The Houghton County Extension Service observed in the early part of the 20th century that the growing season in Houghton is comparable to that of Pontiac, Michigan, located in the east central part of the state, at an average of 151 days. The growing season in Calumet tends to average 6 days fewer and the farming areas within 3 miles of the village, nearer the lakeshore, tended to have even longer growing seasons than Houghton.


The Houghton County Extension Service observed in the early part of the 20th century that the growing season in Houghton is comparable to that of Pontiac, Michigan, located in the east central part of the state, at an average of 151 days. The growing season in Calumet tends to average 6 days fewer and the farming areas within 3 miles of the village, nearer the lakeshore, tended to have even longer growing seasons than Houghton.

In 1917 Leo Geisner, the Agricultural Extension agent of the time, wrote that farming began in the Keweenaw soon after industrial copper mining, with the Cliff Mine beginning the first farm in the area ca. 1842. In 1846 the Suffolk Mine also had an "extensive" farm. Farming in the Copper Country increased alongside the increase in the area's mining production. For example, the 1864 Michigan State Census noted only one farmer in Franklin Township, which include both Paavola and Boston location. But by 1874 the state census recorded the production of 2775 bushels of potatoes and 250 tons of hay there. The 1874 census also listed a wide range of livestock found in Franklin Township; sheep, swine, cattle, horses, mules, and oxen.

After the turn of the 20th century, the number of farms in Houghton County continued to increase until it had the second highest number of farms in the Upper Peninsula. This increase paralleled that of the population increase in the area. Geisner suggested that farming was a good economic back-up for miners in the Copper Country, especially in times of "industrial depression" when the price of copper was low. Agriculture boosterism in the early 20th century claimed that the conditions in the Keweenaw featured hills covered in "rich herbiage," high land value, some of the world's "finest" markets, and "the best paid working people in the world." Further boosterism, likely overstating things, suggested that the Copper Country would be a profitable place for raising sheep in the cutover land.

Potato growing began to be an important farming effort at that time, thanks in part to the Farm Bureau's work toward standardizing the crop. The first two decades of the 20th century saw an overall increase in production of all crops grown at a commercial scale - over 200 acres planted. In that period the number of dairy cows and hogs in Houghton Country increased by over a third.

Potatoes became a significant commercial crop in the Copper Country in the interwar and postwar periods, peaking especially in the 1940s. Commercial agriculture in earlier periods emphasized growing hay for animal power; utilizing animal power in the process. Commercial strawberry production also emerged in the interwar and postwar periods but was much more successful south of Houghton.

The state's agriculture extension service helped to further scientific farming practices in the Keweenaw. This included fossil fuel powered semi-mechanized agricultural implements for potato production. These steps are well documented in photographs from the period. Potato cultivation at that time mixed human and mechanized steps, and could be a gendered process. First, seed potatoes were prepped by a mix of humans and machines, with women as this photo shows. Planting in prepared fields was usually done by machine, but in some cases had to be done by hand. Harvesting at the end of the season was mechanized. Some of the Copper Country's growers participated in competitions sponsored by the local potato growers association and in festivals similar to today's strawberry festival to the south in Chassell.

Potato growing, especially in the Boston area, left its marks on the local landscape. The most noticeable of these are the potato storage barns. These storage barns integrated or directly linked together two types of transportation - trucks and rail lines. Farmers in the surrounding area would haul truckloads of loose potatoes to the storage barns, drive up their attached earthen ramps, and load the potatoes into floor to ceiling storage bins. These bins would then be unloaded into railcars waiting on the rail that ran alongside the barn. Some of these barns still remain on the landscape. One located near Boston Pond on Boston Road was made in part from repurposed lumber taken from the demolition of nearby Electric Park, thus symbolizing a shift in land use from the leisure of the industrializing community of Boston to the emphasis on agriculture in its later years. The result is an iconic symbol of postwar agriculture in the region.

By 1920, Paavola was well established as a small farming community. The Federal census from that year listed 14 farm households in Paavola, an increase over the nine farming households listed in the 1916-17 Polk Directory. Only one of these farms was owned by a woman, though her son is listed as the farmer of record. Not surprisingly, two-thirds of Paavola's farming households were headed by men with Finnish surnames. All but one of the farmsteads belonged to married couples, most of which had multiple children. One-third of these heads of farm households also worked as copper miners. All but two of the farmsteads were owned free and clear. Between 1933 and 1945, the amount of land under cultivation in the area continued to increase. More lands were being cleared in part because relatively small parcels could not accommodate the modernized agricultural equipment of the period. There was also a parallel increase in employment as small farm owners returned after the war. The Copper Country Committee for Economic Development in 1945 observed that"[f]armers now look to their farms for their entire support and must continue to do so."In the mid-20th century just under 25% of the total land area in Houghton County was designated by the Cooperative Extension Service as farm land. Prior to the 1940s the majority of farms in the county were owned and operated by their original settlers, many of whom also cleared the land. By the WWII era, land ownership began to be transferred; as a result there was a trend toward consolidation into fewer, larger farms. Community leaders were concerned at the time that much of the land in Houghton County that could be used for farming went unused because of the relative idleness of the mines. After the war dairy products were the most important agricultural commodity in the county, followed closely by potatoes and livestock. For example, between 1934 and 1948, dairy production in Houghton County increased by more than 800%.

The Cohodas-Paoli company was the previous owner of the property that became the Paavola Wetlands Preserve in 2005. Their firm represents an interesting connection of European immigrant entrepreneurs to the historical food system of the Paavola-Boston area and to the Upper Peninsula and the nation as a whole. The Cohodas family emigrated from Poland to the U.S. near the turn of the 20th century, settling first in Wisconsin. Sam Cohodas and his elder brother left home as teens to work for their uncle shipping and distributing produce in the Copper Country. Not long afterward, the brothers set out on their own, first as vegetable peddlers on the street and later opening the first produce retail shop in Houghton and a large produce warehouse on the shore of the Portage. In the 1920s and early 30s the Cohodas family expanded their land holdings in the Copper Country and partnered with their chief produce competitor Ralph Paoli. Given their later business plan, it is likely that their land expansion was for growing produce, especially apple orchards. In the mid-1930s Cohodas-Paoli moved their headquarters from Houghton to Ishpeming, Michigan. Not long after that they expanded their land holdings into downstate Michigan where they set up a vertically integrated process of orchard fruit growing, harvesting, and packing near Elberta. Cohodas-Paoli later expanded on their vertically integrated business model by purchasing fruit orchards in Washington. By the 1960s they were the largest produce distributor in the nation, a remarkable development from their humble beginnings in Houghton.

In the first half of the 20th century, Boston was tied as much to agriculture as it was to mining. The 1906 Polk directory described Boston as a farming community between Hancock and Calumet. More than two-thirds of its farmers listed in the directory for Boston that year had Finnish surnames. By the middle of the 20th century potatoes were the dominant crop there. In 1951 a new potato washing plant was established in Ripley to service the grower's warehouses in Boston. But as was the case with much of the area, after the mines closed in the mid-late 20th century, commercial farming went by the wayside as well. Even into the late 1980s, only two farms were listed by the Chamber of Commerce in the Boston area. A very recent cultural landscape survey (CLS) conducted for the National Park Service also concluded that little commercial farming occurs in the area surrounding Boston location. The CLS also noted that some of the former farmsteads have become "suburban residences," likely for those working in Hancock or Houghton.

In contrast to Boston, agriculture in Paavola was on a smaller, less commercially oriented scale. Eleanor Noponen Bertolli (b. 1920) who was born and raised there, remembers no commercial farming in and around Paavola. Instead, agriculture was home or subsistence based, with neighbors occasionally trading with each other. Bertolli notes that the three subsistence-based farmstead homes on the edge of the Paavola community were known as "Three Corner Town," including the farmstead remains on the Paavola Wetlands Preserve trail system. She emphasizes that "everyone grew their own vegetables" and that her brother George, whose widow later resided in the farmstead on the Paavola Wetlands Preserve, had a "beautiful" vegetable garden. Some homes in Paavola had dairy cows for their own use. The excess milk was also sold, but not at a commercial level. Even though Paavola farming was small scale, two members of Paavola's Helpakka family, Ivar and Weino, participated in the Houghton County Cooperative Potato Warehouse Association in 1942.

The Karjala-Noponen homestead represents the architectural survival of Paavola's past as a community of Finnish farmers and miners. As mentioned above, family members recall that the farmstead was subsistence based rather than commercial. It is the only remaining standing structure from the "Three Corner Town" section of town. The farmstead was owned by multiple generations of the Karjala family. The most recent resident, Helen Karjala Noponen, was likely born in her family home along with her siblings. Helen moved into town (Paavola) after she married a young Finnish-American man named George Noponen who was also born in Paavola. After her husband's untimely death prior to World War II, Helen Karjala Noponen moved back to her parent's home in Three Corner Town, where she lived until late in life.

The farmstead home was constructed around the turn of the 20th century as a 1½ story structure. The ground floor is divided into two halves; the partial second floor is an open attic with a painted floor and finished walls. The home's interior walls were insulated with newspaper, likely from the period of its construction. Currently the plaster and lathe walls of the ground floor are distinctive for their bright blue painted wainscoting. The second floor attic is notable for some modifications that were made in the mid-20th century. Around that time, newspapers and magazine pages of the period were affixed to the walls, probably by Helen Noponen, in what was likely an attempt to seal gaps between the attic boards. This was further enhanced by tin food cans that were carefully split and trimmed and then neatly installed along the cracks with small finishing nails.

A small addition was added to the homestead in the post-war period, based on the decorative finishes found there. This addition housed a kitchen and a bathroom. A previous report was unclear on the construction date of the kitchen, but recent observation of the addition as it was removed from the house structure in Fall 2012 showed that it was an integrated part of the addition. The deteriorated condition of the addition, which threatened the integrity of the structure as a whole, necessitated its teardown. Volunteers from Michigan Tech's Phi Kappa Tau fraternity and members of the Keweenaw Land Trust executed the teardown during an early season snowfall. The teardown revealed a vernacular character to the addition that mimicked some of the make-do solutions of the pre-war period; namely, multiple layers of linoleum served as insulation under the floor boards, and pipes under the house were held in place by slings of metal cloth and leather strapping that had probably been a belt. These solutions were perhaps not as elegant looking as the neat rows of tin can fragment in the attic, but they both show resourcefulness.

A 1989 Keweenaw Chamber of Commerce publication, in conjunction with 4H, celebrated agriculture in the area with the following opening statement:

"Little did the Finnish immigrants who carved the farms out of our inhospitable land, in an equally inhospitable climate, foresee that a century later these same farms would collectively emerge as a model agricultural community. Nor, in their quest to escape working underground in mines, did they realize the diversification and practical methods they so naturally employed would become the legacy of the successful agricultural industry that exists in the Copper Country today."

That publication also featured three farms in the Boston area that focused on raising strawberries and vegetables. No farms were noted in the vicinity of Paavola. Despite the celebratory tone of the Chamber of Commerce publication, a number of small independent farms were lost to the development and expansion of the Houghton County Airport in the mid to late 20th century. The small farms that did survive, like the Sotala farm of Boston location, participated in the region's farmers' markets. Farms in the post-war era disappeared or consolidated as a result of improved agricultural machinery and the loss of the area's "cheap labor". Near the turn of the 21st century, a regional newspaper wrote nostalgically of agriculture in the area:

"There was a time when farming in the Upper Peninsula was as much a part of the economy as logging and mining. Potato, strawberry, diary and cattle farms marketed goods through local cooperatives, and potato warehouses and milk trucks were as common as shaft houses and logging trucks."


Landscape and Water
Pathways to the Past: Historical Narrative

Photos Courtesy of MTU Archives

Keweenaw Land Trust, 801 N. Lincoln Drive - Suite 306 - Hancock MI 49930 --- (906) 482-0820

This project was supported in part by the Federal Highway Administration's National Scenic Byways program and Finlandia Foundation National.