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Gleanings from the book of Eli

Carved wood statue of a logger at the Wirtanen farm. (Photo by Eddy Gilmore)1 / 4
Eli Wirtanen spaced his buildings far apart enough that fire in one would not threaten another. (Photo by Eddy Gilmore)2 / 4
Kitchen wood stove. (Photo by Eddy Gilmore)3 / 4
The farm has wide open spaces to play in. (Photo by Eddy Gilmore)4 / 4

Nearly impossible to comprehend, Eli Wirtanen passed away just 19 years before I was born. My, how times change.

Eli was born in Finland in 1870. He emigrated to the New World as a teenager in the late 1880s. Eventually by the age of 34, he had saved enough money to purchase his own 40-acre tract of land.

Not only was this land entirely wooded, there were no roads in the vicinity. Trails, such as the nearby Vermillion Trail, provided access to the outside world by foot or horseback.

Eli cut the trees and uprooted thousands of stumps with the aid of his horse while establishing his farm. Nothing came easy. There were no handouts. He even dug his well by hand. His farm survives today, lovingly preserved by a small group of volunteers just 40 miles north of Duluth.

The family and I enjoyed a marvelous Sunday afternoon at the old farmstead, shortly after most of the leaves had fallen, and had the place to ourselves. What an experience for our kids. Eli was a contemporary of Laura Ingalls Wilder, so it was easy for them to connect with him and the time period.

Our kids happily ran across the property between the dozen structures, which are spaced far apart to lessen the potential of a fire destroying everything. All but one of these buildings is kept unlocked. The children sprinted to each, let themselves in and explored carefully. Their faces beamed with awe and wonder as they emerged from the structures built from materials taken from the forest, calling across the land, "Come see what I've found!"

We even enjoyed throwing the pigskin around as we played together on the expansive property under towering Norway pines, which seemed to serve as sentinels.

This is a place where one may freely explore and play, allow the imagination to come alive and soak in the quiet beauty of the place. Innovations of old are around every corner, such as the humble wooden gutter that graces the original sauna.

The opportunity to bask in warm history like this, unshackled to books, rules, locked doors or barred windows, is truly rare.

The simple lives and work ethic of these pioneers draw me like a fly to honey. Having crested the lofty age of 40, I have redoubled my efforts to simplify life in an effort to focus on what really matters.

I continue to dispose of old, burdensome collections, which Eli Wirtanen, who lived in a sparse cabin of two rooms, would have found baffling. Just this week I finally dispensed with an albatross that I've been carrying around for three decades: approximately 20,000 baseball cards. I began collecting these cardboard rectangles just 28 years after Eli died. I was convinced they'd make me rich someday.

At the same time, I hoarded over 100 live animals in my bedroom, about half of which were birds that flew freely about. The cards were no less toxic than the bird droppings that made their way between my bedsheets.

Thousands of hours and dollars went into them. Ultimately I received eight carefully folded $20 bills in exchange for them.

Both of these collections were detrimental to me for many reasons. A steady flow of cash earned from delivering newspapers, coupled with zero sense of responsibility or guidance, enabled this obsessive collecting.

My income, drawn from 10 hours of mostly pleasant work each week, dwarfed what Eli earned each winter at various lumber camps. Excessive money in the hands of a child, even adults, is not a good thing. A little guidance, an ethic bent toward saving rather than spending and a spirit of generosity toward others is absolutely necessary.

It is humbling to reflect upon how hard Eli worked in order to grub out a basic existence. He travelled across the world, saved tiny amounts of cash and endured countless hardships prior to being able to afford the land he'd ultimately work for 50 years. He never had electricity or owned a car, but he was self-sufficient and truly free.

We can all learn volumes from an uneducated Finn by the name of Eli Wirtanen.

Eddy Gilmore

Monthly Budgeteer columnist Eddy Gilmore is a freelance writer, father of twins and husband of one. Connect with Eddy at