s own customs and traditions.
To help supply the kitchen, Irving even restored gardens and orchards based on detailed diaries written by Thomas Neely and studied by Murray, who has a research interest in food, agriculture, and historical self-sufficiency.
“I went by a list that Cailín gave me,” he said.
Saved from collapse
But first, Irving had to deal with a more pressing problem: the house itself was collapsing.
Temporary support was built while a two-story brick wall that was holding up the roof was removed. New foundations were poured in the center of the house to resupport the house and roof. A number of talented artisans were then enlisted.
“Befitting our goal, we chose to do this entire project using only the craftspeople we could find locally,” said Irving. “We are proud of their results.”
Irving, who briefly attended Ball State, manages The Neely House with a team that includes two alumni. Operations manager and co-owner Ean Taylor graduated with a bachelor of social work in 2013. General manager Chad Ortman earned a bachelor’s in residential property management and interior design in 2001.
Several menu items reflect the homestead’s origins, from “The Orchard Plate” to “The Blacksmith,” a nod to Thomas Neely’s chosen profession that features a cast iron-seared, 24-ounce ribeye “with a grape must demi-glace served alongside smashed marble potatoes and creamed spinach,” according to the menu.
By focusing on the past, The Neely House is seizing on modern trends in the restaurant industry. It is local. It is traditional. And it is environmentally sustainable.
“We know what Thomas Neely was eating and how he was cooking it,” Irving said. “The whole menu is based on that concept. It’s the ultimate farm-to-table.”
The original urban farmers
Thomas and Matilda Neely arrived in “Muncietown” in 1839 with four children.
Within a few years, Thomas had established himself as a prominent community member. In addition to his blacksmith shop, he opened a photography studio, developed real estate, and rented homes.
By 1851, the family was successful enough to buy two city lots and build the five-room Greek Revival home at 617 E. Adams St. that is now Irving’s restaurant.
Thomas and Matilda’s family history has endured because Thomas was such a meticulous diary keeper. He wrote daily from 1850 until his death in 1901. Matilda died in 1886.
Five volumes of those diaries, spanning 1867 to 1901, are owned by Ball State Archives and Special Collections and available to read online through the University Libraries Digital Media Repository. The whereabouts of volume one, which spans 1850 to 1867, is unknown.
Local history experts have described the diaries as more of an almanac of local weather and events than a window into Thomas’ mind.
But he did write exhaustively about his gardens, which is why they hold incredible value for Murray, who began reading the Neely diaries in 2012.
She describes the Neely family as urban homesteaders. They lived in the city but on a double lot. They had just enough land and resources to grow most of their own food.
Thomas built a grape arbor, an orchard, multiple vegetable beds, a horse stable, livestock barn, milk house, and more. He raised dairy cows, pigs, turkeys, and chickens. He and his wife grew potatoes, cabbage, peas, onions, turnips, lettuce, beats, tomatoes, celery, cucumbers, radishes green beans, and herbs. They had a variety of fruit trees — and in 1874, he reported harvesting 25 bushels of peaches.
As was typical of the time, their eating habits were seasonal. Plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables in the Spring and Summer. Meats, root vegetables, and canned items in the Fall and Winter.
“Spring comes, and the first crops they could harvest were things like lettuces,” Murray said. “He always writes about it. You could just imagine him salivating for something that was fresh and green.”
A sense of kinship
Murray cautions against interpreting Neely simply as a folksy old guy. He was a man of his times. His diaries sometimes reflect dated views on race and gender roles.
Nonetheless, understanding how Neely lived is important, and not just out of historic curiosity or for the sake of a single restaurant, Murray said. The past could help provide a blueprint for improved sustainability and increased nutrition in American food production.
“We are highly dependent on commercial systems and chain commodities,” she said. “We are one disaster away from medieval times. Yet, here we have these ancestors, not long ago, who faced the same basic problems we do and had the skill sets to survive.”
Through his temporary residence and renovation of the home, Irving said he has developed a sense of kinship with Thomas Neely.
Like Neely, Irving is thrifty and meticulous. Like Neely, Irving’s eyesight has deteriorated throughout his life, leaving him vision-impaired. And, like Neely, Irving loves peaches.
Earlier this year, Irving visited the archives inside Bracken Library and, for the first time, held Neely’s diaries in his hands.
“It was overwhelming.”