When he retired to Moline to live in his boyhood home that was built by his grandfather, Curtis C. Roseman had no idea what a rich vein of Quad-City history lay hidden within.
While going through piles of old magazines and newspapers, family photos and other materials saved by his mother, the geography professor emeritus at the University of Southern California found boxes of business records kept by his grandfather, Gustavus A. “Gust” Johnson.
Johnson, a Swedish immigrant, worked in Moline as a carpenter and building contractor for nearly 50 years. As Roseman and his wife, Libby, combed through the boxes, they found journals, myriad slips of paper with handwritten notes and calculations, drawings, building permits, letters from suppliers and subcontractors, blueprints and more.
“They were remarkably detailed, almost a complete day-to-day record of labor, cost of materials, who did the work and other aspects involving all 80 houses that he built,” Roseman said. “I knew it should not go to waste.”
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So he decided to build a book.
The result is the profusely illustrated, meticulously documented 241-page “Building the American Dream: A Swedish Immigrant Carpenter, Contractor, and Family in Moline, Illinois.” It officially goes on sale Saturday at a book launch and celebration at the Fireworks party room, 16th Street and the Avenue of the Cities in Moline.
For Roseman, the event culminates more than five years of writing, researching, organizing, selecting and tracking down houses built by Johnson. Of the 80 homes his grandfather constructed between 1909 and 1942, Roseman was able to determine the locations of 76. With the exception of three displaced by highway projects and a fourth replaced by an Augustana College dormitory in Rock Island, all are still standing,
Johnson built most of his houses in Moline, East Moline, Rock Island and Silvis. Others are in Osco, Ill., Pleasant Valley and Davenport.
The book contains photos of all his houses, and readers will recognize styles that are so common in the Quad-Cities. They include bungalows and the ubiquitous four-square, so named for its cube shape topped by a low-pitched, hipped roof. Also represented are other styles favored by the rising middle class during the first half of the 20th century.
Born Sept. 26, 1880, Johnson grew up on a farm near the settlement of Holsbybrunn in southern Sweden, immigrated to the United States at the age of 18 in 1899 and settled in Moline, where his older sister had come to live in 1893. He worked as a carpenter for various people in Moline before venturing to Oakland, Calif., in 1903 for a three-year stint as a carpenter. He returned to Moline about a month after the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.
In 1908, he married Selma Anna Sofia Carlson and launched his career as an independent contractor a year later. The first house he built was for his family, a four-square that remains at 2005 15th St., Moline. In 1924, he completed a new home for his family, a four-bedroom bungalow at 2120 12th St., Moline, where Roseman lives today. He represents the third generation of his family to do so.
Throughout his career, Johnson typically built houses from plans furnished by his clients. Most of his designs were supplied by the Rock Island Lumber Co., although one house at 2910 24th Ave., Moline, was designed by an independent architect, William Schulzke of Moline, whose works include the Fifth Avenue Building in downtown Moline.
Johnson completed his last house in June 1942. He continued working on small- and medium-size jobs until he died June 27, 1947, at the age of 66.
In addition to exhaustively tracing his grandfather’s career with text, newspaper clippings, photos, maps, graphs, tables, images of receipts and other business papers, Roseman writes extensively about other members of his family and their links to Quad-City history.
They include Johnson’s wife, Selma, who worked for 10 years as a maid in the household of Minnie Stephens Allen and her husband, industrialist Frank G. Allen. Their fabulous Moline mansion, Allendale, serves today as the administrative offices for the Moline-Coal Valley School District.
The family history portion of the book includes a chapter on Roseman’s parents, Dorothy and Clifford Roseman, who operated the College Pharmacy and later the College Sundries, both popular destinations for Augustana College students, from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s. Dorothy Roseman was Johnson’s older daughter. His younger daughter, Elinor, died tragically as a missionary in Africa, as readers will learn.
Roseman said he initially set out to tell the story of his grandfather’s contracting business, but soon found that there was another dimension.
“I realized that our family’s history was an essential component,” he said.