Pushing tin: Fargo history found in early garages

Dan Francis said it was fun learning about the history of the Rusk Auto House, but he’s not certain what the future has in store for his as he’d like a new garage. “I’d be interested in getting it appraised,” he said. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Dan Francis said it was fun learning about the history of the Rusk Auto House, but he’s not certain what the future has in store for his as he’d like a new garage. “I’d be interested in getting it appraised,” he said. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO – When Dan Francis bought his house in 2009, he knew the Hawthorne neighborhood home had belonged to the late Fargo bar owner Jim Lauerman. What he didn’t know was that the house had an even older tie to Fargo’s business history.

Nestled in the back, in the southwest corner of the Fargo property, is a green, metal shed, one of a handful of Rusk Auto Houses left standing nearly a century after being built.

“We just thought it was a shed,” Francis says, looking out at the sturdy structure. “We didn’t know it was nearly a hundred years old.”

While he’s since learned a bit of history about the building, he was hardly alone in not recognizing the stylish construction.

“For a lot of people, they didn’t know what they were, so they’ve been misused and cut up into pieces,” says Dawn Morgan of the Fargo Moorhead Heritage Society. “Very few people really knew what a unique item it was, because they were designed right here in Fargo.”

Rusk Auto Houses were pre-fabricated storage units named after George Rusk, who founded the Fargo Cornice & Ornament Co. in 1885.

In a 2006, Forum columnist Andrea Halgrimson noted that in the early 1900s, the company, located on the southwest corner of Main Avenue and 10th Street, made metal fronts, skylights, steel ceilings, roofing, imitation stone siding, steel brick siding, corrugated crimped siding, expanding conductor pipe and ornamental sheet metal work for interior decoration.

As the automobile gained popularity, especially after Henry Ford’s Model T hit the streets in 1908, Rusk saw a niche he could fill.

“When cars came into fashion and people started to have them, they didn’t have any buildings that had previously been used as garages so they called them ‘auto houses’ and made them out of pressed metal,” Morgan says.

Rusk started producing these portable, prefabricated garages in 1912.

The 12-by-18-foot structures feature panels of embossed, painted and galvanized tin attached to wood frames. Double-doors swing open in the front with a window on the side. The roof is also embossed, but in a different pattern, to mimic semi-circular clay roof tiles.

The State Historical Society of North Dakota points out that the design is similar to an automobile shed designed and patented in 1911 by Jacob J. Richter of Wahpeton.

According to the website www.infomercantile.com, the structures started selling at $139.

The state historical society says construction only lasted for three years, until 1915, when providing for World War I demanded more sheet metal. About 50 Rusk Auto Houses were made, and most stayed in the Fargo area, though only a fraction remains today.

One previously located at 521 5th St. N. was donated to the State Historical Society of North Dakota and is on display, complete with a construction diagram.

One of the structures, behind a house at 702-704 Broadway, built by hoteliers Peter Elliot and F. Urban Powers, according to www.infomercantile.com, was even

included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 but was removed, and the area is now a parking lot for Sanford Health.

Morgan knows of 10 still in existence today in Fargo, all between 18th Avenue North and 13th Avenue South, and from Third Street to 14th Street.

“I’m pretty impressed that there are as many as there are,” Morgan says.

Which is what the Rusk advertising said, calling it, “safe, durable and economical.”

She says the best maintained one belongs to Dick Olsen and is nestled in his backyard at 1644 5th St. N. The Fargo Moorhead Heritage Society claims Olsen’s is the first one ever made.

Though he taught history at Fargo North High School, Olsen didn’t know much about the Rusk Auto Houses growing up. In 1979, during one of his car club meetings, he heard one would be available for free.

“While everyone around me was muttering about wanting to have one of those, meanwhile I went to the phone and called it,” the retired teacher says.

He and his son, Chris, disassembled the gray unit on the 1400 block of Seventh Avenue South, put it on a flatbed truck and hauled it to Olsen’s. They built it back up, though Dick says he had to cut just less than a foot off the base so he would clear a tree in his back yard.

“Those Model Ts were tall and spindly,” he says.

At the time he felt the original doors were too beat up to save, though now he wishes he’d tried instead of replacing them with plywood doors painted green. The rest of the garage is stock.

“I’m an old historian who can’t learn any better,” he says when asked why he wanted it bad enough to move it. “And I have a car collection, so it’s never empty.”

His Rusk Auto House currently holds his son’s vintage Jaguar, miles ahead of Henry Ford’s Model T.

Francis said it was fun learning about the history of the Rusk Auto House, but he’s not certain what the future has in store for his as he’d like a new garage.

“I’d be interested in getting it appraised,” he said about his piece of history.

In August, a Rusk Auto House was featured in a classified ad with the seller asking for $2,750. Another online site had one in storage, “ready to be restored,” for $12,000.