Three young wolf pups stand guard howling over a wolf den, carved from the stout branches of the old-elm tree that once towered over Kaye Erickson’s home outside Holmen.

Her father Jesse Helgeson had planted the massive tree outside their home when she was a child after the county cut through their yard to build Hwy. M.

Erickson still remembers the magnetic pull the massive elm tree had on people. It was the neighborhood shade tree where her family would chat with neighbors over a cold drink.

The tree was transformed by local carver and custom furniture maker Jim Bjorge of Circle B Custom Creations after hearing Erickson’s family story.

While most know Erickson from her roofing business, Erickson Roofing, which she started with her former husband Leonard and is now run by her son Jason, her family’s history in the gently sloping coulees between Holmen and Mindoro began long before her father planted the old shade tree.

Kay’s family has farmed this land for six generations.

Her great-grandfather Karl Helgeson left Sweden in April 1852 on a condemned sailing vessel which took he and his family to New York. From there, the two traveled up the Hudson and across the great lakes to Milwaukee. There, they purchased provisions for their overland journey which ended just shy of the Mississippi.

Karl later served as an artilleryman for the U.S. Army during the Civil War, for which he was awarded a land grant for 220 tillable acres which later became his family’s farm. The farm was eventually passed down to his son Joseph who passed the farm onto his son Jesse shortly after his death in 1950.

“The farm was always in the family,” Erickson said.

In 1952, at the age of 7, Erickson, alongside her father Jesse and mother Virginia moved back to the farm. Here, the only child grew up hearing stories of her family’s long journey to the new world. How they’d traveled to Wisconsin from their home in Sweden, how her great-grandfather had won the farm and the war.

Erickson, however, wasn’t alone for long. At 11, her parents decided to foster wayward children, providing them a home and a family.

During their 25-years as foster parents, the couple fostered more than 60 children. Too many of these children, Erickson was a sister, and to many others, she was a second mother.

“I couldn’t ask for better siblings,” Erickson said. “Everywhere I go I have family.”

After traveling the country with her former husband, bouncing from Florida to Tennessee to North Dakota, she returned to the family farm to take care of her ailing father. Erickson’s father had left such a lasting impression on her son, Jason, that he was determined to turn the old tree into a lasting memory of his grandfather’s kindness.

“Jason was a real grandpa’s boy,” Erickson said recalling how her son had followed behind her father for much of his youth.

It was the largest carving Bjorge had ever undertaken, requiring nearly five weeks of work which produced more than 15 truckloads of sawdust. Bjorge said he saw it is an opportunity to honor a man who had left such a lasting impression on so many.

Jason had chosen wolves, but Bjorge, added something Jason hadn’t expected, a larger wolf emerging from the den guarded by his pups. He said that pack leader represented Jesse, who opened his home and his heart to so many children.

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Coulee Courier reporter

Tobias Mann is a reporter with the River Valley Media Group. He can be reached at tobias.mann@lee.net or at 608-791-8216.

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