Helen Strom knows how to turn a house into a homeHelen Strom has designed a whole lot of houses in her life – though she never left home. At the age of 56, this Cloquet native decided to take a community education class in dollhouse making.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Helen Strom has designed a whole lot of houses in her life – though she never left home.
At the age of 56, this Cloquet native decided to take a community education class in dollhouse making.
“My mother was a great knitter and my sister was a great knitter, and they both made all kinds of stuff,” said Strom. “But I discovered I liked doing dollhouses. I just learned by experience, and after I took the class, several of us got a club together which has been together now for 33 years!”
Strom, her good friend Don Kronemann, and the group of nine others who took the class taught by the late Betty Erickson had such a good time together they were reluctant to see the course come to an end. Ever since then, they have continued to meet once a month, though they’re now down to just four of the original members.
Each month, the member charged with hosting the group comes up with a dollhouse-related project and instructs the others on how to make it, though members work on the houses themselves at home. Most recently, they made miniature table lamps with disposable pill containers as shades, but they’ve also made such things as dishes out of quilling paper, furniture out of craft sticks and toothpicks, and vases out of toothpaste caps.
“We save everything!” Strom said.
Though Strom admits she didn’t have a dollhouse as a youngster, after she took up making them as an adult she found she loved it.
“I don’t how many of them I’ve made because I’ve given a lot of them to the neighbor kids, as well as to the library, Evergreen Knoll and various charitable organizations that have raffled them off.”
She both builds the houses and makes and collects the miniature furnishings that go with them.
“Every time I go on a trip,” she said, “I have to visit the dollhouse places wherever I’m visiting. It’s like owning your own house, they’re never quite done!”
Strom has, in fact, turned dollhouses into an extraordinary art, crafting everything from a replica of the Northwestern Bell Telephone office where she once worked to a lighted structure called “Strom Gift Shop,” compete with miniature greeting cards Strom made from scratch.
The biggest dollhouse she ever made is the one she’s since donated to Evergreen Knoll – a gracious plantation-style house complete with covered front porch, miniature dogs playing in the front yard, lawn furniture, trees and birds nesting in the eve’s troughs. The entire back opens up to three stories’ worth of rooms, including kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, playrooms, a nursery and attic rooms. Strom also created many of the furnishings by hand, including miniature bedspreads with counted cross stitch designs which are also reflected in tiny framed portraits on the walls. She constructed the magnificent house, which is fully lighted, in the basement of her home. When it came time to move it, it took a major effort just to get it out of the basement in one piece!
The handmade dollhouse she donated to Cloquet Public Library is also a significant size, and it quickly became one of the most popular attractions. In fact, though it can’t be played with or touched, the staff at the library has made a list of 75 things to look for in the intricate house to keep viewers
“I think especially for older people, it brings back lots and lots of memories,” Strom said.
Over the years, the 89-year-old Strom has created a lot of memories of her own. The daughter of Swedish immigrants, she was born in a Duluth hospital and her family moved to a house at 807 Park Avenue in Cloquet, where she’s lived all her life.
Her dad started out piling lumber and ended up being a watchman for Northwest Paper Company.
Strom attended Leech School as a youngster, followed by two years at Jefferson School, and later Cloquet junior and senior high. She graduated in 1939. While in high school, she played clarinet in the band and her sister played French horn, and both participated in the marching band.
“We marched from the old high school on Carlton Avenue, down to 14th Street, all the way to Cloquet Avenue and down through the west end, up Chestnut Street, into the park, and that was it,” she recalled. “I feel sorry for the kids nowadays who can’t march.”
After high school, she was invited to go to Washington, D.C. to take a job there.
“My mother’s cousin worked there and wanted me to come. I told her I was too dumb, so I didn’t go!” she said with a laugh.
She did, however, go to work for the telephone company in Cloquet as a switchboard operator, working her way up to an administrative position in Duluth. In all, she ended up working for Northwestern Bell for 43 years before
“The computers were coming in at that time,” she said, “and to this day, I think computers are spoiling the way they do things.”
After she retired, Strom traveled quite a bit, to places such as Washington, D.C., New England, California and New York City.
“I made the mistake of getting screwed up in New York City,” she related, “and so the police stopped us and asked us what was the matter. We told them, and they stopped traffic right in front of the Board of Trade until we made a U-turn and found our way out again. We headed out toward the ocean but decided it wasn’t any fun so we went back and stayed in New York for a couple of days.”
She always traveled by car, either with some of the girls she knew or occasionally with her mother or sister.
“The first car I bought, my sister drove because I didn’t know how to drive at the time,” she said. “Finally, I learned how to drive and after that, nobody drove it but me!”
Strom remained happily single all her life and enjoyed living in her childhood home.
“I had a boyfriend once, but it didn’t last long!” she admitted with a sparkle in her eye.
She also played golf for 50 years, since her family home was in the west end of Cloquet not far from the Cloquet Country Club.
“My dad and uncle piled lumber down by Conwed on the west side of the building,” she related, “and sometimes they found golf balls [from the country club] down there!”
Strom started playing golf shortly after high school and played up until 10 or 15 years ago, both on leagues and at various other courses.
“It was great fun!” she said.
She moved to Evergreen Knoll Assisted Living a little over a year ago, where she is surrounded by many of the cherished family heirlooms she’s kept and cherished over the years, including an elegant 100-year-old steamer trunk her parents brought over from Sweden, a jaunty teddy bear made out of one of her sister’s three mink coats, and cut-glass dishes and silver that were her mother’s and father’s wedding presents.
“More than anything,” she said of her parents, “they had a lot of drink glasses – though my dad never drank a drop in his life!”
In addition to her monthly meetings with the dollhouse group, Strom also belongs to a group that goes to the Cozy Restaurant in Carlton every Friday night for dinner, which includes Dr. Byron Backus, Dr. Y.A. Gronquist, Kronemann, and others she’s known for years. She also gets together with a group of residents from the nearby Evergreen Cottages on Tuesday afternoons for drinks, hors d’oeuvres and conversation.
While Strom has several of her dollhouses on display in her apartment, perhaps the one she’s most proud of is the one she donated to the facility, which is on display just down the hall from her on the building’s third floor.
“What else would I do with it?” she posed. “I don’t have anyone but myself. I’d rather have it somewhere where others can see it – as long as they don’t monkey with it,” she cautioned. “If they didn’t work on it themselves, they don’t realize all the work that went into it.”
Most of all, Strom said, she encourages folks to take a lesson from what she’s done with her hobby and find something they love to do as well.
“The one thing I keep telling people is, ‘Get interested in things so you have something to work on,’ she said. “Some girls don’t do