The Painted Farms of Hälsingland

The man with the sword, to the left to the door, is the Guardian.  A quote above him states that he was there to protect anyone that entered, but also reserved the right to kick you out of it you got too drunk.  In the panel closest to the fireplace, the Fiddler laments his role as maître d'.  He is there to wrangle people, entertain, keep order.  He is harassed by a rowdy bunch whose job it is to make his job difficult, hiding in barns, boozing it up.  On the opposite wall, Sophia promises her unending love in a wedding ceremony and a man with a horse spins a tale about a buzzy political topic of the day, To Eat or Not to Eat horse meat.  This is the festivities room at Ol-Anders farm, one of the decorated Hälsingegården (farmsteads of Hälsingland).  These painted rooms are one part of what make the Hälsingegården unique to Sweden and the world. 
 In the 19th century, a boom occurred in Hälsingland.  It was a perfect storm of events for the region with a farming tradition dating back to the year 200.  Things that the farmers of Hälsingland had done for centuries suddenly became big business.  This is flax country and flax makes linen.  So, when a British man with know-how and his team of women who could spin with both hands simultaneously came into town, Hälsingland became Sweden's linen capital.  (The only linen mill still in Scandinavia exists here, today).  Then, when cotton began to usurp linen, in the mid 1800s, fortune struck again.
Agricultural reform gave farmers large swaths of forest they had little-to-no interest in.  But just about at the same time, industrialization started, railways were built and selling off land and felling rights became a goldmine.  Add to all of this a doubling of the population (thanks to peace and the smallpox vaccine) and the lack of a noble class and the farmers of  Hälsingland soared. "Cash in their pocket," Gun-Marie Swessar explained to us at Ol-Anders, something incredibly new for a population of people traded goods amongst themselves.  This is what they chose to do with it.
"That which... in Hälsingland, immediately arouses an outsider's attention are the magnificent and imposing buildings."  Elementary School Textbook, 1878.  Not much has changed since then.  As we drove to Alfta, where we'd booked a farmstay with the Hisved family, we kept noticing these enormous barns and houses.  Estates, really, grand in stature, but with an overwhelming sense of functionality.  Some people call the Hälsingegården, Hälsingland farmsteads, 'log castles,' and their layouts are pretty fortress-like.  Above, you can see the traditional form.  A fourth building used to be right where we're standing, completing the square.  The winter house is at the top, facing south for optimum sunshine.  The cow stables are to its left and the festivities and summer house is to its right.
This farm, Ol-Anders, was originally down in Alfta's town center.  However, after a 1793 fire destroyed almost all the buildings, the Anderssons and other families, moved their farms up onto hills, out of close proximity to neighbors.  For extra protection, they set them up like mini fortresses.  After the blaze, came the boom and what started as one story - two windowed buildings expanded upward and outward.  
Then came the decorative touches.  In parts of the region that were connected more closely to city, via trade routes or proximity, elaborate doors, detailed woodwork and pastels were the design of choice.  That's what the urban folk were doing, after all.  In places like Alfta and Långhed, porches were the style.  It's impossible not to notice them, some baroque, some rococo, some faux Greek temple.  "It took about 25 - 50 years for the fashions of the mainland [Europe] to get to this part of Sweden," Gun-Marie said, laughing.  Whether with a porch or not, the entrance to the home was considered the true sign of status.  Amazingly, though, even when the authorities actually began to complain that they were building on too large a scale and 'being too extravagant with wood,' the farmers of Hälsingland were never trying to outdo one another.  It was more like they were all deciding upon a local folk art, using most of the same builders and artists.
The painters mainly came from Dalarna, south of Hälsingland.  They would come on foot, with no job opportunities in their own neck of the woods, knowing that there was some wealth to go around up north.  Offering to paint for a few nights room and board, the artists began to adorn the festivities rooms.  Then, one room after another became canvases.  As the buildings grew, there was more wallspace to adorn.  With international styles beginning to come into vogue, farmers asked their painters to create the look and feel of expensive materials that would never be available to them.  Paint was used to create the illusion of oak and mahogany, Italian marble and French silk.  Always practical, the most intricate art was left for the rooms used only now and then.  More durable wall treatments, like stenciling and splatter painting, were used in entrance halls, sleeping rooms.  Because the fanciest murals were done in rooms that got use maybe a few times per generation and were not exposed to smoke or grease, they were able to remain intact.
Before we met with Gun-Marie at Ol-Anders, we didn't quite know how we'd be able to get a look at some of the famous interiors.  "Perhaps I can call my friend," Kersti Hisved told us when we asked about it.  We stayed with her and her husband, Ivor, in the hamlet of Långhed.  "Or, you can just come upstairs and look at ours!"  Ivor remembers touching the wall paintings as a child.  The paint used to come off on his fingers, he recalled.  Amazingly, with windows all around, it shows no signs of fading.  They've turned the festivities room into a kitchen, removing the wall panels temporarily to add insulation and having a restorer add a protective sealant before beginning any construction work.  "He told me to clean the walls with bread," said Kersti, "that's how they do all the old churches.  Lots of bread."  She dabbed at the wood with an imaginary chunk of baguette.
"In the 50s and 60s, everyone wanted everything new."  All across Hälsingland, some design elements became casualties of modernity.  But the festivities rooms, with their lack of insulation, were often the last things to get touched.  "She did not have the money to renovate this whole, big house," Ivor said of his grandmother.
Although the buildings on Kersti and Ivor's farm date back to 1845, they have only been in the Hisved family for four generations.  Some Hälsingegården have been in the same family for 400 years.  A strict code of inheritance governed the land here, where there was no aristocracy to clamor for real estate.  Father to son and if you had a daughter, it was customary to marry her off to a close neighbor.  Ironically, though, right after all these big houses were built in the mid 1800s, 10 - 30% of the people in this area emigrated to America.  They were following Erik Jansson, a preacher whose love of book burning got him run out of town and whom they promptly shot in Bishop Hill, Illinois after discovering that - prophet or not - he was an egomaniacal control freak.  Anyway, lots of houses were left empty.
While driving along in Edsbyn, we spotted Panesgården, a Halsingegården-turned-garden shop.  A warm welcome was given by Rosemarie and Rolf, who'd bought the building under a year ago.  Rosemarie had a flower shop in town, but fell in love with the historic farm, which wasn't being put to any use.  The ceiling had been newly touched up, the old faded painting could still be seen.  As we gawked at it, Rosemarie came up beside us.  "Want to see the upstairs?" she asked almost mischievously.  The impossibly narrow spiral staircase was unroped for us.  "You do this at your risk," she said before telling us to duck.  "I'm not allowed to let customers up here."
Upstairs, we emerged into a huge, bright room with some of the prettiest painting we'd seen.  She would like to turn the space into a cafe, if she can figure out the dangerous staircase situation.  Of the 1,000 Hälsingland farms, around 50 of them can be visited.  Many have been turned into B&Bs.  I think it was most fun to have just stumbled upon some.
What I love most about these farmers' mansions is the clear idea you get of what was truly valued by the people who built them.  Even as the farms grew almost ludicrously large, entire families would still sleep in a single room.  Why heat more than one?  They remained self-sufficient, continuing to spin, weave, slaughter, build, brew, bake... and all those big buildings gave them space to do it.  On most grand estates, the space is filled with stuff.  Here, they were filled with tools.  On most, fashion trumps function, wallpaper and furnishings are switched out for newer styles.  On these walls, art was made to last. 
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