Hunts' Guide to The Upper Peninsula

Hanka Homestead

Hanka Homestead 2012
Splendid self-sufficiency

# Though the Finnish influence is everywhere in the western Upper Peninsula, pure Finnish survivals are rare. Most haunting is this self-sufficient homestead farm on a beautiful, remote hillside near the Keweenaw Peninsula's base. Its farmhouse and nine outbuildings are carefully crafted Scandinavian log construction. The Hanka farm looks just like it did when it was Herman Hanka's home in 1920. Disabled by a mine blast, he built the place with his wife, and their four adult children. On the farm they continued the Old World ways they had brought with them to the U.S.

The homestead remains dramatically remote today, down 6 miles of country road from U.S. 41 past a fire tower near the top of Askel Hill, to a rugged gravel road through a mile of forest. The log house (now a century old), two-story log barn, sauna, and other small outbuildings sit in an 18-acre clearing, surrounded by forest. The Huron Mountains are blue in the distance across nearby Keweenaw Bay. The scene looks like something you'd expect to find in a remote hollow of the Smoky Mountains.

Hanka Homestead
The Hanka Homestead stands out because it remains as it was in 1920. Alan Pape's evocative drawing brings to life a summer day on this self-sufficient Finnish farm. Dispersed outbuildings characterize Finnish farms.

A key to survival here was cooperation. Neighbors traded and shared harvest work and other skills and products. Herman Hanka tanned hides and made shoes for neighbors. His son Jalmar tinkered and fixed things; in the early days of automobiles he became a local legend as a self-taught auto mechanic. The family boarded logging horses, which needed intermittent rest between periods of strenuous work. In winter Jalmar and his brother Nik, the farm manager, worked in logging camps, where their sister, Mary, cooked. One neighbor went to town every Saturday to shop for the neighborhood.

People raised their own grains and vegetables, kept chickens and sometimes a pig. The Hankas depended on the Jersey cow and her rich milk for butter and cheese. And they hunted rabbits, partridges, and deer. Such a short growing season (an average of 85 frost-free days) made farmers focus on cold-resistant root crops like turnips, rutabagas, and potatoes. Preserving and preparing food took up an immense amount of time. Social life consisted of the weekly Saturday sauna, visiting, and music. Nik played a homemade kantele, a kind of zither that's the Finnish national folk instrument. Occasional dances were held at a pavilion that stood near where the fire tower is.

Finland's shifting 19th-century economy had transformed many independent farmers into a class of industrial workers and landless tenants without opportunities. Only the oldest son could hope to farm his own land. Finns emigrated to the northern U.S., and many found work in mines. Inexperienced as miners, they did the lower-paying work timbering and tramming. Between the peak emigration years of 1899 and 1914, over 200,000 Finns came to the U.S., largely from two rural counties, Vaasa and Oulu. On the edges of Upper Peninsula mining towns, miners also farmed smaller plots to support their large families. It was a big step up from working in the dark, dangerous mines to buying a 40-acre farm under the Homestead Act and becoming a full-time farmer.

For farms like the Hankas,' everything changed in the 1920s. New sanitation policies allowed the sale only of Grade A milk, which had to be produced and cooled under super-sanitary, refrigerated conditions. Grade B milk produced at farms like theirs could be sold only as cheese. Phone service in this remote neighborhood, unreliable to begin with, became so expensive as the population shrank that customers dropped it and lines were removed. Forests reclaimed many fields. Sons went into the army and saw a bigger world. Beginning when the 1913 copper miners' strike disrupted mining, many Finns went to work in Detroit's auto factories, like Mary's son, Arvo. Henry Ford's five-dollar day only hastened the exodus. Detroit even had a Finnish neighborhood around Livernois and Six Mile. The emigrant children came back to the U.P. only to retire.

The Hanka farm stopped being improved in 1923, when Nik, its energetic manager, died. Gradually most of the Hankas died off, but easygoing Jalmar lived on here until his death in 1966. His needs were simple, and he didn't have the ambition to modernize. The farm pretty much remained a time capsule of old Finnish folkways.

Scouts from Old World Wisconsin, a distinctive outdoor museum of pioneer ethnic farm buildings on 1,600 acres in southeastern Wisconsin, came up here to buy the barn and move it. But they were so impressed with the unaltered condition of this classic Finnish farm that they encouraged a local group to preserve it as a museum.

Old World Wisconsin is in Eagle, 35 minutes west of Milwaukee. To learn more about Old World Wisconsin, search for "Portal Wisconsin Old World Wisconsin."

The Hanka Homestead tour is strong on explaining the how-tos of a subsistence lifestyle: how fish was smoked in the sauna, which was then prepared for the family's bath; how rag rugs were woven on looms passed around the neighborhood; how grain and food were stored. A satisfying amount of information on the people who lived here is available to the patient reader in Gene Meier's book Askel Means Step, available for $10 plus $1.50 for shipping from Hanka Homestead, P.O. Box 58, Pelkie, MI 49958. Alan Pape contributed many information-rich drawings.
From U.S. 41 about 10 miles north of Baraga, turn west onto Arnheim Road. As you pass the fire tower, continue straight onto the gravel. (The blacktop turns west.) Follow the gravel road left (east) to the farm. All this is signed. Open from Memorial Day thru Labor Day Tues, Thurs, Sat & Sun, plus holidays, from noon to 4. At other timesvisitors are welcome to take a brochure for aself-guided tour of the grounds. Cost: $3/adult, $1.50 children 5-12. Larger donations welcome. To schedule a group tour ($40). (906) 334-3515. Handicapaccess: uneven ground, 1 step for most buildings.
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Hanka Homestead. A self-sufficient Finnish farm as it was in 1920, with simple, authentic furnishings. No siding masks the Scandinavian log construction ... more

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