The not so well remembered life of W.R. Thorsen

When researching a particular person, you sometimes come across names that are periphery to the person that you are searching for.

The Thorsen Home was formerly located at 440 Cedar Street and was designed by famed Chicago architects Jenney and Otis. INSET: A photograph of William R. and Caroline Thorsen circa 1930s.

Or to state it another way by way of explaining it to someone else, “I’m on the hunt for information on THIS person and even though I see THIS OTHER person’s name pop up that I’d like to know more about,my first priority is to see to the primary person I’m looking for.” Kind of Confusing? It can be. Such is the case with William Randolph Thorsen, a lumberman whose imprint on Manistee’s early history, while minor compared to similar local businessmen of the late 19th Century, is still worth noting.

William Randolph (W.R.) Thorsen was born in Milwaukee, Wis. on June 3, 1860 to the parents of John and Sarah Thorsen. His father John, considered to be one of the pioneer men of the Northwest, was originally from Norway.

After settling in Wisconsin in the early 1840s, John Thorsen eventually developed a partnership with Charles Paggeott and together the two would become lumber manufacturers in Stronach beginning in 1868. In 1872, John organized the sawmill as the Stronach Lumber Company with himself as president, Paggeott as Treasurer, and Peter Welbes as secretary.

In the mid-1880s, William moved from Milwaukee to Manistee where he tookover the role of secretary for the Stronach Lumber Company.

One of the more fun, and puzzling, aspects of genealogy (especially amongst the high society of Manistee’s lumbering era) is attempting to fit together the various families upon a son or daughter marrying into another family. As such, prominent local lumberman John Canfield had three daughters, one of which (Caroline) became engaged to W.R. Thorsen. So, as noted, when one sets out to research the family of John Canfield, they are bound to come across the name of W.R. Thorsen.

Regardless, W.R. and Caroline were married in Manistee on June 16, 1886.

An article published on June 18, 1886 in the Manistee Advocate provided details on the joyous event: “Wednesday evening William R. Thorsen and Miss Carrie Canfield were united in marriage, at the residence of the bride’s parents in this city, the Rev. Dr. Fairfield performing the ceremony. The wedding was quite plain, and attended only by the relatives and close acquaintances of the family; but notwithstanding this fact about 90 guests were present.

“The presents were numerous and elegant. The bride was attired in a plainly-made dress of white silk, trimmed with duchesse lace; the groom wore a full-dress evening suit. The bride and groom, together with nearly all the guests from Chicago and Milwaukee, took their departure about 10:30 o’clock on the steamer Depere, which had waited on their account.

Mr. Thorsen, who is a son of Mr. and Mrs. John Thorsen of Milwaukee, is a secretary of the Stronach Lumber Co., his bride a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Canfield, who are known throughout the state. The union is considered a very happy one,and the bride and groom are congratulated by their numerous friends, at home and abroad.”

One of the many friends of John Canfield was famed Chicago architect, William LeBaron Jenney who had not only designed the largest mansion in Manistee, the Canfield Mansion, but also several other structures including the homes of A.O. and E.D. Wheeler. Roughly two years after W.R. Thorsen married Caroline Canfield, a new home for the couple was designed by Jenney and his partner, Otis and was in the process of being constructed on Cedar Street.

An article published in the Manistee Advocate on August 31, 1888 provides minor details:

“W.R. Thorsen’s residence on the hill it is expected will be completed by the end of next month and ready for occupancy. It is two stories high with attic, and has eight rooms not including pantry, bathrooms and halls. It will be a pretty building with all of the latest improvements. Jenney & Otis of Chicago are the architects.”

Finishing touches on The Thorsen House (440 Cedar Street) continued through early 1889 and upon completion a reporter for the Manistee Times-Sentinel toured the elegant mansion providing a sizeable description of Manistee’s latest “Jenney” in the February 1 edition:

“R.J.B Newcombe has recently completed W.R. Thorsen’s $10,000 residence., 50 x 50 feet, in the southwestern part of the city. The building is of the modern Mosaic design, is very pretty and unique, and has all the modern improvements.

The rooms are large, well lighted and well ventilated. They are nicely arranged for comfort, and finished up in the best of style. The main hall, dining room and butler’s pantry are finished in natural quarter sawed white oak, the parlor and the sitting rooms in red birch, the kitchen and pantry in white pine.

“The second story is elegantly finished in red birch and black ash, the hard wood finish having been designed and gotten out by Mr. Newcombe. The building reflects credit upon Mr. Newcombe’s skill and demonstrates that he is a master of his trade.

Ed Johnson had the contract to do the painting, and is highly complimented upon the artistic manner in which he executed it. The painting excels any similar work in the city. The laundry, boiler and milk rooms in the basement, are also finished up in very neat style. Mr .Thorsen has one of the neatest and most conveniently arranged residences in Manistee.”

By 1890, John Canfield had purchased the Stronach Lumber Company with Thorsen managing the mill. On February 28, 1890, a special supplement to the Manistee Democrat described Thorsen as: “… a young man, but very discreet and cautious in his methods, and entirely equal to the heavy responsibility which he bears.”

Records show that by 1899, W.R. and Caroline had moved out of their palatial home and soon after to Milwaukee with Richard W. Smith, a son-in-law of Louis Sands, purchasing the Cedar Street house. The move out of Manistee was not only due to a change in Michigan tax structures for wealthy businessmen but also because the timber in the area was nearing depletion.

A few years later, W.R. and Caroline adopted two boys and had moved to Arizona. Shortly thereafter they moved again, this time to California where another former Manistee resident and family member, Robert R. Blacker lived. Blacker married Caroline’s sister Nellie Canfield and while they resided in Pasadena, the Thorsen family made a home in Berkeley. Both Blacker and Thorsen would later have unique, luxurious homes constructed for them that were designed by popular California architects, Greene and Greene.

While living in California, W.R. continued his involvement in the lumber industry. As the decades passed the Thorsens maintained their California residency however, one would guess that they made an occasional trip back to Manistee to visit family and friends.

In January 1942, Caroline Canfield Thorsen passed away in Berkeley, Calif. On April 10 of that same year, W.R. Thorsen also passed away. They were both laid to rest at Sunset Mausoleum and Columbarium in El Cerrito, California.

Upon their deaths their home was purchased by the California chapter of the fraternity, Sigma Phi Society and is designated as a landmark historic site. On the other hand, The Thorsen Home in Manistee was later demolished by Richard W. Smith, Jr. in the late 1940s and in 1950 a new home had been constructed on the property by Dr. John Konopa.

With the Thorsen’s subsequent move to California and the demolition of their Cedar Street home, their names (at least locally) are not remembered but they do pop up from time to time…especially when in the midst of researching other people.


Posted by Mark Fedder

Mark Fedder is the executive director of the Manistee County Historical Musuem. He can be reached at (231) 723-5531

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