Family house built on rock, by Pat Tikkanen

In the summer of 1971, my mother convinced my father to start on a kitchen renovation project at the farmhouse. The plan was simple enough: expand the kitchen out into the enclosed front porch.

While eventually this would necessitate building a new entryway, moving the staircase that led up to the bedrooms, removing walls and installing new windows, none of this presented a big problem compared to the first step—digging a basement under the old front porch.
My father knew this might create some difficulty but the project was started with help from my brothers—Tom, still a teenager at home, and Oren, home for the summer with his wife, Toni. I also was living at home that summer, busy in my first social work job and preparing to get married that September. I can’t say I actually was much more than an observer of all that followed. But, as the self-appointed family historian, it falls to me to record these events.
To understand the obstacles in this project I must first explain about the location. The house is situated near the boundary of a forty-acre farm on a hill facing east with a view over the Traprock Valley up to the east shore of the Keweenaw Peninsula, thirteen miles away as the seagulls fly. Most days you can see across the blue of Lake Superior to the Huron Mountains north of L’Anse.
My father believes there are days when he can see even further—all the way to the Canadian shores of Batchawana Bay just north of Sault Ste. Marie, a distance of about 175 miles.
It is a lovely view, and taking family photos with this as the background has been popular.
The project started with digging—my brother Tom would have us believe that this was done mostly by him—but a sheet of bedrock was reached after a few weeks. Momentarily Tom was hopeful that this would be the end of the project. My father, however, had other ideas and, perhaps more importantly, that combination of determination, and some might say, the foolhardiness Finns call sisu, without which we probably would not have been there in the first place. Let me explain.
It was my great-grandparents, Kreeta and August Tikkanen immigrants from Simo (Finland) in 1890, who first moved into the house in the very early 1900s. Like many Finnish immigrants, they wanted a farm; with their children now grown, they moved to this one to scratch out a living from this rocky soil.
The very first photograph of Tikkanens at the farm was taken in 1906 and is mounted on cardboard that resembles a postcard. My father was able to date this from the ages of the three children in the picture—his older siblings.
His parents, Mary and Charles Tikkanen, are standing against a background of trees with his older sister Drusila holding Mary’s hand and Charles with baby Armand in his arms. Seymour, their oldest child, stands in front. Mary’s brother, Peter Saari, stands to her right. Everyone looks like they are wearing their Sunday best. See photo below right.
It would make sense that this was a Sunday visit to Kreeta in August, since at that time Mary and Charles lived in Calumet. They would move into the farmhouse in about 1910, with their daughter Sylvia being the first child born there on October 1, 1911. By that time, they had four other children—the three in the early picture having been joined by Judith in 1909. Six more children would be born at the farm—Peter, Walter, my father, Harold; Alan, Helen and Paul for a total of eleven children, all of whom lived to adulthood. My aunt Sylvia Huhta, who lives in Denver, and my father are the only remaining of the children.
After Mary and Charles moved to the farm, Kreeta and August settled two forties to the south. The exact financial and ownership issues at this time are not known, except that all the land was originally leased from a mining company. Sylvia does remember that at some point, August, in an angry confrontation that frightened her, demanded payment for the house from Charles and that her father went to a nearby neighbor and borrowed the money to pay his father. Sylvia said that for several years she would be asked to deliver the payments on this loan to the neighbors—a task she was happy to do since it usually meant being asked to supper and the neighbors set a more lavish table at that time.
Whatever discord happened was apparently resolved in time because the house August and Kreeta moved to—a half-mile away— eventually was moved over the fields to a location about a hundred yards from the original farmhouse and it was here that August and Keeta lived out their last days.
So, knowing a little of the relationship to this house and the land on which it stands, you may understand why my father had no intention of letting some rock get in the way of this renovation. He always loved dynamite and, having spent some years in the underground copper mines, felt he knew how to use it. Actually, you might say we have a bit of a family tradition dynamite. His father, also a miner, had used it on occasion to blast out things that got in the way around the family farm and would sometimes set off a little on the Fourth of July—dynamite being in greater supply than fireworks.
First my father had to drill down into the rock so that the dynamite could be set. This was done using a very old hand drill held by Tom, who has vivid memories of my father bringing down a five pound sledge hammer repeatedly on it to get deep enough to place the dynamite into the offending sheet of rock. This process took several evenings of work. Finally, on a Saturday in July, the time had come to blast.
The original farmhouse was two rooms down with space above for what would be two bedrooms under sloping ceilings. This would have been the way it was when Kreeta and August moved there, and it had not been added onto when Mary and Charles moved in with their four children. A small shed on the south side probably was the first addition, and most likely a welcome one, considering winter winds.
My father knows that the downstairs addition of two rooms on the north side, which added a parlor and a dining room, was made in 1919, a date found on rafters during one of many renovations. He remembers being a very small boy standing in the kitchen and watching his Pa working on what would become the dining room walls. The memory—he would only have been about a year and a half—may be so vivid because his father dropped his hammer and asked Harold if he could pick it up and hand it to him.
The dining room, opened to the kitchen by a large archway, had double windows looking out on the orchard of apple, plum and cherry trees planted by Charles. It was lighted by one of the few gas lights in the house and was the center of family life. In contrast, the parlor was used rarely by the children except when there were more boys home than would fit in the “boys’ room” upstairs and the sofa bed—a heavy wooden Mission style with black leather upholstery—was folded out at night.
A few years ago we were fortunate to be given a sofa and chair identical to the ones that were in that room in the 1920s and ’30s, which now are in the farmhouse living room. One of the reasons it was given away was that the sofa was just too heavy for the owner to move again.
After electricity came to the farm in about 1940, a bathroom was added in an old pantry area. Around that time, new furnishings and decorating—including pastel-patterned wallpaper in the dining room and parlor—were completed. The Mission parlor furniture was replaced by more comfortable upholstered pieces all “protected” by crocheted arm and back coverings while more crocheted doilies were on every table. Another improvement made by Charles and Mary, sometime in the ’30s, included an enclosed porch along the whole east side of the house with windows looking out over the valley and eventually a flower garden with lovely rose bushes planted along its foundation. It was under this porch that the dynamite was set on that summer day in 1971.
All of us were home that day—Tom, as first assistant, was with my father in the excavation area, my mother, Toni, Oren and I were in the house. A full stick of dynamite was inserted into the hole. A forty pound boulder was placed on top of the charge to drive the blast downward—or so it was planned. With warnings to the rest of us to stay off the porch, the fuse was lit and Tom and my father safely removed themselves to the orchard. We waited.
While the renovation was of interest to everyone, it was really my mother who had come up the idea and was the force behind the project as she was behind all such changes. My family had moved into the house in October of 1955 and it was not an easy transition.
There had been much grief in that house in the few years before our move. In February of 1954 my Uncle Paul, Mary and Charles youngest child, had died at age thirty-one of kidney problems. He had been the child to stay at home with his folks and was a handsome and fun-loving young man. My father believes that his mother never really overcame this and died of a broken heart in June 1955.
My mother, Terry, did her best to make that house our home, but I suspect now that it was not easy for her—an independent red-headed girl raised in Detroit—to fill the role of “Finnish” farmwife, and we all felt the tension between her and my grandfather.
Now, with maturity, I can appreciate that he was struggling with his own grief at the loss of both wife and son, but then, I experienced him as morose and clearly not delighted to have three lively children in his house. There was some rearranging of furniture, curtains replaced and knickknacks stored away, but there were few major changes in those first years. A 1957 photo of my younger brother Tom at the kitchen table on his second birthday shows that the kitchen remained the same as when it was my grandma’s—white cupboards, the combination gas and wood burning stove, even the large battered tea kettle. My mother wallpapered the two small bedrooms upstairs—referring to these rooms with some resignation as our “apartment”— in bright floral prints. Perhaps this was some antidote to what she may have been feeling.
The only real structural change made to the house in those early years was the partitioning off of one part of the porch to make a small bedroom for me. This did not happen because I was the favorite child, whatever tales my brothers may tell, but because our Uncle Frank—my mother’s oldest brother—was moving in and would take my space in the bedroom I had shared with my brothers.
After my grandfather passed away in 1961, my parents moved into the downstairs bedroom and I moved upstairs into their old room while my brothers continued to share a room and the little room became my mother’s sewing room—that may have been because I was the favorite.
Whatever the reasons, I loved that little room and remember every detail of its furnishings and decorations. It was just big enough to hold a single bed, a dresser, a cardboard closet—purchased, as were most of the furnishings, not recycled from other parts of the house, from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue—and a small table. And of course it had that wonderful view—two of the walls had windows—of the valley and lake. That room was a real refuge for me, but I must admit that it was pretty cold during the winter months with all those windows and, of course, no basement, something that was about to change.
When the blast came, it shook the whole house, pictures fell off the walls, there was a clattering of china in the cabinets, the clock clanged the half hour chimes early, the dog barked and our hearts all got a dose of adrenaline. When it seemed safe, Oren looked out the kitchen door just as Tom and my father came around to see the results of their work. And there, on the porch next to a large hole in the floorboards was that forty-pound boulder that was supposed to be driven downward. My mother, probably restrained by her intense desire for that new kitchen, said only, “Harry, what have you done now?”
But, in time, with thirty more blasts into that sheetrock, although with a proper drill and smaller amounts of dynamite. my father got that basement made and, to my mother’s delight, the kitchen did get finished.
There have been other renovations in more recent years—it seems something major gets changed each decade. In 1981, my parents raised the roof, taking away one of the sloping ceiling walls upstairs and adding windows on the south side of the house. In the 1990s, the house needed to accommodate my mother’s increasing disabilities due to Parkinson’s Disease and a large two-car garage and a new entryway was added.
What will happen to the house next is of some debate between my father and me—I am advocating for more windows facing east and a deck—but it seems certain there will continue to be changes as we shape this old house to our family.
After all, we know as few families can, we really do have a house built on rock—and with more than a little sisu.
—Pat Tikkanen

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