Window into Yesterday - These Old Houses

by David Kess for the Ely-Winton Historical Society

Compared to some other Minnesota towns Ely is, at 133 years old, not so very old. It does have a number of buildings that are 100 years old or more—downtown business buildings, churches, schools, and houses. Some of been remodeled so much they no longer look as they did originally, but here are four that have been kept much the same: the Jacob Pete house, the Skala house, the Gust Maki house, and the Samuel Knox house (in Winton). We call them by the names of the original owners.
On the corner of Pattison St. and So. Central Avenue above a stone terrace wall stands the Jacob Pete house. It has been called that for many years even though it began its life in Section 30 as a hospital and then the residence of George St. Clair, superintendent of the mine. Without access to an abstract, it is impossible to know what year this house built or when it was moved to Ely. However, it is a known fact that the house was sawn in half and moved into Ely, very probably by Harry Kidd, a man who moved many houses in Ely. There is a visible saw cut on the basement ceiling.
Back in the early and even mid 1900s many houses were moved into Ely from places like Section 30, Winton, and the five mining locations. Some homesteads were also moved in from the country. Their once visible hewn log walls were usually covered up with clapboard siding.
The Pete house is an example of California bungalow style. Most likely it was marketed as a pre-cut house manufactured by either Sears or the Aladdin Co. Montgomery Ward also sold similar houses in the first part of the 20th century. “Bungalow” does not necessarily refer to the size, only that it was usually designed as a one story house. Many had fireplaces, bay windows, wide eaves, and porches. The “Pete” house also featured a spacious sun porch.
Similar in design to the Pete house is the former home of Jake and Ann Skala at 305 E. Harvey St. It also is an example of the California bungalow style. It was built on site and not moved. School children were often taken in the spring to see Mrs. Skala’s crocuses which were planted all over the large and meticulously maintained lawn. The house has an interesting fireplace and the woodwork is Southern Yellow Pine in the American Classic design.
The Gust Maki house at 105 E. Conan was built in 1914, replacing an earlier three room house that was moved near the park. Senja Maki had her heart set on a bungalow style house with leaded glass windows and a fireplace. Gust and Senja poured over plan books at the McMahan lumber yard, something many prospective builders did. Before construction started, Gust’s mother, a rather opinionated woman, changed all that saying, “Forget those window and that fireplace. Put on a full second story with bedrooms. Hard times are coming and you will do well to take in roomers.” Senja reluctantly agreed but put her foot down about having boarders. She was as not going to do meals. They mostly rented to teachers, the town florist, a surveyor, and a lawyer, using two of the upstairs bedrooms for their family.
Their plan was then modified to an American Foursquare design with six bedrooms. Senja insisted on a kitchen addition with a pantry, still used today. The couple had saved some money but they borrowed $3000 from Gust’s brother to go ahead with the building. The price of the house was something over $3000, more than $80,000 now. Without improvements and inflation.
While not nearly as grand as the Pete or Skala houses, the Maki house is unique in that its Southern Yellow Pine American classic woodwork has never been painted in its 107 years. A fireplace and some leaded glass windows have been added in later years. I hope you are smiling, Grandmother!
While the plan came from a book, the materials were purchased locally. The millwork also came from the lumber yard. Hardware stores also sold millwork.
Perhaps the oldest and grandest house of these four houses is the Samuel Knox house on River St. in Winton. It is called the Shingle Style, part of the Craftsman movement. Mr. Knox was the superintendent of the big sawmill operation on Fall Lake. It no doubt is the oldest and grandest of all four houses, having been built in before 1900.
There were originally two houses side by side, both built by the Knox mill company. It featured a large living room with a brick fireplace, a quite large dining room and living room, a spacious enclosed sun porch, and a screen porch overlooking Fall Lake on River St. The woodwork and flooring were oak, as was the wainscoting, and the overhead beamed ceiling. A bay window in the dining room had prism glass windows. The house featured French doors, beveled glass doors and leaded windows. Other architectural items were imported from Europe.
The walk up attic was spacious as was the basement. The radiators throughout the house were of elaborate cast iron, themselves works of art. The Knox family moved away after selling the mill to the St. Croix Co. from Stillwater. Logging operations in the area later ceased in the mid 1920s. It appears the house was empty for some years after that. John Helberg then bought the house but later sold it to his renters and relatives John and Ellen Ostlund about 1952. John did much restoration such as wallpapering, and refinishing the oak floors. He also restored the fabric panels on the wainscoting.
John was a plumber by trade but was also quite a skilled carpenter. He eventually divided the second floor into one large and one small apartment and his family lived downstairs room. The companion house next door had burned to the ground much earlier. After John died in 1983, his daughter rented the house but sold it in 2001 to Barbara Vinson.
During this time this grand old house had become deteriorated and when it was put up for auction within the last year, it appears it sold quickly. The minimum bid was reported to be $30,000. The new owner has not been named. There is no doubt it will take much money and much TLC to put the house back into condition but it could potentially become one of the showcase houses of the area. You might even say it could be the Glensheen of Winton.
In looking through several books on mail order houses, my guess is that both the Jacob Pete house and the Skala house came from the Aladdin Co., but I wouldn’t rule out Sears. Mail order houses were provided pre-cut materials that were shipped, most often by rail, to their destination. Everything, including door knobs, was included.
Pictures of these historic houses are displayed in the lobby of the Fine Arts lobby at VCC through the first of next year. Please call the historical society at 218-365-3928 if you can supply any further information or have any questions.