This article was written for the Statesman Journal and published in February 2014. It is reproduced here for reference purposes.
A 1931 Chevy house car, bought off Ebay sight unseen, with a past life as an office for the Brown Bros. Carnival on the west coast. Little did Steven Burnett realize that day as he picked up the over-size house car from a farm outside Springfield, Illinois and hauled it home to Halfway, Kentucky that his purchase and subsequent restoration efforts would lead him to a Danish wagon maker in Salem, Oregon.
Mr. Burnett spent six years restoring the transport chassis all the way down to the frame and an additional three months restoring the living quarters. The chassis design was one of few built by Chevrolet and used mainly by Texaco for transporting gas. To Mr. Burnett’s knowledge, this chassis is the only one in the world that has been restored. While clearing the junk out of the living quarters of the town car in preparation for cleaning, painting, and so forth he discovered an embossed, metal tag on the front wall which read, “P.J. Larsen & Sons, Commercial Auto Bodies, 188 S. Liberty St. Salem, Oregon”.
An internet search and a few phone calls later, Mr. Burnett connected with the Willamette Heritage Center Archives. His curiosity had been piqued. He wanted more information on the company and family that built the traveling circus office onto a Chevrolet chassis.
P.J. Larsen & Company, as it was originally called, was founded in 1883 by a Danish immigrant named Peter J. Larson and his brother-in-law Peter Norgren. According to an advertisement placed in the Evening Capital Journal on May 2, 1889, the company was “prepared to do all work in the line of making or repairing wagons, buggies or carriages in first-class style and at reasonable prices.”
City directories allow us to trace the company’s growth and locations from 320 Commercial Street to 45 State Street, and finally to 188 Liberty Street where it remained until it’s closure in 1938. This location today is home to the Key Bank. We also follow the evolution of the company as changes from building wagons, carriages, and buggies to wheel making in 1921 and auto body building by 1924. A slight name change also occurs from P.J. Larsen & Company to P.J. Larsen & Sons, as Mr. Larsen’s sons joined him in the trade.
Not much is known about Peter J. Larsen and his family beyond the framework that census records and city directories provide. Peter was born in Denmark in the year 1847 according to the 1880 Federal Census, making him 33 years of age when he first appears on Salem records. His wife Cecelia Norgren was born in 1858 in Illinois. They were married October 16, 1875 in the home of Cecelia’s parents in South Salem. They had four children, all born in Salem; one daughter, Olive (1876-1926), and three sons, Percy (1884-1930), Raymond (1889-1974), and Lester (1893-1972). Of the 4 children, only the youngest married and that union produced no children.
One by one the boys joined their father in the wagon making business; Percy from 1905 until approximately 1917 where, according to his draft registration, his occupation was “U.S. engineer and custom house builder,” Raymond from 1910 until 1938 with a brief stint as a “woodworker” with the A.M. Hansen Company according to his draft registration records, and Lester, who remains at P.J. Larsen & Sons from 1920 – 1938. At the death of their father in 1922, Raymond and Lester took over the business and made the transition to auto body building until the business closed in 1938.
On January 27th, Steven Burnett took his restored 1931 Chevy house car/circus office on its first road trip to an RV show at the Nashville Music City Center. At 17 degrees that day, it was a little cold in the cab, but according to Mr. Burnett “rode better than my 2011 Ford truck”. The next big road trip will bring it back across the country and to its final home, the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Indiana.