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The house that Joe built

Pioneer Czech merchant’s home is fitting heritage
A stone’s throw from progress lies history.
As Ennis ISD’s expansion of facilities begins on the site of the old Lions Stadium and gymnasium, the owners of the nearby Novy House watch the work with interest.
“I think we need to update our schools to better serve students’ education, but it’s also a great thing that the new can coincide with the old,” said Mary Ann Lamkin, whose grandfather, pioneer Czech merchant Joe Novy, built the familiar ivy-clad mansion with stone lions flanking its entrance in 1917.
With her husband Terry, she’s lived at 401 N. Clay St. for 13 years. The couple, who bought the estate from Mary Ann’s brother and sister, has since been engaged in renovating the Prairie-style dwelling with its memories of a gentler era.
While the Lamkins have added to the interior of the Novy House, its front lawn and side garden, patterned after old English country landscaping, a look that has distinguished the property for decades, remains unchanged.
“I like it growing wild,” said Lamkin, a former appointee to the Ennis Historic Landmark Commission. “The ivy and natural hedges make it look like a secret garden. It’s sort of a hidden treasure for us.”
Other Ennisites agree.
“The Novy House is really iconic,” one of Lamkin’s neighbors told this writer while photographing the estate last month. “It stands out as something that is pure Ennis. It’s like a gem tucked away. I was sad to see the stadium torn down but I’m glad Mrs. Lamkin’s house and the old high school (across the street) are being preserved.”
The Lamkins are glad about that, too, because, as Mary Ann pointed out, the history of the home she takes delight in isn’t only special for her family but is important to the city.
The beauty and originality of the Novy House, she explained, is a fitting heritage to the inspiring role her grandfather played in early Ennis commerce, and in the local assimilation of fellow Czechoslovakians during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Indeed, Joe Novy’s place in Ennis history is firmly set as an enterprising businessman and devoted cultural leader. His grocery store, a mainstay in the life of the city for many years, was one of the first and most prominent Czech-owned businesses in town.
The grand home he built for his family “stands witness to his endeavors,” Lamkin said, adding that “his store played a key role in establishing the large Czech population in Ennis today.”
Lamkin said her grandfather personally looked after many Czech immigrants who first made Ennis their home over a century ago.
“Most of these immigrants came to America through Galveston,” she said. “After their arrival in port they would pin a paper tag onto their outer garment which read ‘Joe Novy, Ennis, Texas.’ That way they were able to disclose their final destination to officials who did not speak their native language. The authorities would see that they were placed on the proper train and on arriving here in Ennis they were directed to Novy’s Store. When they got there they had the opportunity to communicate again with others from their homeland which helped to make them feel more secure and not so alone in this new country.”
• • • •
The Novy family came to America in 1852, arriving in New Orleans. Joe’s parents, John and Barbara Otis Novy, were wed in 1863. They settled first in St. Louis, then in Portland, Missouri, where they maintained a farm. Eventually they moved to Ennis for its fertile black soil, having placed a notice in a local newspaper, inquiring if there were others of Czech nationality in the area. The answer was affirmative, and the young couple with their seven children headed west by covered wagon. The Novys arrived in Ennis on Nov. 19, 1878, establishing a farm near Crisp. Five more children were born to them, including Joe, in 1881.
Joe helped out on the farm until, following the lead of his older sister, Annie (Mrs. Daniel) Egger, who ran a dry goods store in Waxahachie, he started in business for himself, opening in 1904 a grocers in Ennis at 205 N. W. Main St.
This section of town, known as Arkansas Block, in time became a popular center for Czech merchants. It was here that Novy began a notable career in commerce as well as his stint as unofficial outreach liaison for the growing Czech populace. Lamkin said that in the early days of her grandfather’s store, immigrants seeking advice and direction may well have outnumbered customers but his dedication to helping his countrymen never waned.
“Joe would open an account for them and give them what food and supplies they needed on credit,” she said. “If necessary he would help them locate a place to stay until they were on their feet.”
In 1906 Novy married Barbara Noska, who had come to Ennis from Czechoslovakia at the age of 14. The couple had six children. Their only son, Charles (Lamkin’s father) was born in 1908. On that day, March 2, Joe planted a pecan tree in the southwest corner of an orchard on the land where one day he would build the house of his dreams.
“Today that tree is still alive,” Lamkin said. “It just had its 100th birthday this year!”
• • • •
According to records Lamkin has kept, the property on N. Clay St. was purchased by the Novy family in 1897 from the heirs of the John G. Gooch family. A big Victorian-style house was soon built on the southern portion of this land and the Novys lived there until completion of the current structure.
Construction of the present Novy House began March 29, 1917, undertaken by the Fort Worth architectural firm of Sanguinet & Staats which had been commissioned the previous year to build the nearby Ennis High School (the campus most recently used by Junior High students).
The Prairie design of the new abode was a first for the town – the Novy place is also said to have been the first brick residence in Ennis and one of the first homes with a central heating system.
At a cost of $40,000, a substantial figure for the day, the house was completed in the spring of 1919.
The Lamkins are justifiably proud of their majestic home, half-hidden by ivy and towering trees. Mary Ann said she enjoys living there for its old world charm but that pride in her grandfather’s accomplishments takes precedence in her love for the house “that Joe built.”
“His family, along with the families of his brothers and sisters, were such a big part of Ennis’ past,” Lamkin said. “And today a large portion of the Czech community is made up of their descendents.”

• • • •
Note: The Novy House was entered in the National Registry of Historic Places in 1986. Full details of the 1917-1919 construction of the mansion will be provided in an upcoming installment of the Ennis Heritage Society’s bimonthly column in the Ennis Daily News.

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Posted by on Aug 25 2008. Filed under Editorials. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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