OULU – There were Christmas dinners around the kitchen table, the meal cooked in an oven fueled with wood.
Cold winter nights were interrupted with alternating visits to the sauna and dips into the deep snow partly sourced from nearby Lake Superior. A trip to the bathroom could be shared thanks to a two-seat outhouse just beyond the clotheslines.
The memories of his grandparents’ house in far northwestern Bayfield County are vivid and special for Duane Lahti.
So, the retired longtime field biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources and baseball coach set out in 1997 to preserve the family’s ancestral farm, established in 1910 by John and Justina Palo near the corner of Muskeg and Eastview roads.
John Palo died in 1949, but Justina lived in the home until 1977 when she died at the age of 92. At the time, the home was still heated by wood and coal but ultimately sat empty for 26 years and fell into disrepair.
In 2002, Lahti and his family completed substantial renovations to Justina’s log home (that had been covered with wood siding), a spring house and a low-slung building that contained a woodshed, shop and sauna. The barn was beyond repair, but the property was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“This one mile of road here, when I was growing up, there were six farms with intact barns, now there are zero,” Lahti said. “And every town road was like this. Everybody had 40-acre farms and every farm had several kids. I mean, there was no birth control back then and farming was labor intensive so you needed people. Oulu was densely populated.”
But the six-year project to restore the family farm was only the beginning for Lahti and others in this Finnish enclave north of Highway 2, between Brule and Iron River, far removed from the sailboats, art galleries and restaurants of Washburn and Bayfield and the Apostle Island National Lakeshore all to the east.
Since 2011, part of Lahti’s grandparents’ farmstead has been slowly transformed into the Oulu Cultural and Heritage Center. The non-profit effort is a partnership with the Oulu Historical Society to preserve and share the stories of the Finnish immigrants who came to this part of the state to carve out a life in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The property, which opened to the public in 2013, includes a stable and has the restored five-bedroom, 1899 log home from the 160-acre John Pudas federal homestead. The impressive home was built seven miles to the northwest in the early 1900s and was a gathering place for many in the Oulu community. Other buildings moved to the site include a renovated smoke sauna built in the late 1800s and the Northern Co-op Society building, constructed in 1931 about five miles to the north of the Heritage Center.
The original sign on the building, which operated as a co-op until the mid 1950s, had been in a bookstore in Bayfield for years. But last summer Lahti, 67, traded old commercial fishing gear he had his garage in order to bring the sign back to the co-op’s facade.
“It was a communist store,” Lahti said. “There was a major socialist movement in these communities back in the late ’20s and early ’30s. There was a co-operative store over here but the commies wanted to have their own operation. It’s part of the history here.”
According to the Oulu Historical Society, Finnish immigrants began arriving here in the late 1880s. Swedish, German, Norwegian and other European immigrants were also among those early homesteaders, but nearly 75 percent were of Finnish descent. Many had briefly settled in northern Minnesota or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Originally a part of the town of Iron River, the Finns lobbied to create their own town and in 1904 the request was granted by the Bayfield County Board. The name Oulu was chosen in respect for the homeland region and a city in Finland that had been the birthplace of Andrew Lauri, who led the effort to create the town, according to the historical record.
Even in the 1950s, there were students in school who also spoke Finnish, while Lutheran church services were more likely to be in Finnish than English. In the 2000 census, about 40 percent of Oulu’s population identified, at least in part, to a Finnish heritage.
In April, according to Lahti, linguists from UW-Madison are scheduled to visit Oulu to interview residents who still speak the language. They also will research writings and learn more on how the language has evolved and been retained here.
Kathy Mattila met her husband, Nigel, in Minneapolis, but in 1987 moved from Duluth, Minnesota, to Oulu, where Nigel’s grandfather had settled decades earlier. She is now an active volunteer at the Heritage Center and is looking forward to teaching kids how to use a loom this summer.
“It’s so we don’t lose our skills from our heritage. This is a community place where we can connect and share skills,” said Mattila, who worked in banking, at a hospital and paper mills in Duluth before retiring. “We just enjoy it here. I feel like I’m home because it’s so much like where I grew up.”
Other classes scheduled to be taught this summer include local and Wisconsin history, sewing, ice cream and root beer making and an introduction to hard tack.
But more renovation work is underway.
In February, the more than 100-year-old Fairview School was moved to the property. The one-room schoolhouse was built in the nearby town of Tripp in 1915 but moved to Port Wing in the 1950s and attached to the high school for use as a music room after consolidation closed many of the rural schools.
When a new high school was built in the late 1970s for the South Shore School District, the old Fairview School was moved a short distance for use as a law office but sat unused for years.
The 900-square-foot building, which still has its chalkboards and an outdated world map on a wall, was donated to the Heritage Center but needs to be set on its new foundation and needs improvements to the roof, floors, ceiling and its siding. There are also plans for a new bell towerafter the original was removed in the 1950s.
Fundraisers, donations and grants are being sought to cover the costs, but so far, the vast majority of the work at the Heritage Center has been paid for by the Lahti family. in their effort to save the community’s history.
Some of the buildings that have disappeared from the town are in good hands.
In the 1970s, several structures from Oulu were moved nearly 380 miles south to Old World Wisconsin near Eagle with the help of Ed Pudas, the son of homesteader John Pudas. They included a dairy barn, granary, stable and sauna from the Heikki and Maria Ketola farm a mile north of the Pudas homestead and buildings from the farmstead of Jacob and Louisa Rankinen who settled in Oulu in 1897 about three miles to the west of the Heritage Center.
“This is where everything happened. We’re not trying to compete with Old World Wisconsin, obviously,” Lahti said. “We want to tie in with them. People go to Old World Wisconsin to see what’s there but people can also come to Oulu and see a mini-version of Old World Wisconsin.”