From old feed mill to modern house

John Oncken
Now Media Group

It's a house that could easily host the finest of state dinners attended by kings, queens, presidents, governors and dignitaries or all sorts. It's a house that would cause even home designers and decorators to ask, "How did they do that?"

The huge rooms filled with furniture spanning many decades of modernism, antique and handmade mixed with the most modern kitchen equipment are intriguing to say the least.

But it isn't even a house, it's a farmers feed mill built in 1858 — that's 158 years ago — left for dead and to the chipmunks, squirrels and nature in 1943 that found new life in 2011.

When I first saw the old building in the spring of that year, I wondered how it was still standing. Much of the siding was gone; the roof was rotting and full of holes; and it obviously hadn't seen paint for maybe a hundred years, if ever. The inside was cluttered with old boards, junk and some remaining grain milling equipment.

The sudden appearance of the building on Mill Road just off Highway 140 east of Gotham and north of Lone Rock was certainly a bit of a mystery to local folks who had previously had only seen a partial farmstead — house, repair shop and barn, all apparently vacant.

The man behind the mystery was Ross Halverson who, with his wife, Theresa, lived a dozen miles away on a farm near Bear Valley in an old farmhouse they spent 14 months remodeling to turn into a bed and breakfast.

An idea 15 years ago

In about 2001, Halverson said he became aware of an old and long-vacant flour mill about a mile away.

"I fell in love with the old building and wanted to buy it, " Halverson said. "But, the owner wouldn't sell.

In December of 2010, Brady Sprecher, who now owned the ancient mill, told Halverson that he was going to demolish the structure. One thing led to another, and Halverson became the owner of the 1858-built Lone Rock Mill with the provision that he move it off the property.

Of course, that's what Halvorson wanted in order to fulfill his plans to turn that ancient building into a house — a home where he and his wife Theresa would live.

He contracted with Heritage Builders at Mount Hope to move the three-story structure across the fields — while they were frozen — to Halverson's property just over a mile away. On the advice of now-retired Bob Childs of the moving company, Halvorson added some reenforcing timbers to the building and had a foundation built.

The move in 2011

By 9 a.m March 8, 2011, the mill had completed its 41/2-hour trip and was perched solidly on its new concrete base.

"Surprisingly, the 150-year-old structure with our extra bracing was solid as a rock," Halvorson said.

I'll admit my skepticism at the time. How could a rundown, decrepit, falling down, century-and-a-half-old and so-long vacant former feed mill ever become a livable house?

Admittedly, that was before I knew Ross and Theresa Halvorson very well, but I learned of their skills and ambitions over the next four years as the crumbling roof was replaced, siding was fixed, the cupola was renewed and the ancient building was undergoing a rebirth.

Built in 1858

The mill dates to 1858 when it was built by two brothers who had previously built a mill on the historic Sawle farm near Arena (now owned by Madison's Joy and Bobby Hinds). That structure burned decades ago, with only a foundation and a darkened photo remaining as reminders.

"The Lone Rock Mill made flour using wheat and rye as raw materials and ran around the clock during World War I," local historian Sandy Stiemke said. "That was probably the peak of activity for the business."

The water to run the mill's turbine came from Lake LaBelle, a 70-acre lake (held within an earthen dam) that was a favored fishing and boating spot during the mid and late 1800s.

Died in 1943

Lake LaBelle disappeared in 1943 when the dam was breached (either intentionally or by flooding), and the mill was done for. The old lake became rich farmland for the nearby Greenheck family farm.

Last summer, Halverson invited me to come and take a look at the old mill and see the remodeling progress he had made over the past four years. He and Theresa planned to move in later in the fall.

I remembered my thoughts and words of over four years before: "From a noncrafsman viewpoint (mine), the job looks near impossible." (Of course I'd come out.)

The remodeling job to end all remodeling jobs was nearing completion. "We started with the roof," Halverson said. "Every rain meant a basement full of water. I found a roofer to help me — not many were interested in such a job — and put on a metal roof while saving the unique cupola.

The oak floors and in-floor heating were in place; the big chandelier was ready to cast light over the dining room table (yet to come); the unique bath tub was almost ready to use; and kitchen appliances were being installed.

Floor by floor (three floors plus basement), Halverson had went about the rebuilding using every original board and beam possible and found or made anything else needed.

I could see my pessimistic prediction of four years ago was wrong and that the transition from mill to house was going to happen, and it did.

Moving in

The Halversons moved in late this fall and, thankfully, Ross invited me to visit and see what they had wrought, which was a lot.

Firstly, the house is bright as the sun streams through the wall of windows on the south side unfettered by any walls — there are none except for the bathrooms. The newly white-painted inside walls and several area settings of white furniture contribute to the brightness.

Note: the furniture comes from many places as both Theresa and Ross are experts at finding the unusual, unique and just-right things for their home. The Halversons have operated Yore LLC, an antique business, in Gotham for a number of years.

The two 5-by-8-foot (approximate) kitchen cabinets were hand built by one Jake Bennett, who also built his house — from tree to lumber — south of Gotham in the early 1930s. Eventually the house became vacant and ended up as state property because of its location near the Wisconsin River.

Just before the house was torn down, Ross managed to secure two huge backless cabinets (both remind me of a "hoosier" cabinet we had in my home farm kitchen, but much bigger), along with a set of windows. The cabinets are in the Halverson kitchen, and the windows are in the roof top cupola.

About a third of the second floor is open to the roof. Looking up or down provides an interesting perspective and adds to the openness of the structure. The second floor is a bedroom, laundry room and Theresa's office from where she runs her "T Maries Photography" business (

The story of converting a pre-Civil War mill into a modern home is about complete (maybe). I'm curious what the future might hold for Ross and Theresa Halvorson. but won't be surprised at anything considering the quizzical minds of the twosome. Much luck!

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at