My Father, the Master Builder

By Helen Berge McMichael

My father, Otto Edvin Olsen Berge, was born on the Berge farm in Grimstad, Norway, December 16th 1894.  His father, Knud Bjørn Olsen Berge, operated a grist mill and wood working shop where Otto learned the art of hand-dovetailing and all else it entailed.  They specialized in carriage making.  My grandfather became very ill with pneumonia and died at the age of 41 leaving my grandmother, Maren Anine, with eight children.  Dad and his older brother, Samuel, took over the business as teenagers continuing the business, both the gristmill and the wood working.  My father told me he had made a complete carriage at the age of 15.  Then things became worse for my grandmother – she lost the mill and her home.  According to my cousins in Grimstad she hadn’t been treated fairly as a widow and had everything taken away from her.

Due to the extreme difficulties, my father and his brother, Sam, had to leave Norway to help support the family as some of the children were infants.  Uncle Sam went to sea, but my father left for the USA.  They both sent financial help back to the family.  My father left Norway in May 1913 and was sponsored by his Uncle Johannes Olsen where he lived at his home in Long Island City.  His uncle found him employment where he worked building commercial automobile bodies.  He only worked there three months, and then decided to move to Staten Island where he worked as a carpenter.  In his early years in the metropolitan area he had various types of employment such as the shipyards building wood work in the quarters during World War I.  He also worked for the Steinway piano company making cases and even became employed as a chauffeur.  His employer wrote a beautiful letter of reference which he showed me occasionally.  Actually he didn’t start making furniture until a few years later.

The love he had for eighteenth and early nineteenth century antiques developed after he became associated with some antique dealers in New York City.  At the time it was called, The 16 East 13th Street Antiques Shop.  They repaired and restored antique furniture.  They would travel to Pennsylvania and New England coming back with a pickup truck filled with antiques made by some of the finest craftsmen of the eighteenth century from those areas.  He truly learned so much from the experience of repairing and rebuilding these pieces.  His knowledge increased through the years.  He spent time in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  He was also acquainted with Wallace Nutting who was a well known authority on antiques and wrote a book entitled, “Furniture Treasury and Mr. Morris Scwartz.”  My father said that he could not help but learn from these early craftsmen the construction, but also the choice of wood.  While he worked there he learned to make authentic design for fine reproductions.  He really found his life-long occupation and loved it.  Morris Scwartz was approached by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and her partners for advice and information as they contemplated starting the Val Kill Furniture Shop in Hyde Park, New York.  He recommended my father at this time for employment in their shop.

In the meantime he had been married to my mother for five years.  They had met through the Norwegian Free Church circles.  My mother was the daughter of Nils Williamson (Vodjusne), which he changed and Theodora who was a Tjornhom, both were from Kvinesdal in Norway.  I am so thankful for my Christian heritage and the role models who taught me their principles of life.  My father asked my mother, “Helen, would you like to move up to the country?”  She had no problem with that, so they moved to Hyde Park, New York.  They were always content living there.  I was born a year later in 1928.  Their final move was to an old Dutch colonial fieldstone house built by the William Stoutenburgh family, the first settlers in Hyde Park, New York.  It was wonderful growing up there.  I also had a sister, Doris Berge Monroe, five years my senior.  She died in 1996.

Although it was depression times, we did without a lot, but we were all somewhat equal, no one seemed to know the difference.  My father continued to work at Val Kill with Miss Nancy Cook in charge of the shop.  The reason she started this venture was to provide a trade for the young people in Hyde Park.  During the time he worked there he became somewhat frustrated with the designs because he felt the architect did not understand the early craftsmen.  He worked there from 1927 to 1936.  Mrs. Roosevelt treated my father very respectfully and they continued to make furniture through these years.  She had a show room called, “Val Kill” at 331 Madison Avenue, New York City.  The Depression affected the business, although there were few buyers, Mrs. Roosevelt’s name drew some customers.  There were problems during that time with working relationships.  My father had some problems with an assignment to make picture frames from wood obtained from old White House beams.  Mrs. Roosevelt had them sent to Val Kill.  He made a certain amount of them which used up all the wood.  He was told to continue with other wood to make more.  This almost destroyed him.  He knew this was dishonest.  This upset him so much he decided to do a poor job on the frames purposely.  Then he received a letter from Mrs. Roosevelt that the last frames he made were evidently not White House wood and that they were not well made.  After all these circumstances happening and other problems, the business was closed down.

Mrs. Roosevelt decided to give the business to my father, including the name, equipment and lumber in 1936.  He began to make authentic designs of 18th and early 19th century reproductions using appropriate wood.  He added a second story to the garage and later an addition which became his shop.  He had many prominent customers including the Roosevelt sons.   Elliot Roosevelt referred him to General Smith, founder of American Airlines, Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the Treasury, and many other distant and local professional and business people.  There was an orthodontist from Westchester who ordered many pieces for his home.  At this time father was in his glory reproducing the designs he loved including  Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, Duncan Phyfe and Queen Ann.  He was very proud of his accomplishments.  A maple chest on chest was ordered by the Roosevelt’s for the White House.  The President made him make a reproduction of Thomas Jefferson’s music rack.  There were so many pieces of his work all over the country.  I hope the owners  know their value.

During the late twenties, thirties, and into the forties, I had some special memories of the times spent at Val Kill and elsewhere in Hyde Park. Some of the occasions were for the dignitaries attending picnics given by the Roosevelt.. They invited their employees and some of the local families.  We were present  for the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.  Then Prince Olav and Princess Marta visited.  I actually shook their hands and my cousin, Eleanor Berge, presented them with a bouquet of flowers dressed in a bunad.  We had attended the Reformed Dutch Church when Queen Juliana and Prime Minister Makenzie King were visiting Hyde Park, my sister, Doris Berge Monroe, sang a solo then.  She had a beautiful soprano voice.

Mrs. Roosevelt visited our house to see my father about furniture she had ordered.  I can still hear her calling him from the back porch, “Otto, Otto, are you there Otto?” in her distinctive voice.  She was kind and gracious. One time the President drove into our driveway asking my brother-in-law, Robert Monroe, “Where is that Norwegian Otto?” Then there were Christmas parties at Val kill, except the one that we attended in Albany when he was governor.  I was very young but remember a movie scene with Eddie Cantor’s face.  I believe their daughter Anna’s children were present.  Mrs. Roosevelt made sure the children and adults all received gifts.  She was very fond of Christmas.

During the war everything changed.  When President Roosevelt died April 12th, 1945, Hyde Park and the entire nation were in mourning. My father started working in a defense plant where they made gauges.  It was impossible to import fine wood such as mahogany.  People were preoccupied with other problems, sending their boys and some young women off to the war.  Their gasoline, some foods, and other things were in short supply.  After the war he resumed the business.  He continued to have customers right up till he sold his home, shop, lumber and equipment.  My husband, Joseph, and I invited him to live with us in Red Hook.

He agreed because he knew it was becoming too lonely and a burden keeping the house in Hyde Park, built in 1750.  It needed much repair and maintenance.  He also missed my mother and would sometimes be depressed living alone.  He lived with us for ten years sharing the kitchen.  I would come home from work and have a great meal waiting, which was quite welcomed.  Sometimes he made lapskaurs, kjotkaker, or faarikall.

He was very outgoing with people. He looked forward to the antique shows because he would criticize or correct some of the dealers who did not appreciate his comments. Others appreciated his knowledge and advice.  He became a member of the Quakers or Friends Society because they appreciated his craftsmanship.  He was aware that many of the early craftsmen were Quakers.   He also supported a young women’s and girls’ Christian Rehabilitation center, The Walter Hoving Home, in Garrison, New York, driving 120 miles round trip on Sundays.  He would supply the turkey dinner and share it with them all on Thanksgiving Day.

After fifty years he returned to Norway with my mother and then visited again in 1976 when I was there and again in 1977 with his granddaughter, Holly Davis, my daughter. They loved to hear his Norwegian because it was the old Norsk.  He was reunited with his siblings Samuel, Bjørn, Astrid and Gudrun. He and Uncle Sam lived the longest. The sad part of this story is the day he was killed.  He attended his granddaughter’s wedding. All the immediate family was there. When Holly and her husband left for the reception we all followed in our cars. My father followed the line approaching a dangerous intersection and was hit broadside and killed. Needless to say we had to continue with the reception, although we were all in shock.  The reception was beautifully planned at a Hudson River mansion called, “Valeur”, formerly an Astor-Prince Oblensky estate. But we continued with the bittersweet occasion.

Our family and many friends had many fond memories of our father and grandfather.  He gave his heart to the Lord as a teenager and is with Him now. He died June 29th 1985. His grandson, my son, Robert Irons, has become involved with the genealogy.  He has done research for centuries back reading all kinds of history and self-taught writing in Norwegian. He treated me to a trip last fall with Holly joining us. We had a reunion with cousins in Grimstad and we were given a wonderful reception in Kvinesdal.  We met second cousins and other relatives we never knew. Norway is truly a beautiful, warm and friendly place.

Helen Berge Mc Michael
17570 SE 104 Circle
Summerfield, FL 34491
June 1, 2000

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