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Reprinted with permission from Michigan History Magazine, January/February 1990:

Michigan's landscape is dotted with log cabins, cobblestone houses and clapboard churches. But stovewood barns? Although found infrequently in other parts of the United States, stovewood barns, are abundant in the western Upper Peninsula.

The technique of building a stovewood barn is similar to stacking wood in a neat pile. Hence the name stovewood construction. The technique is also called cordwood or stackwood construction.

The walls of stove wood barns are usually made of sixteen-inch long cedar blocks laid up in a lime mortar. The butt ends of the blocks are visible from both the inside and outside of the barn. The blocks vary in circumference, but the most handsome barns have blocks with the same general circumference. Sometimes the blocks were split in half lengthwise, or even quartered, before being laid up in the mortar. Occasionally the interiors of the barns were finished with plaster.

Why Stovewood barns exist in the Upper Peninsula.

  1. They were economical to build in the years of the Great Depression.
  2. The cedar swamps and great forests of the Upper Peninsula provided the blocks necessary for their construction
  3. They required less manpower to build than a conventional barn.

Cedar was generally the wood used for the block walls because of its insulating and weather resistant qualities. Cedar also decays slowly. Other low-density wood, however, was used, including tamarack, oak and poplar.

The greatest concentrations of stovewood barns are located in the areas of Pelkie, Tapiola, Nisula and Chassell. Others may be found in the Chatham, Eben, Trenary and Rapid River areas, as well as Delta County. All of these areas have large Finnish populations.

My first exposure to stovewood barns came years ago when I visited Leo Siren's farm south of Mass City to pick up some manure for my garden. From the outside the barn, which was sheathed in metal, did not look different from any other barn. But when I got inside I could see an area not covered by sheathing and there were the cedar blocks piled up in the mortar.

Siren told me that the barn was built in 1929 by a man named Koski, who lived in Pelkie. That started me searching for stovewood barns, and with the help of Michigan State University agricultural agents, I was able to discover twenty stovewood structures. Many more wait to be identified, especially those covered with various materials like the Siren barn and are difficult to spot.

Almost without exception owners of these barns told me they did not know where their fathers or grandfathers--or whoever built the barn--got the idea to use stovewood construction. "Our father built the barn," one farm wife told me. "But we were too busy trying to survive on the land to worry about where the idea came from. We had to work too hard." Another observed, "We failed to talk to our fathers when we are young and now that we are old and interested in the subject of barns, it's too late. No one is left to answer our questions."

Before and after the closings of the copper mines in the Copper Country, the Finnish immigrants began buying cutover lands. On these acres they developed their farms and tried to eke out a living on poor soil that only begrudgingly allowed itself to be worked. These farmers could not afford the high-quality timber needed to build a traditional barn, and since most farms had no suitable rock, they opted for what was on hand wooden blocks.

Waino Jaaskela, who owns the largest stovewood barn (110-by- 40 feet) that I found, operates a 400-acre farm on the Sturgeon River near Chassell. "There were no rocks on the farm for building a barn so my father used the tamarack on the farm which was plentiful," he said. Waino's father came from Finland in 1900 to work in the mines. He acquired the farm and built the stovewood barn in 1937.

The tamarack blocks in his barn are twenty inches in length - four inches longer than the usual sixteen-inch blocks. The insulating qualities of the twenty-inch blocks provided great warmth for the cattle. At one time the farm had 100 head of cattle, including 75 milk cows and 8 horses.

Most barns in the Upper Peninsula seem to have been built in the 1920s or in the 1930s during the depth of the Depression. Today many people refer to them as "depression barns." Building a stovewood barn cost less than constructing a conventional barn.

Besides being inexpensive, a stove wood barn required less man power and less skill to build. To erect a conventional log barn required considerable manpower and skills to handle heavy timbers and join them together. With stove wood construction a farmer--if necessary--could build the barn himself even if he did not have great skill.

It is difficult today to find anyone living who built stovewood barns. But Edward O. Niemi, who lives in Alger Heights, near Munising, built a dozen stovewood barns. He built his first barn in 1926.

Heikkinen Farm, Pelkie

 

"The greatest danger to a stovewood barn occurs when the roof deteriorates and moisture seeps into the sides of the blocks. The butt ends can withstand the moisture and weather, but the sides cannot."

When recently asked where he got the idea for stovewood construction, he recalled that a Finnish immigrant, who later returned to Finland after a three-year stay in the United States, may have been the source. "I used gambrel roofs on all my barns and all 16-inch cedar blocks," he said. His mortar mix was 85 percent lime mortar and about 15 percent cement. When he built the William Piippo barn, about two miles south of Chatham, he received 25 cents an hour. "I got $2.50 for a ten-hour day," he recalled.

Niemi explained how a portable sawmill was moved into a cedar swamp and the logs cut for the blocks. The cedar was seasoned for two years before it was used to build the barns. It usually took about three weeks to lay the blocks for a barn depending on its size. "A stovewood barn should last 30 to 40 years if given care," he declared.

The greatest danger to a stove wood barn occurs when the roof deteriorates and moisture seeps into the sides of the blocks. The butt ends can withstand the moisture and weather, but the sides cannot.

Niemi became a successful building contractor and one of his barns can be seen today on the old Niemi farm, about 1.5 mile south of Chatham. The farm is now owned by Tom Moore, who noted that the barn, which was built in 1928, has retained its original roof. A stovewood-constructed chicken coop stands nearby.

James Savala Farm, Chassel

 

"Whether the stovewood structures came about because of tradition, imitation or invention--or a combination of all three--is unclear. But they should be preserved as part of Michigan's history and heritage."

Since vast areas of the Upper Peninsula were lumbered off decades ago, large quantities of second growth wood--ideal for the construction of stove wood barns--were available to the farmer if he did not have trees of the type needed on his own property. Even scrap and scrub timber was often used for barns.

Occasionally, a farmer built two sets of parallel walls of eight-inch blocks and filled the gap between them with sawdust or other insulating materials. Some builders laid their blocks without an encasing framework. Others framed in panels and filled them with cedar blocks. Still others stacked the blocks between the studs of the walls. Many builders used some cross bracing at the corner; others used bracing around the doors and windows.


Since so many Finnish farmers had stove wood barns, it is possible the idea came from Finland. But Eero Naskali, a member of the National Board of Antiquities in Helsinki, Finland, maintains there are no reasons to believe that the idea originated in Finland. Naskali claims that the use of logs in a mortar bed are so rare in Finland that only three such structures--all in southwest Finland--can be found. But conventional log walls--walls built by placing logs horizontally their full-length--are common in that country.

In The Age of Barns, Eric Sloane maintains that stovewood barns are rare. "These barns are rarities and are not considered typical of the barn age, but when stacked logs were used in place of bricks, the effect is unusual enough to be worth mentioning."

There are a number of stovewood barns in Wisconsin. Some ninety structures have been located there, including one rare commercial building in Jennings built about 1899. A private home was constructed in the stovewood manner as early as 1848 (although this date has been questioned as too early) in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. A gristmill and sawmill of similar construction were built in 1850 near Fontana, Wisconsin. German immigrants also built stovewood structures in Door County, Wisconsin. Another example of stovewood construction can be seen at the American-Norwegian Museum in Decorah, Iowa. Oddly enough its builder was not Norwegian, but a Yankee from Ohio. The builder of the house in Williams Bay was also of New England stock.

Esther Leinonen Farm, Otter Lake area

 

"The cedar was seasoned for two years before it was used to build barns. It usually took about three weeks to lay the blocks for a barn depending on its size. A stovewood barn could last 30 to 40 years if given care."


The commercial building in Jennings, Wisconsin, was built by a Polish immigrant, John Mecikalski, and an example of stovewood construction has been found in Posen, Poland.

Some observers contend that stovewood structures, estimated to be 1,000 years old, still stand in Siberia and northern Greece. Sibyl Moholy Nagy, a Canadian writer, also believes stove wood construction was used to build lumber camps in Canada.

According to Moholy-Nagy, "the Canadian woodsman is probably the only builder on earth who uses logs not horizontally or vertically but who slices trees as if they were Bologna sausages and sets the chunks, eight to ten inches long, in a thick bed of gyp- sum to form a wall."

A Norwegian journal noted that stovewood barns are found in Norway in Sunadal in Nord-More and a few places in southern Trondelag. In the Eidskog district of Norway, "The building technique (for stovewood construction) is well known among the older people and was in use between 1890 and 1920." The same magazine contends that the stovewood technique is known in Sweden and has been in use since the nineteenth century.

Whether the stovewood structures in the Upper Peninsula came about because of tradition, imitation, invention--or a combination of all three--is unclear. One thing that is clear--these barns should be preserved as part of Michigan's history and heritage.

Wisconsin has moved to preserve some of its stovewood structures. Largely through the efforts of William H. Tishler, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin Madison, the stovewood commercial building in Jennings was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Ted Van Valin, a former student of Tishler, calls the Jennings building, once a general store, saloon and boarding house, "the most significant example of this type of architecture we have ever discovered."

When the stovewood structure is renovated it will be turned over to the community to serve as a museum and tourist attraction. It is time for Michiganians to follow the lead set by their Wisconsin neighbors to preserve this unique architectural heritage.

Editors Note: A special thanks goes out to Michigan History Magazine for allowing the reprint of this article.