Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lakenenland




It's said "a picture is worth a thousand words" and there're three of 'em up there, so in theory I've gone way past my word count for today. But even a photographer must admit, pictures only rarely tell a whole story...

Folk say these Untied States nurture people who go their own way, strike their own path, march to a different drummer. Depend not on ye stinkin' government for help and enterprise will clear the way for the rugged individual currently napping inside most of us.

Unlike the Brits, we don't belittle our characters as "eccentrics". We say they're American originals and hold them as emblematic of the indomitable character of a Great People born to reap the benefits of personal liberty. We celebrate our characters in story and song.

Sometimes, what folk say is even true. Sometimes it's not. In Tom Lakenen's case, it's a bit of both.

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Having given up drinking and not being one to sit around in front of the TV, Tom Lakenen took up metal sculpture using scrap materials salvaged from construction sites.


He placed his work in his front yard until served notice by the good Burghers of Chocolay Township that they preferred otherwise and under pain of civil penalty too. Tom moved his sculptures to his backyard, but soon his work eclipsed the space.

So Tom bought a new space: a sizable slice of unwanted acreage along Michigan Highway 28 -- long logged over, empty of commerce, abused & neglected, zoned for near any use but hard to the thoroughfare either into or out of Marquette and just across the pavement from Lake Superior. A nice location. And sadly, still in Chocolay Township.

Though he'd never seen one, Tom set about to build a Sculpture Park. Appropriately, he named his place "Lakenland".


The Chocolay Township Board promptly set about its civic duty to harass him. Kept it up for some years, they did. I'll not recount that story here and we'll allow one of Tom's many letters to suffice except to say the repeated harassment was transparent in both method & means; typical of governmental wrongheadedness so much in the news these days.

Now, a lesser man would have succumbed. But Tom Lakenen is no lesser man. He's an American original, an individual and rural character at that. Tom persisted. While being harassed, he kept building those sculptures and improving his land, with the place kept open to all comers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and never an admission charge for anyone ever. A sign reads: "Donations are appreciated but not expected" and Tom means that.

Tom Lakenen built his Sculpture Park. Today it includes over 80 sculptures, two fishing ponds for kids and a band shell where local musicians perform free concerts. Tom even built a wooden boardwalk so visitors can safely stroll through a small cedar swamp on his property. 

Throughout, the harassment of Tom by the Chocolay Township Board continued apace.

Then through a bit of legal chicanery, a smart & sympathetic lawyer had Tom Lakenen's name placed on the original 1880's Federal Land Grant for the property. That translated into Tom's ownership of his land predating the existence of Chocolay Township and thus its Board, legally speaking. Which then left Tom in possession of certain Federal rights, granting him a measure of protection from the whims of his neighbors.

Even with pictures to help tell the tale, ongoing stories have many sides, with some narrative threads not satisfactorily resolved, or with root causes resolutely obscure. Such is life. Freshly empowered, Tom put up his unusually specific No Trespassing signs. The harassment abated, though I'm told Chocolay Township raised the taxes on Tom's home each year ever since, right straight through this latest Depression.

Tom Lakenen gives back to his community, as best his considerable industry and skills allow. People need good free fun, especially in hard times. Lakenland thrives:





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It's popular these days to say government impedes progress, it's myriad rules and regulations strangle innovation and even that American Government is the enemy of Liberty. Lots of folk seem to believe that and, as a child come to awareness in Chicago during the 60's, you'll understand I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the view, especially that last part.

But here's the deal: of all our government entities, it's the Feds who're explicitly charged with seeing each and every one of us receives the equal treatment under the law that as Americans is our due, with over 200 years of Federal law written expressly to help nudge that unlikely premise towards actuality. This great, messy pile of accumulated law protects our right to be who we choose and contribute as best we might. And to freely reject any & all who tell us we should just leave things up to them.



So come November, when you go to the polls and the chants of vested self-interests ring your ears with demands to strip the Feds of power so regular folk can wrest control of their own destinies, pause for a moment over the story of Tom Lakenen.

Consider that the most vindictive sons of bitches you'll ever meet in your life are overwhelmingly likely to crop up from amongst family, friends and neighbors. Bet on it.

And that without recourse to our stumbling, half-assed, towering Babel of American Federal glory, you'd have scant protection from them at all.


At any rate, what's inarguable is that by the time I headed out of Lakenenland long about midday, Tom's place positively crawled with kids and their families. Parents smiled warmly at their charges, whose peals of excited laughter rang throughout. And no one had to pay for their fun.

On some warm summer night should you happen to pass by on the way to one place or the other, when just a hint of a breeze wafts in from the lake and over M-28 to caress a few acres of once neglected land, you might even find a concert taking place. That'll be an ongoing celebration of American individualism you're always free to just drop in on, if you choose. No charge.

But when you visit Lakenland and provided you can afford it, please go right ahead and drop a fiver in the bin, though Tom doesn't ask that and won't ever expect it. Do it because we say we celebrate folk like Tom Lakenen. 

Do it for who we claim to be, 'cause Tom proves it true.

10 comments:

  1. I'm so glad I read this. I'm smiling, Frank.

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  2. It sounds trite but in this case it's true -- Tom's place brings smiles to kids of all ages.

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    1. I truly enjoyed your blog. Tom is a pleasant man and visits in all seasons are much enjoyed

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    2. Thank-you. I don't know of any place around the Basin or maybe even anywhere that exists more purely for the sheer joy of it. And everyone's invited to share, any time. "Hero" is defined in a lot of different ways and for my money, Tom is that.

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    1. Thanks. Be sure to check back in, as summer's likely to prove quite the ride. And by all means, if you like what you see, please spread the word...

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  4. I am from Marquette and have enjoyed Lakenenland several times. Lucky we are that Tom has persevered and continued to create as he has. Thank you for writing about him.

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  5. Apart from everything else the man's done, the sculptures are quite the thing. As I travel around the lake, I've seen a resurgence in what's called "arts & crafts", something America used to be famous for. An any list of those new craftsmen, Tom & his work would have to be right there...

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  6. As a Marquette resident I enjoy taking many visitors to Lakenenland! It is such a great place that shows off Tom's great talents and generosity!

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    1. Tom's one of my Superior Basin heroes. What he's accomplished and -- as importantly -- how & why he's done it, is an inspiration.

      Thanks so much for stopping by.

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