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Knutson brings Martell store site back to life

Graphic artist Ken Dolle, left, and builder Dan Knutson showed some of the improvements they've made to the exterior of the former Thompson General Store in Martell. Included are signs which have been restored. <i>Bill Kirk photos</i>1 / 2
The original Thompson General Store building.2 / 2

MARTELL -- Dan Knutson can foresee a day when the former Thompson General Store in the heart of Martell serves a commercial business again.

Or perhaps the historic building could become a bed-and-breakfast, catering to the fishing enthusiasts who enjoy the nearby Rush River. Or maybe it could be a place where pop and light goods are sold to area visitors.

"I hope the real estate market holds up so I'm able to sell it," Knutson said.

The builder, who grew up a couple of miles down the road from the old store, has owned the property since 1986 and started working on it a couple of months ago, he said.

So far, he's mostly done an exterior upgrade to one wall, including rehanging 1900-era wooden signs restored with the help of a graphic artist from River Falls, Ken Dolle, a Marshfield native.

Three years ago Knutson also bought the home of the former store owners, Gustav and Mary Thompson, which is right next to the building. He's accomplished a more extensive renovation there and can envision selling both parcels as a package.

"I might put in a connecting basement," he said, indicating the two structures combined would provide 5,000 square feet altogether.

The "big store," as many locals call it, accounts for 3,000 square feet of that amount and was built in 1874, Knutson said. It's actually in two sections or halves, as an addition was later added on one side. Seen from the front, the older portion is on the right.

He remembered a large safe located in the back, reminding him of a fixture common in the "Old West." An oil stove generated heat when he was around; two chimneys still exist, as does indoor plumbing. There used to be a millinery inside, as well as a post office. The premises hosted traveling doctors, dentists and optometrists, too.

An ice house outside the store in the past was often filled with blocks of ice cut from the river, he said. Across the road, a barn no longer there contained supplies for the store, along with the hearse of a former mortician. A photography shop and a harness shop were once part of the neighborhood as well.

The present owner believed the store closed in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

"My uncle, Vernon Knutson, built an apartment inside the store," he said, referring to a relative who influenced his choice of a vocation.

Besides rebuilding and repainting the outside wall, the apartment builder's nephew has installed a new roof on the newer half, he said, mentioning a "Martell" aviation sign found during this project. A reproduction of the original entrance door on the newer side has been hung; two-or-three of the upstairs windows are originals, featuring cast iron locks. He plans to improve a porch on the back. An old 10-by-10-foot root cellar needs attention, as frost has heaved it quite severely.

"The hardest part (of the renovation to date) has been shoring up the foundation," he said, although he's learned it will pass code if he insulates it and arranges for suitable drainage.

Different people owned the adjacent residence when he bought it, but his purchase of the store was from Mary Thompson, Knutson said. He shared the following information with the Herald:

"Martell, Wisconsin, was the third settlement in Pierce County after Prescott and River Falls.

"Professional Taylor Gunder Thompson built the first half of the store building in 1874. It's estimated the second half was built around 1900. At this time, the store's letterhead read 'G. Thompson, Shippers of butter, eggs, poultry, hides, wool and general merchandise, est. 1874.

"In 1881, Taylor G. Thompson had a son that he named Gunder. Gunder eventually took over the store and ran it for many years to come.

"Years later, a man named Gust comes into the picture of the store building and serves multiple purposes for the public of Martell and surrounding areas. For 47 years, Gust was the Martell postmaster and the store building served as the general store. He was also the public notary for 65 years, a health officer, Justice of the Peace, leader of the Thompson Orchestra, a member of the Martell School Board and ran the ice house across the street. The ice house served as a place not only to work with ice, but also to store flour, feed, hides and two black horses to pull the Martell hearse.

"In addition, Gust was a prominent member of the local Beaver Club. It was reported the Beavers had picnics, some of which were attended by as many as 300 people.

"At one time, the store also operated as a millinery by the Thompson gals.

"During a recent roofing renovation of the store building, a huge sign was discovered that read 'Martell' in 10-foot tall letters.

The sign is believed to be a locator for early aviation traffic. In addition, little information exists about the aviation sign."

Bill Kirk

Bill Kirk was editor of the Pierce County Herald in Ellsworth, from 1988 to February, 2015 and is now on staff as a reporter. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He previously worked in the media distribution department at the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus and is past editor of The Tri-County News in Osseo, Wisconsin.

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