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Chester H. Thordarson


    Chester H. Thordarson, May 12, 1867, lived his first few years in the north of Iceland. Emigrating from the port of Reykjavik in 1873, Hjortur, nearly 6, traveled with his parents, Gudrun Grimsdottter and Thordur Arnason, and sister Gudrun, 22, brother Grimur, 19, sister Ingibjorg, 13 and brother Arni, 4, arrived in Milwaukee, their U. S. port of entry. Hjortur's father contracted typhoid fever and died a few months later.


    A move to a Windsor, WI, farm, Dane County, with his mother and siblings brought his first opportunity for normal schooling. Thordarson later reported that he went to school there for a couple of sessions during summer. That was enough to get him a second grade education and a new name. His primary teacher, Ella Wheeler (Wilcox), later a successful poet and writer, encouraged Hjortur to adopt the first name, Chester. A three-year stay in Windsor, followed by another three years on a farm in Shawano County, WI found the Thordarson family and several other Icelandic neighbors heading for the rich lands of Pembina County, North Dakota. Without enough money to send everyone by train, the women, girls, and young boys went by rail, the nearest rail road station being forty miles from their destination. The men and older boys, with Chester nearly 13, the youngest person on the two month trek, followed by wagon trail with household goods, farm implements, and livestock to the Red River Valley. The Thordarson family resided on a farm near Gardar, ND.


    Icelanders, among the most literate people in the world, take along books wherever they go. Chester could and did read books in Icelandic until his next opportunity for formal schooling. This time came when he joined his married sister, Gudrun, in Chicago. At eighteen, Chester enrolled in the fourth grade among children of ten. He didn't mind because "all I wanted was the chance to learn," he later said. At twenty he left school, having completed seventh-grade work


    Winding armatures on his first Chicago job brought Chester $4 a week. Books always a priority, took $1 of his $4 weekly wage. These purchases were the start of a book collection which was to become one of the most complete and valuable personal book collections in the world.


    After two years winding armatures, Chester's next job took him to St. Louis for two years where he helped install electric motors in street cars. Next, after a long rail trip to see the western US and Mexico, Thordarson took a job in Chicago with one of the two Chicago electric companies (which later merged together to form the Chicago Edison Company). By 27 years old, in 1894, Thordarson said he knew a little about electricity, motors, and dynamos, he read many science and general books, and had saved $75. In that year he married Juliana Fridriksdottir and started his own business. Juliana, also Icelandic born, had earlier emigrated from Eyrarbakki in south Iceland. Some of Juliana's relatives lived in the Iclandic community of Washington Island.


    Thordarson's first opportunity of distinction came through his association with universities. The order came from Purdue University which requested building a half-million volt transformer to be exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis Fair, to be used for experimental purposes at Purdue thereafter. No one had ever built a transformer with the capacity for so high a voltage and Thordarson was given only 28 days for building. For this feat, Thordarson was awarded a gold medal. Eleven years later, Thordarson built a million volt transformer, and again received a gold medal for the accomplishment. One and a half years were spent designing then building this larger one.


    Chester Thordarson's Chicago business, the Thordarson Electric Manufacturing Company, located at 500 West Huron Street, from small beginnings grew over time to a multi-million dollar factory, covering several blocks, and employing some 2000 workers. By 1904, Chester Thordarson would be widely known by the electrical community.


    In 1910 Chester bought a large portion of Rock Island from Washington Island resident, Rasmus Hanson, whose great grand-daughter still lives on the island. Over the next few years Thordarson added the rest of the available 778.53 acres to his estate.


    Thordarson made many changes to Rock Island. In 1914 Thordarson restored the Jacobsen house on the east side (near the present water tower) and built a dock. In the spring of 1924, Thordarson's crew cleared 30 acres on the west side of Rock Island. Thordarson made plans in 1926, and during 1927 to 1931 constructed the boathouse and other stone buildings structures. Also at this time the water tower on the east side was built. Thordarson constructed a total of 14 buildings, a wall, hilltop gate and lookout tower on Rock Island. Icelandic artist Halldor Einarson worked, 1928-31, in Chester's library in Chicago carving the oak furniture and on Rock Island carving the runic and block letters above the huge fireplace in Viking Hall. Using the Prose Edda (1220) as a reference for Nordic myths, Einarson carved on each of the 24 straight chairs one scene from one myth. Therefore, each straight chair illustrates a different myth. Names of principle characters were written in runic beneath each scene. The Great Desk, couch, swivel chair, tables, and other pieces were also carved, but not with mythical scenes.


    Chester and his family enjoyed and worked on improving his Rock Island retreat in all seasons. He worked to have water and electricity in the buildings. He had an interest in botany, and landscaping. In a green house attached to Thordarson's Rock Island residence, currently the SHelter Building, he grew plants and did research with plants. He brought flowers and seeds from Iceland and other countries. For his management of this estate as a preserve for natural landscape, native animals and wild flowers, the University of Wisconsin conferred upon he the degree of Honorary Master of Arts, in 1929.


    In the 1940's Chester and his family spent longer periods of time on Rock Island. He continued to add to his most valuable rare book collection. He seemed full of vigor and continued to work in his Rock Island workshop. In 1942 he told his cousin about his latest invention, a gas turbine. He assembled a model of it in his Rock island workshop, and was preparing to do some tests on it. In his lifetime, Chester had over 100 inventions, most of them patented. These ranged from electrical transformers for radios, parts of cars, to other non-electrical ideas.


    Thordarson became ill in 1944. Julia took care of Chester until his illness got more serious, when he was taken to a Chicago hospital, where he died of heart failure, on January 6, 1945.


    Chester's will provided the opportunity for the University of Wisconsin-Madison to purchase most of the Thordarson rare book collection. In December 1946, university regents voted to buy the scientific library of 11,000 volumes for $300,000. The University added the rare book room to their Memorial Library to house the collection.


    Thordarson's two son's and their families continued to enjoy Rock Island, until the early 1960's. In 1965 the State of Wisconsin purchased Rock Island, the land and buildings, from Chester's heirs for $170,000. The Thordarson family sold the carved furniture by piece to private people. Most pieces in the Great Hall today (1996) have been donated back to the Park to keep the pieces together.


Dated 1996, author unknown


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