COLUMNISTS

Dilapidated feed mill evolves into one-of-a-kind home

John Oncken
Celebrating the Fourth of July at the refurbished old mill house.

It’s a house that could easily host the finest of state dinners attended by kings, queens, presidents, governors and dignitaries of 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 164 years ago – once left for dead and to the chipmunks, squirrels and nature back in 1943, that found new life in 2011.

The old mill settles on to its new foundation just after moving.

When I first saw the old building in the spring 2011, 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 100 years – if ever. The inside was cluttered with old boards, junk and some remaining grain milling equipment.

The sudden appearance of the crumbling old building on Mill Road just off Hwy 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 that they spent 14 months remodeling and turning into a bed and breakfast.  

Ross Halverson says he will keep the ventilation system used in the old mill.

An idea 15 years ago

Around 2001, Halverson 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 says. "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 Theresa would live. 

The old mill now has three stories and a walkout basement.

He contracted with Heritage Builders at Mt 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 reinforcing timbers to the building and had a foundation built. 

The move in 2011

By 9 a.m on March 8, 2011, the mill had completed its four and a half 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 says.

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? 

Kitchen appliances being installed.

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 back 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 ran around the clock during World War I – a time that local historians say was 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.  

Gone, gone, gone

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

Several years later 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 also announced that he and Theresa planned to move in later in the fall. 

I remembered my thoughts and words of over four years before: “From a non-craftsman viewpoint (mine) the job looks near impossible.”

Of course, I’d come out and take a look.

Looking down from the second floor.

The remodeling job to end all remodeling jobs was nearing completion. “We started with the roof,” Halverson says. “Every rain meant a basement full of water. I found a roofer to help me – not many were interested in such a job – 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 he needed.

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

The bathroom with its very unique bathtub

Moving in

The Halversons moved into the refurbished structure in late 2015 and thankfully, Ross invited me to visit and see what they had wrought...which was a lot.

First, the house is bright as the sun streams through the wall of windows on the south side unfettered by any walls. There are no walls 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. They have built up that acumen for the unusual through their antique business, Yore LLC., which they have operated for a number of years in Gotham, Wisconsin.

The two 5 x 8 foot kitchen cabinets were hand built by Jake Bennett, who also built his house south of Gotham in the early 30s using tree to lumber. Eventually the house became vacant and ended up as state property due to 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 are much bigger), along with a set of windows. The cabinets are now in the Halverson kitchen and the windows set in the cupola gracing the rooftop.

Part of the living room on the first floor of the millhouse.

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 home to the bedroom, laundry room and Theresa’s office from where she runs her  “T Maries Photography “ business (tmaries-photography.com). 

The story of  converting a pre-Civil war mill into a modern home is about complete (maybe). I’m curious as to 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!

Contact John at jfodairy2@gmail.com