Farming in the forest: Finland man recalls growing up on 1,500 acres of rugged, wooded land
In 1934, at the end of the Dust Bowl years, a young man named Dean Anderson moved from southwestern Minnesota to the North Shore.
FINLAND — I first met Allen Anderson at the winter Finland Farmers Market toward the end of March. Kaare Melby, owner of Finnskogen Farm , introduced me to Allen, enthusiastically stating: “He’s got all kinds of awesome stories on the history of agriculture in Finland!”
We began to talk about the farm Allen grew up on: about the 200 heads of beef and 400 hogs his family raised on 1,500 acres of rugged and wooded land of the North Shore. I was in disbelief to hear that a farm that size could exist in this part of the state, but it was true. As the owner of a barbecue company that prides itself in sourcing animals from the North Shore, I was optimistic that such a farm could exist again and supply us with animals that grazed North Shore land and breathed Lake Superior air in our backyard.
In the brief conversation we had that afternoon, I knew I needed to learn more about the history of D. Anderson’s farm. Allen and I made plans to have a longer conversation over breakfast at Our Place in Finland.
As we sat down to talk, Allen pulled out a gallon-sized Ziploc bag filled with family pictures dating as far back as the early 1900s. One by one, Allen picked a photo and shared a detail about life on the farm. The history of D. Anderson’s farm unfolded in front of my eyes through the collage of photographs on the table.
In 1934, at the end of the Dust Bowl years, a young man named Dean Anderson moved from Jackson, a small town in southwestern Minnesota, to the North Shore. Dean settled on his uncle’s 40-acre homestead off County Highway 3 near what became the Silver Bay Municipal Airport with his father, mother and sisters.
The Finland Co-op outfitted Dean with logging equipment in 1935 and the Virginia Co-op bought stumpage and sold the wood he harvested near Isabella. With this equipment, Dean began to clear land for fields and operate a Christmas tree farm. Dean also built a sawmill and produced the lumber for buildings on the farm.
Shortly after arriving on the North Shore, Dean met a beautiful young woman named Bonnie Ostman, the daughter of Swedish immigrants. Bonnie’s father came from Sweden when he was 15 years old. She was fluent in three languages, being raised in a Swedish speaking home, learning English at school, and picking up Finnish from interacting with neighbors in the community while working at the Finland Co-op. Dean and Bonnie were married in 1945 and built their first home on the farm in 1951.
In addition to running the farm, logging and sawmilling, Dean worked as a foreman on the construction of the railroad between Silver Bay and County Highway 2, clearing the land, leveling the ground, and installing the tracks. Every year, Dean would take a month off from his work as a foreman to trap beaver, as it was more lucrative. Dean was earning a living on the railroad, but made a good amount more during the month spent trapping beavers.
As the operations on the farm continued to grow, Dean and Bonnie partnered with Art Lorntson, who owned another 1,500 acres near Beaver Bay. The partnership permitted Dean and Bonnie to begin raising cows and pigs. On both properties, Dean would clear large swaths of the farm, burn brush piles, plow, disc and seed for hay. The plan was to re-sod the hay every five years, but that never quite happened with so many fields to manage. Allen recalls: “Hay is a full-time job from the Fourth of July until first snow.”
Dean, along with his sons, hayed every field from what is now the Silver Bay Golf Course down to the Clover Valley Store.
If you talk with any farmer who raises animals along the North Shore, you’ll know that sourcing hay is a common challenge these days. As Allen says: “Now, no one has the equipment to harvest.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Andersons would use machines to bale hay and load the bales by hand on an elevator to build mountains. During peak hay season, they would go to Two Harbors to load 300 bales of hay onto their truck and drive it home. Allen tells me that on one occasion, they completed this feat this three times in a single day to have enough hay for their herd.
Dean hired high school athletes to help bale and load hay. By doing all this laborious work, they never had to buy any hay from other farmers, and, in later years when their herd was smaller, they sold hay to other farmers.
At their peak, the Andersons herd grew to 200 heads of beef and 400 hogs. The majority of the beef and pork produced on the farm was sold locally. Some were shipped to South St. Paul for processing or sold at auction yards. Allen remembered one year when the price of pork decreased so much that fully grown hogs were worth less than the price they paid to buy the farrow. Dean and Bonnie got out the phone book and went down the list to fill out orders locally, butchered the pigs on their farm, and delivered the orders personally.
During calving season, Dean would sleep on scaffolding outside over the yard. He would wake up every hour throughout the night and shine a light on the cows to make sure no cows were having trouble giving birth. If there was an issue, Dean would call out and everyone on the farm woke up to spring to action. It was all hands on deck to make sure the calf survived birth.
I asked Allen to describe what meals were like while growing up on the farm. “We always had meat, potatoes and some kind of gravy for dinner. Every night,” Allen said. They ate a lot of deer, moose and beef. The beef they ate was only from animals that were culled, or wouldn’t make it to maturity to be sold. All prime beef was sold.
In the 1950s, the Andersons would supplement their pantry with hunting, fishing and picking berries. According to Allen, he and his brother, Tim, worked commercially as smelters along with Warren Swarmer. At the end of every April, they would go smelting for Louis Kemp and Micky Lorntson.
“Every animal that lives in the woods or swims in the lakes came across our table,” Allen said. “What’s the difference between pork, bear, raccoon or possum? If you know how to prepare it, then it all tastes good.”
Bonnie kept a large vegetable and fruit garden on the farm and stocked the basement wall to wall with shelves of quart jars, packed hundreds deep. Bonnie laid out root vegetables on the basement floor to dry and preserve for the winter. They canned all kinds of fish native to the surrounding lakes, including lake trout, walleye, northern pike and suckers, as well as meat such as deer, bear and moose.
Keeping an incredible homestead pantry was a necessity — the farm didn’t get power until Thanksgiving Day in 1968.
Dean and Bonnie fed anybody who passed through their yard. Allen recalls one story of a young man who put his last dollar in his gas tank in Duluth to make it up to Beaver Bay to work at the Reserve Mining Co., only to find that work didn’t start for another two weeks. Fortunately, he found the Andersons. Bonnie fed him and Dean put him to work on the farm until his job at the mining company began.
As Dean and Bonnie became older, the farm operations gradually decreased. Art Lorntson passed away in the 90s and the partnership to work Art’s land dissolved. Dean developed some back problems in his late 1970s and hired some help to keep the farm running, including their neighbor, Bonnie Warner, and David Berglund from Grand Marais to cut hay.
Every animal that lives in the woods or swims in the lakes came across our table. What’s the difference between pork, bear, raccoon or possum? If you know how to prepare it, then it all tastes good.
After Dean and Bonnie passed away, the land was split between Allen and his brother, Tim. Allen had spent his career working in log trucking, building trailers and hauling wood. Allen quit trucking in 1998 and went to work for North Shore Mining until his “retirement” in 2016.
In his retired life, Allen participates in a tractor club with his fleet of Allis-Chalmers machines; competes in mug bogging with his modified U.S.-built World War II tank; hauls for sawmills; plows snow; and works on tractors and custom builds in his shop. I asked Allen to share his fondest memories of life on the farm:
“I enjoyed driving the tractor and tilling the field," he said. "I liked to see the ground turn from a field to be ready for planting. I enjoyed the mechanical end more than the animal end.”
Just like his father and mother, Allen is no stranger to a strong work ethic. He told me: “If you’re supposed to be at work at 7 a.m. and you’re there at 6:45 a.m., then you’re 15 minutes late.” It’s clear that life growing up on a farm instilled a need to keep his hands busy helping others and getting work done. That’s why “retired” Allen is still constantly working on projects and finding jobs to do.
Despite such a work ethic, Allen has clear thoughts on raising animals the way his family did on the North Shore: “My grandpa made a living with a flock of sheep and two horses. My dad made a living with 200 heads of beef and 400 hogs. There’s no way I could make a living farming up here today.”
And Allen’s perspective has merit. I talk with many farmers in my work and most hold down full-time employment in addition to their farming responsibilities. This rings especially true for those who farm chickens, pigs and cattle.
If you’re supposed to be at work at 7 a.m. and you’re there at 6:45 a.m., then you’re 15 minutes late.
Two common obstacles I regularly hear about include affordable, USDA-inspected meat processing (of which there are no facilities on the North Shore) and sourcing feed including hay (which made up the bulk of the Anderson’s operation in the peak of summer). It seems like these infrastructure challenges must be addressed to realize the dream of abundant, sustainably raised, North Shore beef, pork, chicken and (don’t knock it ‘til you try it) rabbits.
I hope my conversation with Allen is an ongoing one. I hope to keep documenting the rich agricultural history in the Finland area and all along the North Shore. I hope we can learn lessons from the past to continue to grow a strong local food system.
In the meantime, I know I can always stop by Our Place in Finland for breakfast and probably find Allen sitting at the bar, sharing a coffee, a laugh and a good story or two with friends who spent their entire lives in this community and witnessed it change. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.
But some things will never change, like Allen’s breakfast order: American potatoes with sausage gravy. Meat, potatoes and gravy, just like every dinner on Andersons' farm.
Dan Cahill Mathews is the team facilitator of the Finland Food Chain. A version of this column was previously published in the Finland Food Chain's newsletter .