Mathias Ham (1805-1889)
A man who “for many occupied a prominent position in Dubuque’s commercial and financial circles,”* Ham was born and raised in Tennessee. The story is that he left home promising never to return until he amassed a $20,000 fortune, which is equivalent to half a million dollars today. Ham followed through on his promise, making and losing several fortunes over his lifetime. The house that stands today comes from a significant period of success he achieved in his early days in Dubuque mining.
Ham originally landed across the river in Galena, Illinois working in shipping goods downriver to New Orleans. Maybe intentionally his early freight included pork products. Soon, Ham’s gaze looked across the river to Dubuque’s growing lead mining industry and it’s here that he made his largest fortune.
Ham was heavily involved in the community helping to establish many ‘firsts’ such as funding the first public school, building the first local brickyard, and contracting the city’s custom house. At one point he owned over 20,000 acres of property and he was so well-regarded that one of the first landing spots at Eagle Point was given his name. He would bring his wife, Zerelda Markland, his childhood sweetheart, to Dubuque and set up residence in a limestone cottage.
The Ham’s first home was a five-room limestone block cottage on the site of the current structure. As both his fortune and family grew the need to expand the home became necessary. Being one of the five wealthiest men in Dubuque it is fitting Ham selected a popular architectural style, the Italianate Villa, to influence the new residence. Though Zerelda passed before it was completed, the family of five children continued to live there, one of whom named Sara, resided in the home until she passed in 1921.
*History of Dubuque County, Iowa, edited by Franklin T. Oldt, Goodspeed Historical Association: Chicago, 1880
A Storied House
On the National Register of Historic Places, the Mathias Ham House is an example of residential Italianate architecture. The original limestone cottage that served as home for the Ham’s was built in 1839 and the structure grew as his wealth and family increased. In 1905, Ham’s daughters leased the property to Dr. Kegler & Co. Cancer Institute, ending its time as a solely residential home. During its hospital use, many interior upgrades were made including electricity and plumbing. Dubuque acquired the property in 1912, and the City used the house for storage and offices for the City Parks Department. The Superintendent of the Parks lived in the original cottage portion of the home, a practice that continued until 1964. By 1965, the home was leased to the Dubuque County Historical Society for operation as a historic site and museum.
The only building of any particular note on this avenue is the fine mansion M. Ham, Esq. The main building presents four acute gables and is formed of beautiful, clouded limestone, which has been worked to a smooth finish. The main part is two and a half stories high and 44 square feet and has a wing 13 by 28 feet, two stories in height. A fine observatory surmounts the mansion and gives a fine effect to the building, as it stands at the base of those romantic crags. The cost of this structure when complete will reach 16,000 dollars.
- Dubuque Daily Express & Herald, March 8, 1857