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Alfta

A thousand years ago, Alfta was already a well-established agrarian community. There are not many stories from early Medieval Hälsingland, but according to an Icelandic saga from 1178, the Norwegian King Sverre Sigurdsson passed through the province on his way to Norway. In Alfta he encountered a band of farmers who did not want to let the King and his men pass. The saga tells us that Alfta was already Christian by that time.

The oldest church can be dated back to the 13th century, and was illustrated in a major 18th-century reference work on Hälsingland, Glysisvallur, by Hälsingland author Olof Broman. Alfta has been called the ‘breadbasket of Hälsingland’, and in the early 17th century it paid more livestock tax than any other parish in the province. The parish, which originally covered the entire fertile Voxna river valley, was divided up in 1636.

 

Alfta seen from the church tower in 1878

Alfta seen from the church tower in 1878, with Nygård farm in the foreground.
Photograph: A. Larsson, Rättvik
 

Why build big?

Farmers were always the dominant social class in Hälsingland. Hälsingland had no nobility; the farmers owned the land they farmed and ran their farms, their villages and their parishes. The farmers and their families stuck together; farms were passed from father to son, and wherever possible, farmers' daughters were married off to the sons of neighbouring farmers or ones in adjacent villages. Families can often trace their ancestry back to the 16th century.
The position of farmers in the community was reflected in the farm buildings. In the mid-19th century, railways and industry revolutionised society. New social groups appeared and competed for authority, and the old structures disintegrated. It was at this time that the farmers of Hälsingland built biggest, a pattern which was taken to extremes in the Voxna river valley.

Alfta parish contains farmhouses with up to 400 square metres of living space, with as much space again left empty on upper floors and attics. Fredric Bedoire, Professor of Architectural History, writes that this type of building work is the clearest example of an attempt to preserve an ancient dominance in agrarian society. In any event, the farmers of Hälsingland left behind a priceless cultural treasure.

 

The Great Fire in Alfta, 1793. Illustration Carl Boman

The Great Fire in Alfta, 1793
Illustration: Carl Boman
 

The Great Fire of 1793

Earlier, most of the farms in the village lay clustered round the church; all that changed one day in May 1793, when a huge fire broke out. In all, the fire engulfed 222 buildings, including the church, vicarage, court house, inn, officer’s residence and 16 big farms adjacent to the village centre. 183 people were left homeless. With only a few exceptions, the biggest and most prosperous farmhouses were lost.

A farmer’s wife from a neighbouring village was sued in court for claiming that the fire was retribution for the ‘exaggerated pride’ of the farmers. The fire was stopped at the  Åsabäcken stream, where the God-fearing farmer who farmed Per-Sjuls lived. His farm and those in the eastern side of the village centre were saved. This is why the eastern side (Östra Kyrkbyn) is where we find traces of really old settlements, for example at the farms Per-Ols, Hansers, Jonknuts, Ol-Mårs and Skindra.

 

The Central Palace by Jonas Holm, photo Agnes Andersson
The Central Palace by Jonas Holm
Photograph: Agnes Andersson
 

Alfta Kyrkby and its surroundings

The church, vicarage, school and railway station are all close together in Alfta. Ornamental woodwork (gingerbread trim) as we find it here is a rare thing, and this village is classed as the best-preserved of its type in the county. A new village was built quickly after the Great Fire of 1793. A new vicarage was completed as early as the year afterwards, and the church was completely rebuilt within a few years. The mid-19th–early 20th century was a period of rapid expansion for Alfta.

Many well-preserved buildings from around the turn of the last century remain near the church and along Långgatan street. The magnificent inn opposite the church, built in the 1870s, set the tone with its avant-garde panel architecture and glassed-in verandas.

Carpenter and master builder Jonas Holm was an important figure in most of this work. Originally from Bollnäs, he married and moved to Alfta in 1887. The strongly expansive spirit in the village suited him, and wherever there was something going on, you would find Jonas Holm.

 

The Alfta church pulpit        Details from the lavishly decorated pulpit
        Details from the lavishly decorated
        pulpit
 
       Details from the lavishly decorated pulpit
The Alfta church pulpit
Photograph: Lars Lööv
 

The pulpit – a source of inspiration

The church was rebuilt after the Great Fire. Axel Almfeldt, architect at a government Commissariat in Stockholm, designed the church and the beautifully decorated pulpit. The job of carving the pulpit was given to Olof Brunk and Pehr Tulpan, two skilled and in-demand local carpenters. Their names, and the date – 1815 – were modestly carved on the back of the pulpit.

 

Work on the pulpit would inspite Brunk and Tulpan in their future work; porches and ornamental woodwork came to be embellished with designs copied from the pulpit. Countless examples remain in the area. The Alfta rose, with its scalloped petals, has become the foremost symbol of the parish. It is still used as decoration in woodwork, jewellery and other items.

Kyrkskolan school

The Kyrkskolan school in Alfta
The Kyrkskolan school in Alfta inspired the
magnificent porch of Jon-Lars farm in Långhed.
Photograph: Ingalill Tengvall
 

The school, dating from 1847, stands next to the church. The work was directed by carpenter/farmer Hans Brunk, of Näsbyn, son of master carpenter Olof Brunk who had carved the pulpit 30 years previously. The school porch with its two pillars is Hans Brunk’s own design. The impressive wooden pillars, which are still standing, are a testament to Brunk's eye for proportion. The double doors and entrance were the inspiration for the porch of the big farm Jon-Lars in Långhed.

Hans Brunk was one of many in Alfta parish who accompanied the dissident preacher Erik Jansson to America. This emigration, which had great impact on Alfta parish, is described at the Emigrant Museum

at Ol-Anders.

 

Ol-Anders farm is by route 50 in Östra Kyrkbyn in Alfta. It used to be beside the church, but was moved to its present location after the Great Fire of 1793. The farm is the gateway to the Hälsingland Farm Trail.
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Extravagant woodwork and painting

These villages and districts contain countless examples of the extravagant mid-19th century woodwork trim and painting that are so characteristic of Alfta parish. You can see it on eaves, window casings, porches, doors, interiors and furniture. Brunkes farm, home of master carpenter and wheelwright Olof Brunk (who carved the pulpit) is located in the village of Näsbyn.


Paintings and wallpaper in an old Hälsingland farm    Paintings and wallpaper in an old Hälsingland farm

Paintings and wallpaper in an old Hälsingland farm
Photographs: Lars Lööv
                                                        

 

Farmers in Hälsingland were among the first to decorate their rooms and cottages with paintings on walls, fabric and paper. In the late 18th century, painters from Dalarna often came to decorate buildings and in the 19th century they virtually took over all wall painting work in Hälsingland. They used vivid colours to paint lively human figures, big castles and swaying trees. Nygårds Erik Andersson from Gulleråsen village in Rättvik was one of them.

 

At the Ol-Anders farm, he left a self-portrait, discreetly painted next to the fireplace. Rättvik painter Svärds Hans Ersson was another industrious man who was busy in the area. The grapevines on columns that frame decoratively painted panels are common on the farms. One of many anonymous local painters working the district is known as the ‘Blue Painter’. The wealth of paintings in Alfta and Ovanåker parishes has been inventoried and documented.
 

Text Ingalill Tengvall

 

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