Hans Hansen - A Study in Danish-American Ingenuity

This exhibit is no longer on display.

Exhibition Type


Share this Exhibition

Excerpts from the exhibition script are below.


Log supports for Hansen house:


This photograph, taken in 2004, provides visual documentation of some of the earliest construction work on the Hansen farm, dating from the winter of 1908-1909. Because the frozen ground made a concrete foundation impossible at the time, the wooden supports shown here were used as a temporary underpinning until such time as the concrete foundation could be built. These wooden supports were one of the very first things Hans put in place after clearing the land for the building site. These supports continue today to hold up the southern interior of the Hansen house. In the summer of 1909, Hans dug a basement under the northern part of the house and laid a concrete foundation around the exterior of the entire building.





The silo type most popular in Hansen’s area was the cement stave silo. Only the occasional farmer chose the redwood silo, which Hans selected. The redwood silos tested the ingenuity of the farmers who ordered them, as the vertical boards were 30 feet in length. The challenge was posed once the farmer off-loaded his order at the local railroad depot. Each had to determine how he could best transport boards 30 feet in length to their respective farms. Hans’ son, Walter, thinks that it is only logical that his father would have used two wagons hitched in tandem for this task.



Silo and adjoining barn:


The barn built adjoining the silo was intended for the stock cows. Housing them next to the silo facilitated their feeding and care through the early years. Hans kept about a dozen stock head, which was the number he could most comfortably maintain taking into account both his available pasture land and the yield of his annual hay crop. The calves produced were sold each year as feeder calves. The first barn Hans built can be seen in the background. The Hansen family refers to it as the east barn. The horses and milk cows were kept in this barn.





In 1918, Hans Hansen acquired an old abandoned sawmill located a mile north of his farm and relocated it to his farmstead. Hans purchased the mill for $350, a sum advanced to him by a neighbor who wanted three barns built on his properties and made arrangements with Hans to pay off the loan through cutting the lumber required to build these barns.[1]


The sawmill turned out to have been a particularly advantageous purchase. It allowed Hans to process all of his own lumber needs in addition to taking on a substantial amount of custom sawing for others.[2] While the range of these jobs varied, they tended to address three primary needs in the area. People were frequently in need of various cuts of lumber for repair work. Farmers often had to replace broken wagon tongues and wagon axles, as well as the coupling poles on the underside of their wagons. The need for these items was so recurrent that Hans sought to work ahead so that he would have a stock of them on hand.


In the mid-1930’s, Hans received a very large order from the Chicago Northwestern Railroad. They requested that he cut several thousand ties for rails they were laying. The timber for the ties was supplied and delivered from a neighbor’s timber stand, but the cutting of the lumber fell to Hans and his two sons, Paul and Walter. This was an exceptionally important job for Hans, coming as it did during the depression years.


The occasional jobs associated with the sawmill provided the Hansen family with a modest but invaluable source of additional income. It was, in fact, these jobs that made the stark difference in the Hansen’s survival during lean and difficult farm years, particularly those of the great depression of the 1930’s. Several of the surrounding farms were lost during this period. Hans Hansen was able to struggle through the lean times owing to the extensive foundation of self-sufficiency that he had established on his farmstead through the years.



Threshing Cooperative:


Hans Hansen was a founding member of the Plato Cooperative Threshing Co., which organized itself in 1918.[3] It was agreed at that time that Hans would serve as the company’s engineer, operating the steam engine during the threshing periods, and, additionally, that he would keep the engine in repair. Because of the central nature of his role in their threshing venture, the members of the cooperative built a shed to house the machine on Hans’ farm. In 1945, after 27 years of use, the company’s members decided that they wanted newer, more modern harvesting equipment and sold their shares to Hans for a modest sum. He used the threshing rig for another couple of years on his farm but then purchased a second hand combine in 1948, as he found the old threshing equipment to be too labor intensive. The steam engine was junked, but Hans’ son, Walter, sold the threshing machine to a collector of antique farm machinery in Illinois, who used it in various threshing reenactments over the years.



Portable Feed Shed:


Hans Hansen built the portable feed shed shown in this photograph around 1945. At the time he built it, he raised his hogs on pasture land. In order to properly care for the animals, he needed a shed in which to store their feed. He made the storage shed a mobile one so he could easily transport the feed from the central farm buildings to the pasture area. The shed has been in continuous use on the Hansen farm since that time. Walter now uses it to store freshly ground cattle feed.


The manner in which this shed was built typifies Hans Hansen’s approach to building projects on his farm. He undertook all of his projects with vigilant economy, drawing as much as possible from materials at hand. The wheels for the portable shed came from an old junked manure spreader.



Three photo grouping titled “Early years on the farm”:


These photographs document a difficult transitional period in Hans Hansen’s life. On September 27, 1910, his wife of nine years, Marie Sorensen Hansen, died while giving birth to twins, who also died. Hans was left a widower with two young children to raise, a son, Paul (b. 1904), and a daughter, Irma (b. 1906). The next few years were difficult ones, as Hans struggled to meet his many farming obligations while raising his two young children. Members of the Lutheran Church in West Branch, as well as neighbors and friends, sought to help the best they could.


In each of these photographs, Hans is shown with his children, Paul and Irma. The woman seen in the first photo was a member of the West Branch community who helped out during this period. She was affectionately known as Auntie Olsen.



Hansen family vignettes (2 photos):


During 1915, Hans’ advertisement for a housekeeper was answered by Essie Hatfield, a young widow with a baby girl (Betty). Early in 1916, Essie and Hans decided that they were suited to each other and married on February 26, 1916. Two children, Esther and Walter, were born to this union.


Essie Hatfield Hansen is seen in the photograph at left with her young daughters, Betty and Esther. The photo is believed to date from 1918, the year Walter was born. The Hansen family was photographed 12 years later (1930) during a trip to New Mexico; beginning at left, identifications are Betty, Esther, Hans, Walter and Essie. The family is shown with their Model T Ford, which Hans carefully maintained during the years. A cylinder boring tool, which he made in his shop and used in the maintenance of this car, is displayed elsewhere in the exhibit.



Article on Hans Hansen published in The Cedar Rapids Gazette, 1950


Over the years, Hans Hansen and his sawmill became well known throughout the West Branch area, as did the ingenuity and self-sufficiency of his workshop achievements. Deciding that his story would make an excellent article for the regional paper, The Cedar Rapids Gazette, local journalist and West Branch resident, Bernie Corbin, interviewed Hans Hansen on his farm in late 1950. She focused on his achievements as a farmer, carpenter and machinist. In establishing context for her story, Corbin provided an informative, thumbnail sketch of the gradual evolution of Hansen’s farm from a heavily overgrown site of brush and timber into a well maintained working farm.



View of redwood silo and adjoining barn, 2002


The farm equipment seen in the foreground is currently used by Walter Hansen in his farming operations. At the far right is a wheel-type hay rake. The other pieces of equipment are hay feeders, which are placed around large round bales of hay to prevent unnecessary waste as animals feed. The feeders are used primarily in winter, unless a summer drought necessitates feeding from the hay reserves.


This photograph was taken by Michael P. Harker, who has specialized in the photography of old barns and other early agricultural icons. Harker had not seen a wooden silo before and wanted a record of the Hansen silo in his personal photo collection. Harker went on to publish Visions of an American Icon in which his photographs of early barns, corn cribs and an occasional silo were accompanied by Jim Heynen’s text.



View of Hans Hansen’s farm, c. 1930’s


This photograph of the Hansen farm was taken by Walter Hansen during the 1930’s and presents a view of some of the buildings from the west. The photo records Hans Hansen’s steady progress in the development and expansion of his farmstead. All of the buildings seen in the photo were constructed by his own hand.


The barn at the left of the photo was the first barn built by Hans; it is referred to as the east barn by family members. To the far left of the photo and adjacent to the barn is a single corn crib. To the right of the crib in the foreground is the tank house, which served as a shelter for the stock tank and as storage for fuel (corn cobs and coal). The fuel was burned in the tank heater during winter days to keep the water from freezing so that livestock could drink. To the right of the tank house is the scale house, where both wagons and livestock were weighed. The large building in the middle is a double corncrib that had several additions added over the years. It was originally built with a double driveway separating the two cribs. A loft was constructed over the driveway, which Hans used to store his smaller equipment and farm machinery. He raised and lowered these items by means of a pulley system which he installed in the loft roof. In time, he added storage space for larger machinery (wagons, etc.) to the northern side of the building and to the southern side he built on a storage area for his cut lumber and other small farm machinery that he subsequently acquired.


The Hansen house, seen in the far background, had a taller, two-story addition added to it around 1928. Hans’ workshop is seen to the right of the house. To the left is the woodshed, its roof peaking out behind the long crib and machine shed. It was in this small shed that the Hansens stored the stove wood for their house. Although not apparent from this perspective, the buildings around the house cluster in such a manner as to suggest a courtyard, reminiscent of the courtyard structure of Danish farms.


This photo provides a record of the Hansen farm during the depression years. During this period, Hans was preserving the wood on his buildings with a covering of old crank case oil. When Walter took over the farm, he cleaned the buildings and repainted them red.



Aerial view of the Hansen farm, 1993


This photo provides an excellent view of the Hansen farm as it is today. Walter Hansen took over the farm following his father’s death in 1953. He has kept and carefully maintained the buildings built by his father and has added only four additional structures: three grain bins and a metal machine shed (30 feet x 65 feet). Thus, it can still be said that all of the wood buildings on the farm site were built by Hans Hansen, and, with the exception of the house, all were built with lumber native to the area. In his careful maintenance of the original farmstead, Walter Hansen has preserved both an important chapter in regional agricultural history, as well as an important passage in Danish American heritage and history.



View of Hansen house with workshop at right, c. 1916


A close study of the early photographs of the Hansen farm indicate that Hans built his workshop around 1916, after he had constructed his house, barns, silo and double crib. The discovery is surprising, as his workshop played such a central role in all his tasks and organizational activities that it is difficult to imagine his farm apart from the shop.


At the time of the shop’s construction, Hans installed a blacksmithing forge, which he used extensively. He devised numerous tools tailor-made to address the emerging needs of his expanding farm activities. This exhibit features several of those tools.


So that he could work in his shop year round, Hans installed an old steam boiler engine to heat the space in the winter months. He was vigilant in keeping all aspects of his farm in good repair. The shop became the center for his repairing and maintenance activity, as well as for his ingenious problem-solving activities. In the mid-1940’s, Hans was able to move his shop capabilities dramatically forward. Rural electrification came to the area in 1942, and, in 1945, Hans was to realize a longtime dream with the addition of an electric welder to his shop.



Hans Hansen in his workshop, 1950


Hans Hansen’s workshop was the heartbeat of his farm. In this shop, he devised and crafted numerous tools which he used to conquer a range of problems that presented themselves during the course of day-to-day farm operations. In was in his shop that he continuously refined his management of tasks through ingenious solutions.


This photograph was taken as part of the preparatory work for an article on Hans Hansen and his farm appearing in The Cedar Rapids Gazette in December 1950. The article appears in a full printout elsewhere in this exhibit.


Augur which Hans forged

This augur was most likely one of the first tools which Hans forged in his new workshop. He used it while clearing tree stumps from his land. It was designed for efficiency of operation. Traditionally, dynamite charges were sent under stumps after dirt had been cleared away with a flat, narrow spade. The augur allowed Hans to bore a direct path through the dirt to the underside of the stump so that he could place the dynamite charge where it would have maximum efficiency. It was a more direct, less time consuming approach than using a spade.

Log cutting activity at the Hansen sawmill, 1992

Walter Hansen continued to use the sawmill when he took over farm operations, though the demand for custom sawing dwindled significantly, as farming methods underwent dramatic changes. The photographs here document the sawing of a large cottonwood log from which Walter cut numerous 1 x 12 boards.





Sometime during the first year of his mill operation, Hans broke one of his legs below the knee when a log shifted. He was anxious to repay the loan for the mill and had a great deal of lumber to cut that winter in order to meet requirements for the neighbor’s barns. So as to not lose time, but still allow his leg to heal, he devised a special knee-high crutch with a sling on which he could place the knee of his broken leg, allowing him to keep his weight off the lower part of his injured leg. In this manner, he was able to proceed with work at the sawmill. The first year he erected a makeshift shelter to protect the engine. The following year he was able to build a 20 foot by 80 foot shed to accommodate both the mill and the engine.




Hans Hansen was a mason and carpenter by trade. He did carpentry work in Cedar Rapids for a period.


News photo of Hans repairing threshing machine:


Hans worked extensively with his farm machinery. He did all his own repairs. Develop . . . He is seen wearing the pouch which he manipulated to fit in his coveralls


[1] Walter estimates that Hans would have fulfilled his loan obligation for the sawmill within the first two to three years of its operation.

[2] Over the years, nearly two million board feet of lumber were sawed at the mill.

[3] The cooperative took its name from a small town in the immediate area. The farmers organized as a cooperative as it was, at that time, their only viable option for harvesting their grain. The option of custom work was not available in their area. The initial membership numbered about 15 farmers, but that number gradually decreased. Some lost their farms during the depression. The school house referenced in the cooperative’s by-laws was the rural school attended by the farmers’ children. In this school, all of Hans’ children completed grades one through eight.