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Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity house holds a wealth of history

The Phi Kappa Psi house is connected to MU's founders.

May 1, 2009

Each time the members of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity step into their house, they're stepping into a piece of history.

Shrouded in a past that involves slaves, accidental deaths, suicides and a haunting, the property was originally owned by one of the founding fathers of MU's campus, James Sidney Rollins. Rollins donated much of the land the university now sits on.

The Phi Kappa Psi house, located at 809 S. Providence, was built in 1880. The fraternity was the first one established on MU’s campus, according to the MU Greek Life Web site.

Originally part of the Louisiana Purchase, the land the house sits on was first sold by President John Quincy Adams to Thomas Conyers on Nov. 10, 1825, according to a land patent documented in an amended Boone County title.

The sale occurred four years after Missouri became a state and 14 years before MU's founding, according to notes written in the abstract.

On Jan. 20, 1838, Thomas Conyers and his wife Eliza sold the land to Anthony W. Rollins for $6,000.

In Anthony W. Rollins' will, he bequeathed the land to his son, James S. Rollins. James Rollins later sold part of the land to his two sons, George Bingham Rollins and Curtis B. Rollins in 1882 for "one dollar and love and affection," according to the abstract.

George Bingham Rollins built the current Phi Kappa Psi house on the land received from his father in 1880.

The house was originally the Grasslands homestead, Phi Kappa Psi President Luke Hesse said. The Grasslands plantation was used primarily to raise cattle for meat and dairy production.

Brandon said the family also grew grain and wheat on the La Grange plantation, which was tended by slaves prior to the Civil War.

"The field hands were actually shackled slaves, if you want to know the truth," Phi Kappa Psi Director Ed Brandon said. "There's some literature that says Mr. Rollins was the largest slave owner in Central Missouri at the time."

Clay Westfall Mering, a descendant of James Rollins, set up a black studies endowment fund January 2008 to express regret and to apologize for his relatives' slave ownership, according to a university news release. The release stated that James Rollins owned up to 34 slaves during the period before the Civil War.

The Rollins family did not own slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. No slaves actually worked at the Grasslands homestead, which was built in 1880.

Slaves did work on the Rollins property at the La Grange plantation, James Rollins' original home, before that date, and the servants who worked at the Grasslands plantation might have been descendants of former Rollins family slaves, according to the abstract.

After George Bingham Rollins died in 1915 without a will, the plantation's ownership transferred to his son James Rollins, Jr. in 1915. The property passed on in equal shares to George Bingham Rollins' four children.

Another member of the Rollins family, Frank Blair Rollins, reportedly died in the front parlor of the Phi Kappa Psi house. Hesse said Frank Rollins is said to have committed suicide at the Grasslands plantation home in 1934.

"It's said that we have a ghost in the house," Hesse said. "Frank Blair Rollins Jr. was a Phi Delta Theta, and he shot and killed himself in the formal room. I don't know the situation surrounding that, but people have said they've seen his ghost roaming the house."

Wynn Wiegand, an alumnus of the fraternity and the House Corporation President, said he had experienced some supernatural activity himself when he lived there.

"There were a lot of late night noises and so forth, some of which was not attributable to the creaking of an old house," Wiegand said. "We heard footsteps when nobody was supposed to be in there."

Wiegand said he heard a few brothers who were older experienced other inexplicable events.

"It was over Christmas time, snow on the ground," Wiegand said. "Somebody was making some noise outside, banging on the front door. They got up, went down, and there were footsteps leading up to the front door, but none leading away."

The Rollins family sold their house not long after Frank Rollins' death. The abstract said there are speculations that the ghost still lingers, feeling responsible for the loss of the house.

Wiegand said there haven't been any reports of supernatural activity in some time.

Hesse said much of the house's structure is the same as when the Rollins lived there.

"The old wing is the remains of this plantation," Hesse said. "There's a part of the house that's currently lived-in, and is the main operating part of the chapter house."

Hesse said the house still contains the original stone etched with the word 'Grasslands' in the front entryway.

"It steps up into the foyer and has the original library," Hesse said. "There's a formal room downstairs with living rooms, sleeping rooms upstairs. That was all part of the original house."

Brandon said all of the hardwood flooring is also original. The stepping stones in the front were used at the time for women to step in and out of carriages when the driveways were made of dirt.

Brandon said the Rollins family was ahead of their time, having a three-pit smoker to cook meat right on their property, instead of using a shed or smokehouse further away from the house. Brandon said the original smoker is still on the property.

On March 7, 1939, physician Claude Bruner bought the house from the Rollins family. The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity bought the house from Bruner in 1954 for $65,000, and has owned it ever since.

In 1957, the fraternity added a wing for $100,000. The construction company went bankrupt and the addition wasn't completed to the architectural specifications but was still functional, Wiegand said.

Brandon said the back brick addition was officially completed in the early 1980s.

Before the addition, the house would only sleep about 25-30 people, he explained. Now, the house has capacity for 49 members. There are 35 men who live there now.

Hesse said Phi Kappa Psi is the largest land-owning fraternity chapter on campus.

"There's just tremendous amount of history on this old house," Brandon said.

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