NEWS & VIEWS OF PHILLIPS SINCE 1976
Tuesday December 11th 2018

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P.T. Barnum Circus’ elephants, tigers, tents, and Tom Thumb, amidst urban, pioneer, frugal splendor “paints” image of the Layman Family and their Cedar Avenue homestead

The exquisite, yet frugal, homestead of Martin and Elizabeth Layman’s home on Cedar Avenue including sideyard and barn that hosted P.T. Barnum Circus tents, animals, and Tom Thumb on visits to Mpls.

by Sue Hunter Weir

When Martin and Elizabeth Layman arrived in Minnesota in 1852-53, they set up housekeeping in a log cabin. It was a tight fit. They had ten children at the time and three more after they arrived. In 1857, Martin Layman built what is believed to be the sixth permanent house in what later became Minneapolis.

There is no question that the Laymans worked hard, and they certainly prospered. In addition to owning the cemetery, they had a large farm where they grew fruit and vegetables. They sold their surplus food as well as wheat and oats that they grew. They sold the hay that they mowed and gathered in the cemetery. The sons hired out to work on other farms during the harvest season. They raised their own farm animals and sheared sheep for their neighbors. If there was work to be done, the Laymans could be counted on to do it.

In 1876, the Martin and Elizabeth Layman built their dream house directly across the street from the cemetery’s gates near what is now the intersection of Cedar Avenue and Lake Street. And, what a house it was. Their four-story house had marble fireplaces in every bedroom. It had indoor plumbing, a real luxury at the time. The hand-carved stair railing in the front hall reportedly cost $500.00. Peter Clausen, a well-known local fresco artist, painted the figures of four women on the ceiling of the reception hall; each figure represented a different season of the year. A chandelier that had five kerosene lanterns lighted the hall.

The house’s exterior was graced with a cupola, a wrought-iron enclosed widow’s walk, and numerous gabled windows. Yet, there is evidence of the Layman’s thriftiness, as well. The fence in the foreground of the photo has advertising for Edwards’ Monitor Liniment painted on it. Whether the Laymans used salvaged wood for their fence or charged a fee to have the ad placed there is not known. They had a windmill to pump water out of the ground for use in the house and the barn.

The elegant building behind the house and next to the windmill was the Laymans’ barn where they kept their cows, chickens and barn cats. It had an attached carriage house for the family’s two gray horses, named Jim and Ben.

The unpaved street in the picture’s foreground is Cedar Avenue in its earliest days. Horse-drawn streetcars passed by the house several times a day but there were no sidewalks or streetlamps.

By the time the Laymans finished their beautiful mansion, all of their children were grown, but they had grandchildren–lots of them. Each of Martin and Elizabeth’s thirteen children had at least one child (and most of them had many more). It was the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who passed down stories about the good times that they had while visiting their grandparents’ house.

One of their great-grandchildren recalled how the Layman’s provided hospitality to P.T. Barnum’s circus when it came to town. The Layman’s side yard was filled with brightly painted circus wagons, some of which housed exotic animals. The Laymans provided meals for the performers, including the famous Tom Thumb, on tables that they set up near the house.

Martin and Elizabeth Layman died six months apart in 1886. Their oldest son, Charles, inherited the house and the responsibility for maintaining the cemetery. He was in the process of renovating the house a few years after his parents died when it caught fire. It was damaged beyond repair. The marble fireplaces and slate shingles were salvaged, but the rest of the house was lost. The fire was believed to have started in a closet where painters had stored some oily rags.

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