How do you find and fuel your passion?
When I daydream about my early retirement, I get lots of ideas and before long, I have too much planned than I will have time for. Eventually, I’ll be able to strike some experiences off the list, and the roster of ideas may become more manageable.
Or, exploring one avenue may lead me down several alternate paths, and I’ll be busier, while learning more and having more fun, than ever.
Others may know exactly what they want to do with their free time. And they may devote vast amounts of time and resources to following that passion and making their dream a reality.
Find & Fuel Your Passion: Lakenenland, A Yooper Story
One such man is Tom Lakenen.
Tom, at age 53, is not retired, but he works a unique schedule that affords him plenty of time to devote to his passion.
What is that passion?
Take your favorite hobby, and imagine it has a volume knob. And that knob goes to eleven. Good. Now turn it to eleven.
Now, imagine that hobby is creating art in the form of sculptures from scrap metal. Next, create more art than you can fit on your own backyard.
Next, refinance your mortgage to purchase 40 acres outside of town between the highway and the snowmobile trail. Create a long and winding road so that visitors can drive, walk, bike, or snowmobile the path among the sculptures you place there for the public, free of charge.
This sensational place, that previously existed only in a Dr. Seuss tale, needs a name. Your name. Lakenenland it is.
Lakenenland rivals Gerald McGrew’s Zoo with about 7 dozen sculptures, some of which are nearly 30 feet tall, but it’s missing something. Fishing ponds? Yes, add a couple of those.
An elevated bog walk? Definitely. A firepit for the snowmobilers? Absolutely. How about a performance stage, a picnic pavilion, and the fanciest outhouse you ever did your dirty business in? Check, check, and check.
As an occasional visitor, I’ve become more intrigued by the roadside attraction, more interested in the story behind it all, and more impressed by the never-ending expansion. Some pieces tell a story; others make a statement. Some look like they belong in a town square; others are kitschy fun. Some clearly have a very personal meaning for the sculptor.
I’m an anesthesiologist, not a journalist, but I do have a voice and a growing following, so I decided to reach out to the man behind the welder’s mask via e-mail. Tom graciously agreed to meet with me at a mutually agreed upon spot. Lakenenland, of course.
Meeting Tom Lakenen
I had planned on arriving between 11 a.m. and noon, but got an early start to my day and showed up before 9 a.m. As I pulled in, there was one couple parking in the lot, and a teenager whipping weeds in the ditch.
The teenager stepped out of the ditch and removed his goggles, greeting me with a smile, and I realized that he was no teenager, but a youthful appearing man in his early fifties who does absolutely everything on the property, including whipping weeds in ditches.
Tom suggested we grab a seat in the shade of the one-of-a-kind pavilion. He offered me coffee and some cookies that were destined to be shared with other guests via the cabinets alongside the firepit, where a fire was still smoldering from the night before.
Over the course of about 80 minutes, the friendliest rebel you’ll ever meet shared stories about his past, his park, some local politics, and candidly answered the questions that had been on my mind since my first stroll through the park a couple years ago.
The Origin Story
Tom was not a fan of authority in high school.
He found a way to spend the entire school day at a local trade school learning to weld. The high school insisted that he at least step foot on school grounds each day to receive credit for coming to school or he wouldn’t graduate. Tom called their bluff, not wanting their rules to interfere with his ability to get the most out of the trade school opportunity.
He graduated from high school and joined the Pipefitter’s union at age 18 as a welder. After about 20 years, at the end of which there were major issues with the pension fund, he transitioned to the Boilermakers union, where he has spend the last 15 years or so.
In the beginning of the 21st Century the retiree’s of Upper Michigan’s pipefitter local Union #506 rode off into the sunset aboard this ship, taking along with them the entire pension fund and leaving the working member’s stranded on a Dester Island. This historic event gradually lad to the End of local #506. Sincere, Temporary Tom Once a Proud Member!
The boilermaker job is what Mike Rowe would describe as a dirty job. It typically requires living on location near a coal power plant, working seven 12-hour days a week, tearing out tons of machinery to be replaced in the spring and fall when the plants can afford to be idle.
When Tom was about my current age of 40, he was working hard and drinking harder.
When I was in college, some of my friends’ colleges celebrated an unofficial case day once a year, a day in which some people I know would test their tolerance and stupidity in an attempt to put away an entire case of beer in 24 hours.
With newfound time on his idle hands, Tom started collecting scrap iron from his jobs and cutting and welding them into animals and other unique creations. When his back yard filled up, a piece or two ended up in the front yard. The township Board called it signage, which wasn’t allowed in a residential area.
Tom is not a fan of authority in adulthood.
When he couldn’t reason with the Chocolay township Board, he began looking for a new home for his sculptures. He found a man with 40 acres, minus a 2.5 acre easement for the recreational trail passing through, about 8 miles from home, for better or worse, in the same township.
He put up a sign, cleared out some brush and stumps, and started placing his sculptures around the property in 2003. Over the years, the sculptures have multipled, and features have been added. His mother created signs for the bog walk.
His father has been memorialized, along with the son of the man who provided two massive railway frog points in this nearly finished piece that makes the accurate statement “Cancer Sucks.”
Tom is a generous man, not only making his fantasyland open for free to almost everyone (no trespassing for Board members), but he also hosts daily fires for snowmobilers in the winter, complete with snacks, coffee, and hot chocolate. He built a log shelter and outdoor toilet for hikers on the North Country Trail.
How does he fuel this passion?
Tom is not a wealthy man; he will not be retiring early. He is relying on at least one, and hopefully two pensions and social security, and he plans to work another 12 years or so.
Nearly all of the materials for his sculptures and structures have been given to him or collected from his various job sites. He occasionally spends $100 here or $200 there, or barters with items of nominal value, like a box of donuts.
He does accept donations, although he refuses to consider non-profit status. Too much governmental regulation. He occasionally checks the donation box. Several years ago, Dr. Ken Buran asked him if he had checked the box recently.
The answer was “no,” and Tom was pleasantly surprised to find a $2,000 check from the good doctor that had been sitting uncashed for months. Tom was wanting to build a pavilion, and Dr. Buran gave him the additional $10,000 he would need to do it right, and got his name engraved on the massive fireplace.
Donations like that are hard to come by. Tom’s stepson started a GoFundMe campaign on his stepfather’s behalf, hoping to raise $10,000 to help fund several projects at the park.
Tom is not retired, or even semi-retired, but I think I’ve got a good sense of what will keep him busy when he is. In the meantime, Tom works crazy hours on location in the fall and spring, leaving his summers and winters free to create, curate, and maintain his passion project.
What is Your Passion?
It is often said that you should plan on retiring to something, not just from something. I found Tom’s story to be profoundly inspirational. Some people build ships inside bottles to display on their mantle. Tom builds massive and creative sculptures to display in his own namesake Land. And he’s not even retired yet.
Imagine what he’ll be capable of doing when he’s got 365 days a year to devote to Lakenenland.
Personally, I don’t know what my passion will be. If the next 40 years are anything like the first 40, I will probably jump from one interest to another, and I could rattle off a dozen or more hobbies and fields that I’d love to explore in greater depth.
Maybe I’ll pick up welding.
Would you like to help Tom & Lakenenland?
How can you help?
Share this post via any of the buttons at the bottom of this post. GoFundMe claims a Facebook share can be worth $30. I don’t know if that’s true, but it costs you nothing to share!
Visit Lakenenland & Say Hi to Tom for me. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is beautiful!
Give $10, $20, $50 or more to help meet the GoFundMe goal. Before this post, we’ve got $5,460 to go.
For More Information
Detroit Free Press article: Whimsical welder welcomes snowmobilers to his U.P. park (with video)
Letter to the Editor from Tom Lakenen: Lakenenland being harassed by township
[Disclaimer: Prior to reaching out to Mr. Lakenen about a week ago, we have had no financial or other relationship. Now, I consider him a friend.]
26 thoughts on “Find & Fuel Your Passion: Lakenenland, A Yooper Story”
Tom…Wondering if your father (or maybe grandfather) was a high school teacher in Wyoming,Mi ?
Our Mr Lakenen was a great teacher, and he always told us about having to ski to get to his school when he was a young boy.
As a troll (because I live ‘below’ the bridge in Michigan), I’ve visited the UP many times and am happy to say I’ve been to Lakenenland several times, both by car and snowmobile. I gathered some of the story from reading the signs there but never the full background and also didn’t realize it’s just since 2003. That means my first time would’ve been in the first few years! Thanks for filling in more of his journey – we were just talking about taking the nephews to the UP next year since they’ve never been and this was a good reminder to visit again since my last stop would’ve been in 2013, definitely some new stuff since then.
PS- We’ve done the waterfall photograph touring a few times so I think I know a fair amount of the area from Paradise to Marquette, but I may still email you for your tips next year as I wouldn’t be surprised to be missing a few things.
I was so excited to see your interview with a Yooper! As someone who spent 10 years living (and going to school) in the UP, I’ve probably driven by Lakenenland dozens of times and always wondered about the back story. I will definitely make it a point to stop by and check it out the next time we are driving through.
Thanks for sharing Tom’s story!
We love it up there. I’ll admit to driving by quite a few times not knowing what in the world was up with those roadside statues. I had no idea how much more there was to the park and the story.
I’m glad curiosity finally got the best of me.
This is awesome!! Kinda reminds me of the man in Italy who built an all wood amusement park, Ai Pioppi near Venice.
I am definitely adding this to my place to visit…and its geographically desire able for the Chicago gal. 🙂
Thanks for the great read!
Ai Pioppi looks pretty sweet, too. Thanks for sharing, Miss Mazuma.
From Chicago, you can do a nice Lake Michigan loop, hitting up Lake Superior’s south shore as well. Jim Collins did it on a 10-speed bicycle when he was younger, although he admits to taking the ferry across rather than bike through Gary, Indiana.
I don’t blame him.
Thanks, Great article, can’t believe you remembered all that and got it all correct. And a big THANK YOU for the go fund me thing, it will all be used on the park, every cent, Thanks.
Was nice meeting you and hope to see you when your passing thru again. Thanks, Tom Lakenen
p.s. Thanks to everyone who read this and is helping support the park, I am truly grateful.
And thank you,Tom, for all that you do. Lakenenland is amazing!
Current Hobbies: Teaching & taking yoga, and I can very much see that continuing into retirement (early or on time).
I’ve seen my dad join boards & committees in his retirement. Other than generally being home for a healthy lunch, he seems as busy as when he was working.
My mom ended up on the board of her retirement community as Secretary and boy is that a lot of work! I’ve been witness to a few t-cons and I now know where the title “bored” meeting comes from! She also volunteers at a local animal shelter, walking dogs one or two days a week. Last summer she crafted like crazy making dresses to donate to a school so kids would have something new to wear.
With parents like that I am 100% confident I’ll stay plenty busy in retirement.
Great story on Tom & his creative outlet. Makes me want to visit Michigan. 🙂
Holy cow, this is cool. The UP has been on my mind a lot lately and this will part of a future road-trip. I paid it forward by dropping him a Ulysses.
That’s awesome. Thank you very much! Let me know if and when you plan a U.P. trip in your upcoming early retirement. I’ve got lots of travel tips.
Fantastic story PoF. Similar to Tom, I quit any kind of drinking once I had kids…and I’m definitely better for it.
While I’m only newly ER’ed, I’ve started to rediscover my passions that were almost forgotten since childhood. With any luck I’ll be able to foster those in the years to come.
Dropping paid employment and alcohol… that would certainly free up some time. Just wait until the boys are both in school all day. This is the first year we’ll have that situation at home.
That’s an awesome story, not just the Lakenenland portion, the guy’s whole life story. Thanks for sharing! I think all of us have a similar spirit of retiring and giving back to the community, maybe not by running a 40 acre park. But many of us will do more volunteer work and in some way even blogging counts as that; giving inspiration and financial insights to others. Not quite as backbreaking as putting the sculptures together, of course.
Yes, we toil away in our comfy chairs in our climate controlled offices, typing away and trying to figure out WordPress. But I do see how we are providing a service and pursuing our passions in our own way. There is a particular joy in putting together a great post and sharing it with the world. Or in my case, 0.0000001% of the world.
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Thank you Chris Duncan for the donation to Lakenenland! Tom will be pleased.
Thanks for sharing this inspirational story. So many of us lose track of time or fritter it away with email and trying to find the end of the internet. This man has been more productive than most of us combined and serves his entire community generously.
I love to read, to learn, to travel, and to spend time in nature, but that doesn’t provide much benefit for the rest of the world. Maybe my blog is my way to give back, and this is a kick in the pants to step it up!
“trying to find the end of the internet.” Sounds like a great time waster, indeed. At the end is a kitten playing in a pot of gold.
A big Thank You to Scott Morse, who chose to support Lakenenland via the GoFundMe page this morning. Much appreciated!
Great story! A lot of love went into that place. I am cranking it up on my hobbies, but it’s surprising how little time there is in a day. This guy really has some passion, to do all that while still working. Now I gotta get moving on my art projects.
Most early retirees report that they’re busier than ever, doing what they want to do instead of what they have to do.
That’s pretty awesome and a great way to replace a bad hobby with a great one! Thanks for the interview and exposure to such a cool place. Definitely on the list of places to check out when we do some summer road trips in the future.
I’ve realized recently that like you, my “want to do’s” in retirement are already too much stuff going on and realistically I’ll just do what I’ve always done. Get involved with a hobby for a while, then do another one, then another, and circle back to the first one. It’s sort of like seasons. 🙂
If only we could all be lucky enough to find something we’re as passionate about as Tom is. Those are some excellent pieces!
Somehow, he can find the time to create this wondrous place.
Meanwhile, I can’t find the time to clean out my garage. I think I will benefit as much or more from better time management than I will from early retirement.
Wow great interview and awesome work, Tom! Quite a story. I love your passion and I’m sure the community loves it too. I grew up in the Midwest but never made it up to the upper peninsula. When I do someday I will look forward to checking out Lakenenland in person!
There’s so much else to see and do UP there after you visit Lakenenland. Someday, I’d like to spend a week in the fall just photographing waterfalls.