Building, contracting: John Wahlman did much in Ishpeming

ISHPEMING — John Wahlman emigrated to the United States in 1865 with his wife and family. He settled first in Chicago, but in 1869 he moved to Ishpeming. Maybe it was coincidence, or maybe he had heard about the rush to erect buildings in the new downtown, but he found plenty of work since he was a carpenter.

In October 1870, he was instrumental in starting the first Protestant church in Ishpeming, the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church Bethania. He also helped erect the first church building the following year. That building was shared with the Norwegian Lutheran church for 10 years. The church he helped start is now known as Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church and last year celebrated its 150th anniversary.

“Mr. John Wahlman has been receiving no little distinction from the Swedish Lutheran church because of the fact that he is one of the oldest members of that organization in the upper peninsula. He, with Hoaken Johnson, of the Winthrop location, are the two oldest members of the congregation of the Swedish Lutheran church of Ishpeming.

Mr. Wahlman came to this section in the sixties. There were only a few log buildings upon the site of the old Cleveland and Lake Superior mining locations, the mining of those days being done from open cuts on deposits of high grade ore that had outcropped. He was engaged on all the principal buildings about the mines, his ability soon becoming known and his services being in lively demand.

He, with a few others of his denomination. Longed for a church, and finally one was started and completed, being planned and built by the few Scandinavian carpenters that Mr. Wahlmn had drawn around him in the course of his early activities.” (Iron Ore, December 3, 1910)

Wahlman’s first business venture was to partner with John Fredlund, another Swede. The business was called Wahlman and Fredlund and they were listed as carpenters.

John Fredlund died in 1880 and in that same year, Wahlman went into business with John F. Grip although this time, the firm, Wahlman and Grip, were listed as building contractors. Grip, who was a boarder in the Wahlman household, married Esther Elizabeth Wahlman in December of 1880. Esther Elizabeth was John Wahlman’s eldest daughter.

“Wahlman & Grip, contractors and builders of this place, have a large force of men at work this summer, and are having really all they can manage. They are now at work on the Swedish Lutheran church, also on a residence for E.H. Fowle, this city and have nearly completed a fine residence for J.C. Fowle, Michigamme. “ (Iron Agitator, September 29, 1883)

In 1884, Wahlman and Grip built the Marquette and Western passenger depot in Ishpeming, along with a four stall roundhouse west of the old Barnum mine. They also built both the Houghton and Gogebic County Courthouses. But the firm’s biggest achievement was winning the contract to build the Marquette Branch State Prison. They submitted a bid of $135,817, well below the legislature’s appropriation of $150,000.

“Last Saturday evening the building and contracting firm of Wahlman & Grip made an assignment to Edward R. Hall. The step was taken because several of the large creditors of the firm were pressing for payments, and their demands could not be met. The principal cause of the failure is the heavy loss incurred by the firm three years ago. Shortly after work on the building was begun, the price of labor and materials advanced, this entailing a heavy loss on the contractors.” (Mining Journal, March 30, 1889)

What role John played in the new firm is not known. In 1893 Wahlman moved his family west, ending up in Las Animas County, Colorado, where they lived for four years. This move was reflected in the membership book of the Swedish Lutheran Church in Ishpeming. Why the family moved is not known, it could have been the need to find work, as there was a general depression in the country, or it could have been the death of one of his daughters.

The family moved back to Ishpeming in 1897, but it was not until the early 1900s that Wahlman again became active in the building and contracting business. His son-in-law, John Grip passed away in 1901. This time the firm was called Wahlman & Son, reflecting the addition of John Simon Wahlman.

In 1903 the firm was hired by Frederick Braastad to build a three-story addition to his 1888 department store. After Wahlman and Son completed the addition, they then remodeled and reconstructed the existing structure. In 1906 they were hired by William Mather to construct residences in his model town, Gwinn. During the early 1900s the firm also built skis.

In 1910 the firm was awarded the contract to construct a power house at the Snith mine and a crusher and ore sampling house at the Austin mine, both owned by the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company.

“Wahlman & Son were awarded the contract for the erection of four solid brick mine buildings for the Negaunee mine of the Cleveland-Cliffs company, Thursday. Wahlman & Son have a reputation for doing work promptly and well. They have been engaged here for 40 years and the fact that they are still active proves their work and methods as well as their prices to be satisfactory.” (Iron Ore, June 10, 1911)

Wahlman’s wife, Christine died in 1909 and shortly after that, John Wahlman began to disengage himself from the building and contracting business. He was in his seventies at the time. When his eldest daughter, Esther Elizabeth remarried and moved to the Minneapolis area, he moved with her and lived there for the remainder of his life. When he passed away in 1928, he was over 90 years of age and was the oldest member of the church he helped to found, Bethany Lutheran Church. Some of the buildings he helped to erect still dot the landscape, a mute but enduring testimony to his skill as a builder and contractor.


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