The following article was written by Harriet Karlson of Milaca, Minnesota, for the Morrison County Historical Society’s essay project, “What’s It Like [ … ] in Morrison County?”
Gustav Valdemar Karlson, with his wife Ellen, moved to Little Falls in the spring of 1911 from Minneapolis to set up his own granite business. They were both emigrants from Sweden in the early twentieth century, married in Minneapolis and moved with their little girls, two and four years, to Little Falls. Shortly after getting settled and the business moving along, their first son, Lennart, was born on July 3, 1911.
G. W. Karlson moved to Little Falls because of the availability of high quality granite in the area and the accessibility of the natural material for his work. He set up shop on Broadway and, according to articles in the Little Falls Transcript, was very satisfied with the quality of granite. G. W. or Gus, as he was known, was his own salesman, riding a bicycle around town and out into the countryside, soliciting business peddling along the sandy roads. Not an easy trip. We don’t see salesmen riding bikes today to peddle their wares.
An order for a monument meant that G. W. arranged to get the granite delivered to his shop and proceeded to do the skilled work making the monument to the family’s specifications. There were no power tools at his shop, just hammer and chisel to carve out the required work.
G. W. learned his trade in Sweden. He was the eldest boy in the family of torp farmers and, therefore, was to have inherited his fathers’ plot of the torp farm known as Stocktovan. However, as a youngster he played with a gun and an explosion of a bullet left him with his thumb and first finger missing on his left hand. He was no longer qualified to be a farmer in Sweden and was sent to the granite field in his native Bohuslan to learn to cut granite to be used as paving stones for roadways. Coming to America in 1902, he settled in Minneapolis and took employment with local monument shops. He had a natural artistic ability and quickly picked up the knack for carving stones. He was eager to settle in a small town, establish his own business, and raise his family in a healthy atmosphere.
As time went on, his business flourished. Eventually he built his own little shop on Wood Street using his natural Swedish carpenter ability. He found the bicycle was not the best means of transportation and soon bought a second-hand Maxwell touring car to solicit business.
By 1913 the Karlsons were living in their own home at 406 Third Street N.E. and along came second son John Albert, named for John Albert Johnson, the deceased Governor of Minnesota. Had he lived, he was a probable candidate for the White House. John Albert Karlson was my husband and the source of much of my information about the granite business in Little Falls, as well as when the family later moved to Fergus Falls, Minnesota. The folks at the Weyerhaeuser Museum also aided John and I with the use of the Little Falls Daily Transcript to secure factual information about the business.
The current owners of the Little Falls Granite Works may dispute the fact that 2011 is the 100th anniversary of their business. Records prove that there was no granite business in Little Falls in 1911. The former shop, owned by R. W. Carlson from Center City, had closed and G. W. started a new shop when he arrived in town. It is true that in 1898 Little Falls Granite Company was in business making monuments and selling granite building blocks for building construction all over the United States. There were many attempts at the retail granite business, but not until the arrival of G. W. Karlson’s opening of the Little Falls Granite Works has there been a continuous business. That makes 2011 a big year for the granite business in Little Falls, as well as the 75th year for MCHS [Morrison County Historical Society] to celebrate.
G. W. would hire a drey to haul his monument out to the designated cemetery, taking his boys along to assist in setting the stone. Even though they were little tots, he wanted them to learn the trade. They all felt at home in the quiet of the memorial grounds. He made stones to be placed in cemeteries all around the Little Falls area, even at times coming over to Milaca, where John and I have made our home since 1973.
My husband John and I visited with Harry Norr, an old acquaintance of John’s, in 1999. Harry explained to us that back in the pre-World War I era, the various nationalities were very clannish and the Swedish people would get together over coffee and address each other by the type of work or their occupation to identify each other. For instance, G. W. Karlson, a stone cutter, would be addressed Stenhuggare Karlson, or blacksmith Norr was called Smed Norr, carpenter Quest was Snickeri Quist, and tailor Noren was Skraddare Noren. An interesting custom of the “old days.”
After the United States entered World War I in 1917, Gus Karlson was hired by bank officials to remove the name on the outside of the building on the corner of Broadway and First Street. It was known as the German American Bank and the bankers did not want their business associated with the enemy of our country – Germany. The last time I drove on Broadway, I could still see near the top of the building the imprint of the raised letters “German American” that had been there.
As in all businesses, G. W. had his ups and downs and at various times he took in partners to assist him. In 1920 Karlson and Nelson, proprietors of the Little Falls Granite Works, advertised in the Pierz Journal, stating that they have been in business for nine years and are soliciting business in the Pierz community. Again this substantiates the fact that the business was started in 1911. There were problems with a dishonest salesman and G. W.’s business was taken over by A. A. Nelson. In 1922 the Karlson family moved to Fergus Falls, where G. W. was a partner in the Westlund Karlson Monument business.
I, Harriet Karlson, known by my nickname Suzy, writer of this article and daughter-in-law of G. W. Karlson, learned much of G. W.’s experiences directly from him. G. W. Karlson died on January 31, 1958, and his wife passed away in 1961. All eight of the children are gone. I am the only living in-law, along with many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
-By Harriet Karlson
This article was published in the Morrison County Historical Society’s newsletter, Volume 24, Number 2, 2011.