From the book about Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Visits with Grandma and Grandpa
Submitted by Sandy Pence Kangas of Menominee, Michigan
Every season offered a different kind of excitement and adventure when I visited my grandparents' farm in Atlantic Mine as a child in the 1950s. Walfred and Martha Niemi raised six children out in the country, about five miles from Houghton, with none of the luxuries I enjoyed in my life in the village of Rockland. From my perspective, I saw the opportunities to enjoy the open spaces rather than the hardships I now know my grandparents endured.
Driving to their home in the spring was often difficult once we left paved Hwy. M26 because the dirt roads were sloppy as the snow was melting. We would park our car at the top of the hill a couple hundred yards from the house and walk down the muddy lane. The chance of getting back up was always doubtful if my dad drove the car down to the farmyard, so walking in was the safer bet.
Grandma and grandpa weren't always expecting us for a visit since we didn't often call ahead on our eight-party telephone, and likewise their crank party-line phone was rarely used for long distance calls. Still, grandma always prepared a tasty lunch from whatever she had in the pantry or cellar. Without electricity and refrigeration, there was a limit on how much food could be kept on hand. A piece of ham would be put in the black wood-burning oven, potatoes boiled on top of the range, a home-canned vegetable warmed up, all topped off with a loaf of fresh homemade bread. No Bunny Bread at grandma's! For the adults, there was coffee that had been heating on the range since sun up and was darker than today's strongest espresso.
Riding down those same dirt roads in the heat of summer was never pleasant. If the windows were rolled down to prevent suffocating, everyone choked from the dust billowing up from the road. If the windows were closed, everyone roasted with just the side wing air vents offering a slight draft to the front seat passengers. Once we arrived, however, it was worth the suffering when we downed a glass of cool homemade root beer.
Many summers I was allowed to spend a week at the farm without my brothers. That time never seemed long enough to enjoy all the activities not available in my small town. Plus, my aunt and uncle weren't much older than I, so companionship was abundant. Picking wild raspberries for grandma's jam was a labor of love; one sun-warmed berry went into the bucket and two went into our mouths! An old chicken coop became a playhouse, the hayloft was a perfect place to practice circus acts, a small stream cooled off our bare feet, and riding atop a heaping hay wagon ended a perfect day. A jar of fireflies on the bedroom dresser gave an illusion of security once we turned off the kerosene lantern. It was pitch black in the country.
Many mornings I'd awake to grandma playing a few hymns on her upright piano. She was self-taught and you could see joy in her eyes as she allowed herself some time for meditation before starting her busy day on the farm.
A few things were difficult for me to handle during my stay. Grandma and grandpa had an outdoor toilet house, complete with a Montgomery Ward or Sears Roebuck catalog for toilet paper. The summer heat had a way of enhancing the natural odors in that confining space, plus there was always a cloud of flies storming the privy. Another issue was drinking their cows' milk that wasn't refrigerated or pasteurized. I tried not to act like a spoiled "city" girl.
Without television or radio for nightly entertainment, we would sit on the big outdoor swing that grandpa made and talk after we'd had a sauna. Grandpa was the big talker, often telling us about his travels around the world when he was in the Navy. His enthusiastic stories, punctuated with tattooed arms waving, brought those military days back to life.
Fall was perfect on the farm. The transparent apples were ripe, grandpa's gorgeous flowers lining the long rock wall he built were still blooming, and the upstairs bedroom wasn't hot as a sauna. I would help pick apples for grandma's canning, knowing I'd always go home with a heaping bag for my mother to make our own pies.
On nights when I couldn't fall asleep, I'd spy on my grandmother and mother through the upstairs heat grates, wondering what I was missing. More often than not, they spoke in Finnish, probably expecting that I may be eavesdropping on them. I always wondered why Finnish wasn't taught to my brothers and me; I suspect privacy was one of the considerations in that decision.
Getting to the farm in winter often presented a problem in the days of old. Snow blowing across the open fields on the way there obscured the unpaved and unplowed roads, requiring my dad to drive with a window rolled down in order to find the way. Then, just as in spring, we would park our car at the top of the hill so we wouldn't get stuck trying to leave. A sled was piled with whatever we needed to take down to the house. Several trips in the deep snow were required if our stay was more than overnight.
Each Christmas, a tree was decorated with the same tinsel and ornaments from year to year. Real candles provided light, but they didn't stay lit for very long because grandma was afraid of starting the tree on fire.
Grandma didn't have a lot of anything, but she shared what she did have. Each year for Christmas she knitted a pair of mittens for her many grandchildren and tucked a fresh dollar bill inside one of the mittens. I've enjoyed her peanut butter cookies so much that I named them The World's Best Peanut Butter Cookies. A small brown sack of those moist cookies was handed to me for the ride home. Her nisua bread was second to none, but she never shared her recipe with anyone. After a few requests, she wrote me a lovely letter on July 9, 1969, and included the recipe. Both are treasured, as are all the memories of times spent on that little farm in Atlantic Mine more than a half century ago.