Immigrant boy makes good on the American dream
The passing of Thomas F. Helmus at the age of sixty-nine was front-page news in The Grand Rapids Press dated June 30, 1937. The headline read “Immigrant Boy's Success Noted in Mover's Death." Tom was born in the Netherlands on January 23, 1868 to Frederick and Aukje Helmus. At the age of ten, he accompanied his parents, sister and two brothers to Grand Rapids. Five years later his father passed away, followed two months later by the birth of a third brother. Two years later still, his older brother passed away at the age of nineteen.
Tom worked as an errand boy for the Nelson-Matter Company until his mother decided that he should go into business for himself. She borrowed $100 to buy a horse and wagon. Six months later the horse died. Another horse was purchased for $125 but it went lame in six months. Another horse was purchased for $30, and although it was afflicted with the heaves, it managed to help get a 10 cent delivery business established. The younger brothers earned money by pulling their little wagons downtown to meet incoming trains. They would offer to transport suitcases to the downtown hotels in exchange for tips from the train passengers.
In 1884, as the delivery business prospered, Tom moved a building to the corner of Wealthy and Diamond and took in his younger brother, Sietze, as partner. This was the beginning of the Helmus Brothers business. Two delivery wagons were operated then; five years later the brothers entered the moving business.
The brothers are remembered as self-made, hardworking, and social people. Tom was a deal maker. His daughter, Angeline Smilde, remembers going on business calls with her father knowing that she would not get home until the deal was made, even if it took two hours of talking. Since Tom had poor eyesight, Sietze handled the paperwork in the office. Sietze had also become an expert trainer of horses. He would purchase wild horses from the West and have them shipped by train. News of the arrival of these horses would spread through the neighborhood and both sides of Wealthy Street would be lined with people to watch Sietze drive these horses home from the train station. The horses were kept behind the office. Angeline remembers the horses causing quite a stir in the neighborhood when they would escape on Sunday, their one day of rest.
In about 1900 the firm built a one-story building of wood and a year later added another story with an addition following two years after that.
Sietze married in 1901 and Tom in 1902. As families grew, Tom built a home at 937 Wealthy Street next to the business. Sietze built an identical home around the corner at 324 Diamond Avenue (both homes yet exist today). In 1906, typhoid fever claimed the lives of Sietze and Tom's sister and youngest brother, plus Tom's brother-in-law. Tom was now father to three sons and substitute father to two nephews. Tom had three more children, two daughters, one of whom is Angeline (mentioned above) and a son. All his sons worked in the family business as drivers. Tom built two apartment houses next to his home and named them The Yellowstone and The Carolina (still in operation today). His daughters were assigned to clean the apartments.
In 1910, the Helmus Brothers purchased the first motor truck used for moving in the city of Grand Rapids. This was the first of many trucks that the Helmus Brothers purchased from the Acme Trucking Company of Cadillac, Michigan. In 1916, the brothers built the Station C Post office at 941 Wealthy. The two story brick structure also served as the Helmus Brothers office and provided space for their storage clients.
A modern fireproof warehouse was built in 1920. You can still read the words “Fireproof Warehouse" in the floor tile as you enter the building today (Bazzani & Associates now owns the building and has done much to restore it). Five years later the business was sold to the Elston Storage Company and then to Blodgett Storage. Some have speculated the business broke apart because of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church split wherein Tom stayed with the home church and Sietze went with the new congregation. But family members feel that competition in this type of business was increasing, and the brothers were given an offer too good to turn down. After the sale, the brothers kept busy with real estate ventures.
At his passing, Thomas Helmus left behind his wife Pietje (who went by “Nellie" and whose maiden name was DeLeeuw); four sons, Theodore, Donald, Arthur, and Sidney; two daughters, Mrs. John C. Smilde and Mrs. William Haeck; and eight grandchildren. He had been a member of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church for fifty years.
- Much of the preceding text is comprised of excerpts from a short written work by Ruth Holkeboer (used by permission).
- Family History for Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church as written by Ruth Holkeboer, granddaughter of Thomas Helmus' brother-in-law.
- Grand Rapids Press, June 30, 1937.
- Grand Rapids Press, June 30, 1937.
- Family photo – unknown.
- Horse-drawn sled – unknown.
- Helmus Brothers envelope – by permission of Ruth Holkeboer.