Noe Valley Voice September 2004

Florence's Family Album: Down on the Finn Farm

Reminiscences by Florence Holub

Longtime Noe Valley Voice contributor Florence Holub first wrote this essay, about idyllic summers gone by, for our October 1990 issue.

As September, the true San Francisco summer, comes to an end, I remember a summer place that for many years gave my family great pleasure. It was a summer camp, located in the small community of Woodside, Calif., and known to those who used it as Camp 12, or the Finn Farm.

This parcel of land was originally a portion of Stanford Weekend Acres, an open grasslands site dotted with huge oak trees. Nestled between a country road and a creek, Camp 12 was purchased in the early 1920s by 12 Swede-Finn families, many of whom were members of the Swede-Finn colony living in or around Noe Valley, drawn together by their common cultural background. The camp was to be a place for picnics and baseball--the size was perfect for a baseball diamond, and the men were determined to play ball.

Each family placed a table at one end of the camp, under the oak trees, where food prepared at home could be served: open-faced sandwiches, pickled herring, potato salad, and coffee cake.

There were the Johnsons (three different clans, including the John Johnsons, who lived on Army Street), Isaacsons, Nelsons, Andersons, Hendricksons, Logases, Rundquists, Dahlas, and Alholms. One of the Alholm sons, Dagner, worked at Connell's Market at 24th and Douglass streets in the 1930s, and later as a butcher at Reno's, in the old Surf Super Market (where Rite Aid is now). Dagner and his wife Sylvia lived in their Diamond Street home, between 26th and Army streets, for 24 years. They left in 1978 when the hill, they said, seemed to get terribly steep.

Every family had relatives and friends, including my own family, who were always welcome at Camp 12. In the early days, we slept on mattresses spread out under the trees. But there were snakes around, and when one came slithering in among the sleeping bags, people would scream and yell with fright. After one particularly raucous night, we decided that there would be no more sleeping under the trees. Instead, one side of the camp was divided into 12 small lots, each big enough to hold a tent. Slips were numbered 1 to 12, put into a box, and shaken. As each family head drew out a slip, he learned the location of his lot in the row that started near the road and ended near the creek.

Storage space was needed for the baseball gear, mattresses, and bedding, and since many of the men were in the building trades (carpenters or contractors who laughingly referred to themselves as "wood butchers"), they went to work. It took only a few weekends of sawing and hammering to complete the first structure--a storehouse later called the barn, then the dance hall, and finally, the big house. The big house still stands alone above the creek near the entrance gate, but it now has a new use as a darkroom.

Most of the early weekenders slept under the stars, to the sound of crickets, on balmy nights, but on damp or rainy evenings, they slept lined up on mattresses on the storeroom floor, and any overflow had to improvise. Dagner remembers sleeping cozily beneath a blanket attached to the barn exterior and fastened at the other end to the running board of the family car--a canvas-topped Chalmers touring sedan.

Camp 12 was used heavily on weekends, so some of the folks pitched tents for sleeping and dressing. The first tent platform was built by E. K. Nelson, a contractor who lived in a mansion in Hillsborough and drove a big expensive car when business was booming. When business was ailing, however, he arrived in a more modest automobile, and it was during one of these lean times that he was forced by necessity to build a platform to set his tent up on, as a temporary home. Soon the whole camp had followed his lead.

By 1929, 10 of the platforms contained small houses with one or two rooms. In cold weather, cooking was done indoors on kerosene stoves, but in fair weather, food was prepared in the shade of the oak trees, where John Dahla, an electrical contractor and jack-of-all-trades, had constructed a large stove and oven. Here the women could prepare even larger quantities of food and bake bread or coffee cake to accompany the constantly brewing coffee.

In the beginning, old-fashioned outhouses were constructed behind the barn, near two ever-present hazards: poison oak and bumblebees. These were demolished, however, when the pump house with indoor plumbing was built near the creek. And this in turn was rendered useless after the county water and sewer lines were laid.

Every year a picnic and dinner was held, to which friends and relatives bought tickets, the proceeds of which paid all taxes on the property for the entire year. It was always a happy occasion. For the children, there were races in the field and swimming in the creek. For the adults, there were spirited baseball games and horseshoe-throwing contests behind the barn.

In the evenings, there were often barn dances, with music provided by the men, who played Scandinavian tunes on fiddles, harmonicas, and accordions. Lillian Johnson Sorg (the daughter of John Johnson) remembers Fred Isaacson playing harmonica while at the same time dancing with a partner! Most of the men were members of the Star of Finland Glee Club, so there were a lot of impromptu concerts consisting of Scandinavian songs like "Helan Gor," which translates roughly to "Down the Hatch," or the noble, melodic "Finlandia," which recalls the "Sweet Land of Home."

Lillian also remembers when the creek was dammed to provide deeper water for swimming. Sand and cement had been dumped by the road, but had to be moved down to the creek. John Dahla built a wooden trestle that had a sled in it to carry the material. The children gleefully got into the spirit and had great fun riding along with the supplies. The end result was a cement and river rock dam that still stands today.

With higher water, all of the children learned to swim in that pool. And Fred Isaacson launched his boat, Ducky, which allowed a load of kids, on a lazy summer day, to drift a short way down the stream under the overhanging leafy branches.

The dam also gave campers access to the 16th hole of the Stanford Golf Course, and after the golfers departed in the evening, the ritualistic "snipe hunt" would often begin. An uninitiated young guest would be taken across the dam and up the bank to the green, where he or she would be given a sack, a flashlight, and instructions in the technique of the hunt--then left alone to entice little "snipes" into the bag, using directed beams from the flashlight. The rest of the children would slip into the nearby bushes to make little squeaking noises for an hour or so, and then return.

The snipe hunter always innocently and excitedly related how he had heard snipe sounds nearby, but alas, had caught not a one of the little creatures. He would never be left holding the bag again, however, for henceforth he would be an initiated "squeaker."

For city children, this place provided a fun-filled summer in the country. From toddlers to teenagers, they swam in the creek together, played in the field, and danced in the barn to the music of a wind-up phonograph--the older ones teaching the younger ones to dance.

Over the years, the children who played and danced together grew up and left behind the carefree days of summer. Some went off to college, many married and formed new associations as the Swede-Finn colony lost its cohesion. Some brave boys went off to war.

During the war years, when gasoline was rationed, it took the entire monthly allotment of gas to drive from the city to camp and back. For this reason, many of the houses stayed empty. When World War II ended, Camp 12 had a great celebration for all of the returning young men, and it was almost like old times again, with joyful dancing, feasting, and singing of many renditions of "Helan Gor."

Most of the houses had been enlarged and improved by this time, so it seemed like a practical idea to rent them to Stanford students during the school term, since the owners used the houses mainly during the summer.

As some of the original owners died, their houses changed hands. John Dahla, the last Swede-Finn resident, bought several of the houses, but he eventually sold out to a lawyer named Templeton when he decided to visit his homeland, Finland.

A decade or so ago, one of my man Leo's Stanford photography students invited us to visit him in one of the Camp 12 cottages, where he then lived. We observed that although the faces and names had changed, the same cooperative spirit that built Camp 12--and the friendly good will that sustained it--still prevailed.