Taking a trip back in time at Eli’s farm

Eli Wirtanen is pictured at the log house he built on the 40 acres he homesteaded in the early 1900s in Markham near the Old Vermilion Trail. He was born Elias Vertanen in 1870 in Finland, immigrated to Canada and then to Minnesota. He died in 1957.

A long time ago our family had heard about the old farmstead of one Eli Wirtanen in Markham. Our mother knew Gladys Pekkarinen, who had cared for Mr. Wirtanen in his later years, and after his death she and her husband Alvin had cared for Eli’s farm. Gladys, who lived to be 101 and just died in 2019, would welcome visitors to Eli’s place and would give tours.

I am reminded each September of those trips to the Eli’s farm to see the buildings he had made of hand-hewn logs sawed from the trees he had cut on his 40-acre homestead. And in more recent years the trips to the Wirtanen Pioneer Farm Fall Festival, and what a fine occasion that has been in the 20 years since the festival was started. Mother and I would attend most every year and we would always buy the lunch of ham sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper. We would buy fresh vegetables and visit Karen Kiviluoma as she operated a spinning wheel. We would spend the afternoon listening to Art Lehtonen playing Finnish songs on his accordion and watch the Finnish Vihurit Dancers that included Clarence and Eila Ivonen. And we would spend the afternoon visiting, a fine Finnish tradition.

The Friends of Wirtanen Pioneer Farm have a fine website that tells all about Eli. “He was born Elias Vertanen in Karstula, Finland, on July 17, 1870. Being the third son in line, he had no hopes of owning the family farm. As a teen, Eli immigrated to Thunder Bay, Ontario, to live with his brother David. When David died, Eli wanted to come to the United States to apply for citizenship. In 1904, Eli homesteaded 40 acres along the Old Vermilion Trail in Markham, Minnesota.

“Eli worked in logging camps and assisted local farmers with harvest. Because there were no roads but only trails in the early 1900s, Eli helped to build and maintain roads by using horse-drawn power.

“Eli never married and never owned a car. Most everything Eli needed in life, his food and materials for farm buildings, he got from his own land.

“Finnish people are referred to as ‘People from the Forest.’ Eli understood the forest and how to use it. A Finnish proverb says, ‘The forest gives what the forest has.’ Nearly everything necessary for life is provided by the earth.

“Eli was a pretty healthy man and lived to be 87 years old. He died in 1957 and is interred at the Markham Cemetery in Colvin Township.”

For years to come Eli’s farm will be a fine place to visit especially next Saturday, September 11, at the farm festival, thanks to the hard work of the Friends of the Wirtanen Pioneer Farm and their dedicated president, Darlene Maki Saumer.

As Darlene always says at the end of her letters to Friends of the Farm members, “Kiitos!” And kiitos to her for a job well-done.


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