Otto Brue

(1902-1976)
Seaman – teacher – shipbuilding architect – political cartoonist – poet – artist – cabinet maker – furniture builder – model builder – home builder

GROWING UP IN NORWAY

Otto Brue was born on Bru Island, off the coast of Stavanger, Norway on April 26, 1902.  Otto was the oldest of four children born to Jacob Bru and Amelia (Vareberg) Bru.

Amelia died in 1910 leaving the family in the hands of relatives and friends as their father was a commercial sea captain, away on voyages for extended periods.  He lived beyond 100 years of age.

As a young man Otto would work as a seaman accompanying his father at sea during the summer. Regularly they would sail to Copenhagen, Denmark to have commodities boarded for delivery north, past the Arctic Circle, into the Barents Sea to Murmansk, Russia.  There they would load wheat for return delivery to Scandinavia.  Otto recalls that Copenhagen was a wonderful, clean, cosmopolitan city, while Murmansk, during Tsarist, revolutionary and Bolshevik times, was not a desirable port-of-call.

Otto was educated on the mainland in Stavanger, majoring in marine architecture. 

He went on to teach English and mathematics at the University of Stavanger (Universitetet i Stavanger).

COMING TO AMERICA

Eager for adventure and new opportunities, Otto sailed for the United States in 1926.  Little did he know that the “Great Depression” was a mere three years away.

Otto recalled that during the voyage across the North Atlantic icebergs were encountered near Newfoundland.  The ship captain requested that all passengers and their belongings be moved to the port side of the ship in order to lean the vessel enough to enable passage over the floes.

Upon arrival in the New World, an “e” was added to the surname to “Americanize it.”  Christened with no middle name, Otto also adopted Jacobson, his traditional and original last name, as a middle name.

Otto found immediate employment in Chicago with hardware distributors, Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett (now True Value Hardware).

THE DEPRESSION YEARS

Due to the prevalent economic conditions of the “Great Depression,” Otto moved to Story County, Iowa to pursue opportunities in the building trade.  During this period he also designed and constructed original working models of Norwegian sailing ships.  Upon displaying a finished model on Main Street, in the window of Hoversten Furniture Store in Ames, he quickly discovered that a market existed for the sale of these units.  After selling a few ships in the Ames area, he loaded his Model T Ford with completed examples and drove to Chicago.  There they were sold to Marshall Field Department Store for the then unheard of figure of $50 each (a present-day equivalent of $2,000+).

The dream of home ownership was achieved in 1938 with the purchase of property at 1421 Duff Avenue in Ames – total purchase price came to $1,500.  The first priority was to install indoor plumbing, construct upstairs bedrooms for his two sons, add a dining room, and build a workshop in the rear for cabinet and furniture making.

THE WAR YEARS

Denied entry into military service due to his age and family status, Otto was first assigned to supervise construction at an Army Air Corps facility in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Upon its completion, he was assigned to duties as an inspector for the military ordnance plant in Ankeny, Iowa from January 1943 until July 1945.

After five year’s occupation of Norway by the Germans, Otto received his first correspondence from his home country. Responding to a relative’s request for assistance in resuming his taxi cab service, Otto sent a carburator for a 1936 DeSoto auto.  Subsequently he learned that most of his relatives had survived the war.  Unfortunately, an uncle had been killed by the Nazis for protesting the looting of his bank and seizure of his harbor property for construction of U-boat pens.  The execution was held in the Stavanger town square as an example for all to witness.

HOME BUILDING

The first new homes built in Ames by Otto Brue were in 1937 on adjacent Sunset Avenue properties owned by J.B. Davidson, professor of Agricultural Engineering at Iowa State College.  Designated “construction engineering projects,” they employed new techniques of construction and material application.  For example, concrete blocks were used with voids filled with ground corncobs for insulation.

After the war, Otto was one of a number of independent contractors in Ames to enter the home building market on a full-time basis.  New homes built by Otto for which documentation exists are listed below. Additional homes are believed to have been built, but records have been lost.

ADDRESS   OWNER  FEATURES
2008 Sunset Avenue
?
?
1001 Stafford Avenue
1204 Stafford Avenue
?
1415 Duff Avenue
1421 Carroll Avenue
1425 Carroll Avenue
1520 Carroll Avenue
416 9th Street
212 10th Street
605 13th Street
1518 Carroll Avenue
“up north”
  J.B. Davidson 
Collins
Bradshaw
spec home
spec home
Armstrong
Gilchrist 
Kuncl
spec home
spec home
Bauge
Warren
Otto Brue 
Teig
Skarshaug 
underground garage
 
 
 
 

live-in servants quarters
 
 
 
 

personal residence

lake-front home

By the mid-1950s the home building industry had changed considerably, with big developers and tract homes dominating the market. Although offered financing by the principals of Ames Building and Loan Association for the subdivision of a land parcel in North Ames, the prospect of employing accountants, lawyers, clerks, realtors and others did not appeal to his conservative nature.

Otto opted to return to his comfort zone of cabinet and furniture building along with offering remodeling services for select clientele who appreciated old world craftsmanship. He continued in this capacity well into his 70s.

SOURCES

  • Photos, documents and artifacts  - Private collection of Delmar Brue
  • Oil painting and documents - Private collection of Odale Brue
  • Text - Brue, Delmar. Interview, December 9, 2006, Script, January 22, 2007, Brue, Odale. Interview, January 26, 2007.