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Ancestral Farmhouses in Finland

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Picture courtesy GSF
One wonders what the first farm house looked like far back in time. How

large was it? Did it have a wooden floor and shingled roof with a chimney? Did they own many cows? In the 1500s, farm houses in Kauhava, sitting on the bank of the Kauhava River, were built to be warm in winter and dry during rains, with some kind of floor to keep the occupants off the frozen or muddy ground. The Kanhava tax records for 1570 contain the names of 21 farms and these had a total of 21 horses and 87 cows, averaging one horse and 4 cows per farm.

A farm house there probably was a small grey, two-roomed log building with well-fitted log walls and with a birch bark roof. The main room had a big fireplace in the corner by the door, a well-worn split-log floor and smoke-stained walls. The house was surrounded by forests out of which the farm yard and the tiny stumpy fields had been cleared. Horses were kept in a small enclosure and a few cows grazed in the adjoining forest under the watchful eye of a young boy. A dozen sheep were penned behind a shed and a flock of chickens ran free in the yard. The yard itself was bordered by low, log sheds, some for the animals, others for grain and hay and one used as a sauna and a place for drying grain. The farmer of such a prosperous farm had to pay taxes to the Crown and tithes to the Church.

Alexis Kivi wrote a tale, set in the mid 1800’s, about the lives of seven brothers. He describes their log cabin as follows: It was floored with wide, axe-hewn planks and in the front part spruce boughs were laid on the dirt. On the plank floor by a small window stood a table with some benches, their only furniture. To the left of the door was the feed-trough for their horse, and to the right was a sauna stove into which they set their large cast iron cooking pot. The smoke escaped through a small trapdoor high on the wall so that most of it stayed away from their living area.

In the winter the cabin was lit with a flaming pitch-pine lath, stuck into a crack in the log wall. The eating bowls were of wood, as well as their spoons and before they stuck their spoons into cracks in the wall, they licked them clean. There was a rooster who spent the winter days in the cabin and woke them in the mornings.

In addition to providing shelter for people and farm animals, the cabin also was used as a sauna. From time to time they heated the rocks, threw water on them and sweltered in the heat while sitting naked in the loft. In the summer they would go outside to cool off, climb back into the loft, plop down on the straw and go to sleep. In Karelia until late in the last century, it was common for people and animals to share parts of the same building.

The author S. Paulaharju described life on farms from near Sodankylä in north- central Finland where for years the only connection to the outside world had been trails and rivers. By the mid-1700s the earliest settlers who lived by trapping and hunting were supplementing their food supply through primitive farming. They owned an axe and a sledge which they used to fell the trees and fit the logs into the walls, and with the sledges and wooden wedges they split others for flooring.

In the 1800s houses in the Sompio area were tiny by our standards – about 25 feet square and with a single low-ceilinged room. A second room took the form of a smaller building erected against the first one and connected by a door. No metal was available so nails were wooden pegs, and door latches and hinges were also of wood. The roof was of split logs covered with sheets of birch bark which were held down with long poles. The split log ceiling was caulked with clay to make it draught-free and above it was a thick layer of moss for insulation. For light there was a rectangular hole in the wall that could be shut with a sliding cover, but in the winter the only light was from the fireplace and pine splints.

About a quarter of the interior was taken up by a massive fireplace with a raised hearth and high arched opening. Into the side of it was an oven for baking bread. These large structures, originally of fieldstone and later of brick, were favored because of their utility in cooking and heating during the day, and their capacity to store passive heat for the cold nights. The early houses had no chimney and the smoke escaped through a hole in the ceiling and from there through a log pipe stuck through the roof. After the fire was extinguished in the evening and the ashes swept up for safety sake, the ceiling opening could be shut to keep in the heat. Later houses had a chimney all the way through the roof. Because metal was too expensive to be used for a damper, on a cold night someone would go up on the roof to plug the chimney with a sack of hay to keep cold air from pouring down on the sleeping family.

Sleeping arrangements were simple. In the evening hay pallets were spread on the floor in front of the fireplace and covered with reindeer skins. The top covers were probably made from several sheepskins sewed together. The fancier ones were lined with home-woven wool cloth. The siblings slept side by side, heads toward the hearth and the youngest closest to the doors. The parents arranged their bedding along the opposite wall.

If there was a second room, it probably was used to accommodate family members or for storage, or maybe to raise a litter of fox kits through the summer for their fall pelts. There was a separate building for the sauna and well as other outbuildings for cattle and crops.

The Sompio farmers had cows and sheep, and initially their hay was harvested from along rivers and lake shores; later small fields were cleared for rye and turnips rather than hay. In those days they grew no potatoes, and rye was not used as much for bread as it was for a gruel they ate with whatever protein happened to be on hand. Bread and butter were necessities if they had to take food with them to a distant work site. This bread was in the familiar round disc-shaped loaves with a hole in the center that were stored on long poles in the ceiling. As time went on farms grew so that by the mid 1800s one farmer was able to put over 30 head of cattle to pasture.

These scenes differ in many respects from nostalgic pictures of tidy, red or yellow farmhouses surrounded by lush fields that are seen today in tourist literature. These scenes probably depict more closely the long-vanished farmhouses from across Finland in which our ancestors were thriving while raising their families back then, about a century before the Pilgrims landed in America.


Excerpts from an article by Jorma Kalliokoski in “A New Journey For North American Finns”, July 1999

June Pelo


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