Monday, July 11, 2011

the coops of port oneida, part two (orpha's coop)

I said before that the story of Port Oneida is a quintessential pioneer story. Given the nearly hundred-year scope of the formative era of Port Oneida, it is also, of course, the story of the second and third generations, which followed the original settlers in quick succession. As you might expect in a small, relatively isolated farming community where each family was dependent on its neighbors, families were knit together through the generations by marriage. Carsten and Eliza Burfiend’s children were among the main strands of second-generation Port Oneida. Magdalena, the daughter who was born in Buffalo and waited there with her mother until summoned to the shores of Lake Michigan by Carsten, went on to marry Ole Olsen, who had emigrated from Norway. Their farm can still be seen at the eastern end of Kelderhouse Road and there are several outbuildings remaining there, among them several apparently intended for poultry. Ole and Magdalena in turn gave birth to Charles Olsen, who together with his wife Hattie built the farm that stands (sans a coop) near the southwest corner of Port Oneida. Carsten and Eliza’s fourth child (and third daughter) Elizabeth Louise, married Scottish immigrant George Lawr and they built the farm my family explored on our first visit to Port Oneida (and which still retains a lovely chicken coop). Peter Burfiend, who was Carsten and Eliza’s sixth child, married Jennette (Jenny) Goffar, who had grown up on the farm at the southeast corner of Port Oneida, at the edge of Narada Lake. Together they built a cabin and farm along Basch Road. Peter and Jenny gave birth to five children of their own, including Howard, who brought into the family by marriage the individual who has captivated my imagination and whose home and coop I was most eager to see. But first, just a little more background.

The home in which Carsten and Eliza first lived when they arrived in 1852 was built of logs and stood on a bluff overlooking the lake and across the Straits of Manitou to the islands. Legend has it that their original cabin stood directly on the beach until it was dashed to bits in a storm, but the Burfiend descendents (and common sense) insist that is an apocryphal tale and I can’t imagine solid-looking Eliza consenting to any such placement for her home in the New World. Neither the apocryphal cabin nor the one on the bluff remain, although a clump of lilacs marks the spot of the bluff cabin. What does remain is the solid but largely nondescript house Peter built for the family when he and Jenny returned to Peter’s “home place” in about 1893 to help his aging parents work their land.

In 1926, at the age of 29, Peter and Jenny’s only son Howard married Orpha Fralick and brought her home to live with his parents (Carsten and Eliza being long gone by then). Orpha was 31 at the time of her marriage, a teacher and the first female superintendent of schools in nearby Glen Arbor. Orpha’s parents, George and Minerva, lived in Maple City where her father was a well-loved country doctor who famously, when he developed lip cancer, operated on it himself and then sensibly quit his pipe-smoking. George Fralick also owned the first car in Leelanau County, known as the “Red Devil”.

Howard and Orpha’s wedding picture shows them standing side by side in front of a cypress-sided building with a stone foundation. Howard, facing the camera squarely in black tie, looks serious but well-pleased. Orpha wears a drop-waist Battenburg lace dress adorned at the hip with a bundle of lilacs also tied with lace. She wears her cropped hair in a finger wave and a small strand of pearls around her neck. She gazes at the camera through small oval spectacles with a whimsical half-smile, her right arm angled out from her body as if to steady herself on some unseen rail.

In 1930, with daughter number two either just arrived or on the way, Howard and Orpha hired a Leelanau contractor to build them a house across the yard from Peter and Jenny’s. It came equipped with the great luxury of hot running water! 

A picture from that year shows Orpha seated on a porch holding the infant Beck (short for Rebecca) on her lap while embracing 3-year-old Agnes. Orpha’s arms form a circle around her children; her broad, long-fingered hands are fanned out, the right one cradling Beck and the left drawing Agnes to her. Orpha’s head is bowed over her children and she watches with a tender expression as Agnes appears to offer something (a cherry?) to Beck. The small wire-rimmed spectacles have been replaced with dark-rimmed glasses ala Shostakovich. Both mother and elder daughter wear thick stockings and black leather lace-up shoes. The photo has all the grace of an old master Madonna and child and captures a moment of deep contentment.

I have spent a lot of time looking at these two photos of Orpha and contemplating how this very modern, professional “city” girl chose to become a farm wife and mother. I suppose one might also ask why Howard chose to marry a professional woman two years his senior and a relative old maid in a time when women often married at 19.  In my reading, I’ve found several clues. Together, Howard and Orpha turned the Burfiend farm into “the largest and most prosperous farm in the Port Oneida area—303 acres supporting 25 Guernsey cows” and the area’s first Grade A dairy. Orpha continued to teach, even as she raised her five children (the last of which was born when she was 42!), gardened, baked seven loaves of bread at a whack and put up hundreds of cans of food for the winter—among hundreds of other, unenumerated tasks. Howard and Orpha, it turns out, were a thoroughly modern and very smart power couple. How they met is a mystery to me, but they must have recognized in each other similar drive and intelligence. Whatever chance they took in forming their alliance, it clearly paid great dividends. And despite her seemingly endless toil, the remarkable Orpha lived to be 96, dying only in 1991.

On the day that I set out to visit the coops of Port Oneida I was not sure whether I’d find a coop still standing at the Burfiends’ place. A fire in the 1980s destroyed the barn and silo but other outbuildings remain. Perhaps this is the moment for a primer in spotting disused chicken coops (the ones currently in use tend to be easier to spot) in their natural state. Chicken coops of the general period with which we are here concerned tend to follow a certain architectural model, one that will soon be familiar to all of you. It's a model which tends to leave the front wall higher than the rear with either a flat but angled shed roof:

or a peaked roof with the peak closer to the front side of the coop than the back:

As you may recall me mentioning once before, the most desirable orientation for a chicken coop is to the south and I have planned windows on my own coop that will admit sun from the couth and east. One of the many books I have accumulated, a reprint of a 1924 classic called “Modern Fresh Air Poultry Houses” advises at page 29: “As a general rule the house should face south or a little east of south, so that the interior can be well sunned at all seasons.” [just for the record, you can open this book to any page and find gems of such quality]

In my travels this week, I have been acutely aware of directionality and on the lookout, not only in Port Oneida but throughout the region, for small shed-like buildings oriented to the south. Using this formula, I have spotted many an old coop. The coops of Port Oneida did not disappoint in this regard—every single extant coop faces south and follows the same general architectural model. But you’ll see.

Arriving at what I have come to think of as Orpha’s place, I stepped out of the car to the sounds and smells of Lake Michigan, which is just down the bluff from her house. Several turkey vultures perched ominously on the ridgeline of the roof and in the nearby trees but flew off as I approached. Their presence was a visible manifestation of the slight (semi-rational) anxiety I always feel about what I might find lurking around these ghost farms. I had the place entirely to myself. It being lunch time, I first settled on Orpha’s front porch with the sandwich I’d packed (I didn’t think she’d mind, although she would likely have put me to work), savoring the cool breeze off the lake. 

The sound of the waves was regular and insistent but I imagined it overlaid with the bustle of the house as it must have been in the 1930s. Lilac bushes (the ubiquitous marker of domesticity in Port Oneida) and apple trees dotted the yard and a row of large trees on the western edge of the yard marked the line where the original Port Oneida Road had run—along the bluff edge—and formed a windbreak.

Lunch finished, I headed across the road where the farm buildings were moved in 1930 when Howard and Orpha built their house. The stone foundation of the barn and silo remain,

as do a corn crib/granary
machine shed and butchering shed. And there, between the barn foundation and the machine shed, is the coop--right shape, right orientation! I was giddy with the thrill of discovery.

Walking around it and peering through the foggy windows I found further confirmation of its coop-ness:
remnants of the "pop door" through which chickens could come and go
old wooden nesting boxes
roosts and dropping boards, through ancient chicken wire
I felt deeply satisfied. This was the home of Orpha's chickens, who doubtless provided hundreds of dozens of eggs that helped keep Orpha and her family well-nourished. I was nearly ready to walk away when I spotted it, behind the machine shed:

Much smaller than the main coop, this was the brooder coop, where baby chicks were hatched or placed after being ordered and raised up until they were big enough to mingle with the existing flock. Its small size allowed it to be transported up near the farmhouse when the chicks were small, much like we kept our babies in our living room in order to keep a close eye on them. And unlike Orpha's main coop, the brooder was unlocked!
roosts in the brooder

pop door interior

pop door exterior detail
Which brings me to a complicating factor. One of the books I have pictures this exact brooder in a terrible state of decay. Today, it has clearly been restored and outfitted with a new, old-fashioned roost. Many of the buildings in Port Oneida have been or are in the process of being similarly restored. In every case I've seen, the restoration respects the original construction, but no restoration can be 100% true to the original. I am torn between relief that the buildings are being saved and dismay that in order to truly observe Port Oneida as it was I now have to "read" the original architecture through a scrim or theatrical "gel" of modern restoration that has been overlaid upon it. This is a fundamental dilemma of historic preservation, I suspect, and one that will color all of my explorations on Port Oneida. But all the same, I came away from Orpha's coop feeling I've had a visit with a great woman--and her chickens!

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