Krohne family preparing to sell off historic estate

Livingston legacy
2012-02-28T00:05:00Z 2012-08-31T22:56:11Z Krohne family preparing to sell off historic estateBy ED KEMMICK ekemmick@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette
February 28, 2012 12:05 am  • 

LIVINGSTON — Dwight Krohne speaks with great pride of his family, which has been established in Livingston for well over 100 years.

He is particularly proud of his great-grandfather, family patriarch Charles O. Krohne, who came to the United States from Sweden as a young man in 1885 and worked to save enough money so his wife, Teckla, could join him in America.

In time he would amass a sizable fortune, which allowed him to indulge his interest in collecting historical artifacts, curios and valuable antiques and antiquities.

That collection, augmented by some family members and dispersed and squandered by others down through the generations, is now in the possession of Dwight Krohne.

Even in its diminished state, the collection is spectacular. There are hundreds of pieces of fine old furniture and home furnishings, antique toys, jewelry, Red Wing pottery, guns, coins, medals, Chinese imperial court artifacts and thousands of other items.

As much as Dwight Krohne values his family history, the privilege of being the curator of several buildings' worth of Krohne family heirlooms has become a burden. Krohne said he and his wife, Kitty, "were in essence just tired of being unpaid caretakers of this stuff."

Starting Thursday in Livingston, they will begin the process of selling off most of their family possessions. Because they ran out of time and display space, Dwight said, the sale this weekend will include only about a third of the estate, meaning there will be more sales in the future.

A new life

C.O. Krohne might never have become a great collector but for a terrible accident. He had apprenticed as a machinist in Sweden and worked for a railroad in Minneapolis before moving to Livingston in 1889 to follow the same trade. A few years after his arrival there, a locomotive fell off its supporting jacks and severed both of his legs at the knee.

"It's really miraculous that he didn't die from that," Dwight Krohne said. "He had unusual willpower and stamina."

As it turned out, he was also quite intelligent, with a shrewd mind for business. Dwight said his great-grandfather received nothing from the railroad except a termination notice, so he used the savings that he and Teckla kept in a jar in a kitchen cupboard to go into business as an insurance and real estate agent.

The crude wooden legs he used took eight inches off his previously 6-foot frame, but he hardly slowed down. He began buying up ranch land in the Livingston area as well as lots in town. By 1900, Dwight said, C.O. had the biggest real estate and insurance agency in southwestern Montana. He owned several ranches, whole business blocks in downtown Livingston and more than 45 houses, which he rented out.

C.O. Krohne (it is pronounced like "crony" and was spelled "Kroni" in Sweden) also used his wealth to create his own estate, Krohne Island, a little east of Livingston on the Yellowstone River.

The island — which has not really been an island since the river carved a new channel in 1916 — was meant to be used by the Krohne family and the community at large. Krohne built an ice house and dance pavilion there, and he started a brass band to play at the pavilion.

He also built a sandstone-block house on the island, which Dwight and Kitty Krohne still live in. C.O. used the island house as a kind of weekend getaway and continued to live in the modest house in town that he bought when he was working for the railroad.

On the island, Krohne also planted what was apparently the first orchard in Montana, consisting of 1,500 trees. On the lawn in front of the island house he installed an ornate cast-iron fountain he had shipped in from New York. It still stands, and it still works.

An interest in history

C.O. also began collecting. Dwight said it was unusual for a first-generation immigrant to be so interested in American history, but C.O. definitely was, with a special penchant for Revolutionary War and Civil War artifacts.

He was a regular user of the Bannerman catalog, which sold guns and military surplus goods from all eras. Early in the 1900s, Dwight said, the Civil War was so recent a memory that few people cared about it, and C.O. managed to buy Civil War guns and gear and whole cases of ammunition for next to nothing.

When people in Livingston heard that Krohne, who by then was headquartered in the Krohne Block building at 116 Callender St., was interested in old guns, they gladly parted with their firearms so they could buy newer models. In that way, Dwight said, his great-grandfather built a museum-quality collection of guns made by Winchester, Henry, Sharps and Colt.

He also collected American Indian artifacts, pocket watches, artwork, items from the Napoleonic Wars, rare coins and Chinese imperial court items from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Dwight said he didn't even know about the imperial court holdings until he recently began going through the family's estate.

In addition to what C.O. Krohne collected, the estate sale will feature hundreds of items amassed by other family members through the generations. That's where the fine furniture and porcelain come in, as well as an extensive collection of antique toys, outdoor gear and jewelry.

Dwight's grandmother, Hilma, who married B.T. Krohne, one of C.O.'s sons, hailed from a well-to-do family in Red Wing, Minn., and she brought to the estate a sizable collection of Red Wing stoneware, including jugs, jars, vases and crocks.

After C.O.'s death in 1917, family members who grew up amid his collection took it for granted. Dwight said it pains him to think how many valuable guns were sold for a pittance, or just given away.

"People would walk into the office and say, 'Hey, there's a pearl-handled Colt revolver. I'd like to have that.' And they'd just hand it to him," Dwight said.

Sold for a song

Much worse was the loss of possessions that ensued when his uncle Edoff died and the estate fell into the hands of his wife. She started selling off goods by the lot, and when she tired of that she sold everything in one of the family's buildings for $1,000.

Dwight said his father couldn't block the sale, but he went into the building in the middle of the night with his brother and made off with everything they could jam in their car, starting with most of the guns that remained in the collection. Partly because of that, and because Dwight's own son is interested in firearms, Dwight is not including any of the guns in the estate sale.

But among the goods that were lost in those times, Dwight said, were elk-tooth robes, full war bonnets, most of the Civil War guns and ammunition and a Gatling gun.

Because the estate passed down to the eldest son in each generation, there was a lot of bitterness and feuding over the years, to the extent that Dwight's father, J.D. Krohne, was so tired of it all that he refused to take the family stipend offered to him and made his own way.

He more than succeeded, Dwight said, having been superintendent of the Northern Pacific Railroad and later superintendent of operations for Boeing in Seattle. After the death of the previous heir, C.B. Krohne, in 1988, Dwight's father wanted nothing to do with the family estate and favored selling all the Montana properties and collections.

Instead, Dwight and Kitty moved to Livingston from Seattle, remodeled the old Krohne Island house and settled in.

"Lo and behold, we ended up staying here. We never thought we would," he said.

A big decision

Like his father, Dwight wanted to pay his own way. He and Kitty own and operate four businesses in Livingston, including an antique store, a coffeeshop, a fireworks stand and the Rimrock Trailways office.

They started thinking of selling off the estate after Dwight's father died last year. They were also influenced by a church trip to Cuba, where the good-natured happiness of people who had very few material possessions got them thinking seriously about simplifying their lives. Their children, a son and a daughter, have no real interest in the estate, and so there it sits, unused and unseen by the world.

"We've had buildings full of this stuff and we've been paying to store it," Dwight said.

Because of their experience in the antique business, and because Kitty has managed estate sales before, they are putting on the sale themselves. They've spent months going through the collection, constantly discovering things they'd never seen before, researching prices and hauling everything to the sale site to set up the displays.

It's a bittersweet process for Dwight, but he is ready to let go of the possessions. He doesn't say so directly, but it's clear that he doesn't think C.O. Krohne would mind.

"C.O. was very frugal and unpretentious," Dwight said. "He was not a show-off. He did not go out of his way to display his wealth."

And when C.O. died in 1917, Dwight said, "he died in the working-class railroad home he lived in when he lost his legs."

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