Norwegian immigration to the United States dates back to the 1840s. Leaving their homeland, the immigrants, many of whom were expert craftsmen, carpenters and shipbuilders, came to this country in search of land on which they could build homes and farms. One of these immigrants was Thomas Olson Helle, the builder of the Helle-Thompson House.
Thomas Olson Helle was born May 14, 1811 at Skreberget farm in Vang township in Valdres, Norway. His wife, Kari Evensen was born January 28, 1810 at Hoyme farm in Vestre Sildre township in Valdres. They were married in 1839. Thomas lived at Brekken farm in Vang as a “husmann” or tenant of a small piece of land, with obligations to work on the main farm a specific number of days each year. He and Kari emigrated to America in 1848. According to early records, they lived in Grafton in Ozaukee County, Wisconsin until the summer of 1850 and then settled on a farm in the Town of Liberty in Manitowoc County in the later part of 1850 or 1851.
It is believed that Helle began to build this log home the year they came to Manitowoc County and completed the structure the following spring. When one examines the craftsmanship used in building this home, it is easy to see why it took time to build. The logs have square, dove-tailed corners which hold the building together without nails and the logs are fitted so perfectly that they did not require mortar. It was only in the restructuring of the house that mortar was added to keep the house weather tight.
Ruel Thompson, grandson of Thomas Helle, recalled how his grandfather made a “lean to” the first winter by removing one wall of the unfinished home, putting up poles then covering them with canvas to make additional room for his family.
The Helle’s had six children: Ole, born January 3, 1841, died December 23, 1911; Even (Edwin), born October 1842, died June 26, 1919; Thomas, born December 21, 1844, died April 9, 1895; Marit, born June 5, 1847, died April 29, 1881; Sigrid, born May 14, 1850 in Grafton, died September 13, 1930; and Knud, born June 30, 1854, died April 11, 1943. Of the children, only Sigrid and Knud were born in the United States, with Knud being the only one of the children to be born in the Helle-Thompson House. Kari Evenson Helle died April 18, 1882; Thomas Olson Helle died October 16, 1892.
As the years went by, the farmstead was passed on to Helle’s third son, Thomas. In the Norweigian tradition, each of the sons were known as “Tom’s Son,” Olel-Tom’s Son, Even-Tom’s son, Thomas-Tom’s Son and Knud-Tom’s Son, thus originating the surname “Thompson.”
With the death of Thomas Thompson, the house and farmstead passed into his estate and the land was farmed by several people until a part of the farm and its buildings were sold to Michael and Louette Propson. They, in turn, donated the then dilapidated home to the Manitowoc County Historical Society in 1971.
Starting with the top ridge pole, volunteers dismantled the home log by log, marking the logs with a carpenter’s lead pencil for reassembly. Using Hugo Vetting’s tractor and truck, volunteers Al Bartel, Ted Skattebo, Tom Bartel, Eric Haupt, Michael Propson and Hugo Vetting moved the logs to the site of Pinecrest Historical Village, placing the logs in four piles. The building Thomas Helle took months to construct was dismantled in only three days.
For three years the building sat dismantled awaiting funding and the skill and ability to put the structure back together. During this time Al Bartel and Hugo Betting studied the slide photographs taken of the building before it was dismantled to see how it could be rebuilt and in the spring of 1974 began the rebuilding project. Donations for the project were received from the Town of Liberty and the Roselawn Homemakers.
After three years, however, several of the logs had started to decay and about half of the pencil markings had disappeared or were unreadable. Like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, each log had to be fitted into its original place. A great deal of time was spent by dedicated volunteers refitting the individual logs. It was long, hard, back-breaking work. Pellet marks from where someone had taken “pot shots” at the building and spike marks from the original construction provided major breakthroughs in the restructuring process. Slowly, but surely, the house once again began to take shape.
Originally a two-story home, the structure was changed in height due to the deterioration of the four bottom logs and was rebuilt as a one and one half story building with a loft in the gable. A new door was placed on the south side where a window had been located. Only a few shingles remained on the structure and many of the roof boards were missing when the house was donated to the Society.
In addition, the delay in rebuilding had led to the deterioration of five rafters to the point where they could not be used. Hand-hewn rafters from an old shed were donated by Orley Skattebo of rural Valders and matched those originally on the building.
Next, a new roof was needed. Thomas Helle’s grandsons, Ruel Thompson and Orin Thompson, split the cost of pine roof boards and wooden cedar shingles as interest in the building increased and donations were received from other Thompson relatives.
Floor boards of planed white cedar were purchased and nailed in place and a new door was made from three rough cedar boards. The door was hung on long steel hinges made by a blacksmith and a double, small pane six light window, popular in those times, was added in the east gable.
Some of the deteriorated logs were taken to a sawmill and usable sections cut into boards and planking. A tabletop, bench and set of shelves were created from these planks and boards.
Table legs were cut from the hewn rafters not used on the roof and the building was furnished with artifacts from the collections of the Manitowoc County Historical Society.
The last part of the building to be completed was the fireplace. The bricks from the original fireplace were brought by Hugo Vetting to the Village where they were cleaned.
During the summer of 1979, Art Naidl and CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Act) workers built the fireplace and chimney for the house using both the original Helle-Thompson fireplace bricks and new bricks of a similar design.
The Thompson Cabin was dedicated on September 29, 1974, with Rev. Conrad Thompson, of Minneapolis, the guest speaker.