­VESA OJA

 

Streets Lined with Gold

 

   My uncle Eino left Riihimäki in South Finland in 1928, at the age of 23. He followed the route taken by emigrants from the port of Hanko to Stockholm and from there to Gothenburg, where he boarded the SS Drottningholm that took him, via England to Halifax in Canada. Eino settled at Sioux Lookout in North Western Ontario in the middle of an area inhabited by Ojibway Indians. The town was a lively location on the transcontinental railroad, with logging and mining activities in the large surrounding area.

   Eino started working in a goldmine in Jackson Manion, Northern Ontario. He had worked on the railroad in Finland since the age of 15 and in Canada he found work as a carpenter with the Canadian National Railway Company. He was on the company's bridge and building crew – B&B gang, repairing and building bridges and train stations. Eino met Hanna, who had come from Lapinlahti Finland to Canada in 1930 to work as maid; they were married and built a small house.

   Eino and Hanna had two daughters, Agnes and Margaret. Hanna then became suddenly ill and died, leaving Eino alone with the two little girls. My aunt Mirjami came from Finland to help. This was in the early 1950s. At Sioux Lookout, Mirjami met Sulev, an Estonian. They moved to the mining town of Sudbury, Ontario and were married.  Eino was again alone with his daughters and the three of them had to manage on their own.

 

Tracing Eino and Mirjami 

 

   I visited Mirjami and Sulev in 1972. Owing to the emissions of its nickel smelting plant Sudbury was a treeless and gloomy town. Sulev was a foreman in the mine and Mirjami taught Finnish to the children of immigrants.  When I visited Sudbury they had just moved into a new house.

A few years later, Mirjami fell seriously ill with cancer. A fund was established in her memory at the Laurentian University of Sudbury providing grants for students of Finnish and Estonian descent. I never met Eino, who had died from the after-effects of a sudden stroke in 1960.

   I set out to look for traces of my uncle and aunt in 2004. Guided by my cousins, we drove to Sioux Lookout, stopping along the way to meet their friends and acquaintances on Finns Bay Road on the shore of Lake Huron. There, in Lily's sauna, I got the idea to photograph the descendants of Finnish immigrants. I listened to 94-year-old Lily correcting the way her friend Ilmi spoke, as Lily felt that Finglish –Finnish mixed with English words – was not a proper language, while Ilmi had never heard any other kind of Finnish.

   At Sioux Lookout we stayed in a comfortable house built by Eino still standing on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Prince Street. There were still childhood friends of my cousins in the neighbourhood, but most of the residents of the town are Ojibway Indians. Passenger traffic on the railroad ended years ago, but there are still freight trains.

 

Temples of labour and heaven

 

   On my many travels I have photographed and talked with hundreds of American and Canadian Finns and their descendants. I've heard unbelievable stories – happy, tragic and touching accounts of what life far away from Finland brought with it. I have photographed places that exemplify Finnish immigrant history — including landscapes, and churches and halls that were built through the volunteer efforts of the congregations and organizations that used them. I have driven tens of thousands of miles, touring the Great Lakes area on several occasions, and I've been to Butte, St. Louis, Red Lodge, Miami, Palm Beach, San Francisco, Oregon and the fells of Alaska, as listed in their Finglish versions by the American-Finnish singer and songwriter Hiski Salomaa in his classic song Lännen lokari (The Logger of the West) from 1930.

   Hiski was a Wobbly –  tuplajuulainen ("double u-er")  in Finnish –  a member of the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW believed in one big union and direct action. Finns in the United States and Canada were also active in socialist and communist organizations, as well as the co-operative movement. In the 1920s almost half of all the members of the Communist Party of the United States were Finns. In the 1930s some of them went to build Soviet Karelia and met with a tragic fate during Stalin's purges; only few of them survived. All the different groups had their own newspapers, the syndicalists published Industrialisti, the socialists Raivaaja and the communists issued Työmies-Eteenpäin.  Disputes weakened and finally split the left-wing workers' movement.

   Finnish left-wing organizations, temperance associations and the Finnish-nationalist Kaleva movement built hundreds of halls in different parts of North America. The Kaleva organization  still has the Knights and Ladies of Kaleva, originally founded as a secret society, and focusing on charity and maintaining Finnish culture.

Alongside political movements, various pastimes drew Finns together. Drama societies, choirs and sports clubs thrived. People travelled long distances to listen to Viola Turpeinen's orchestra. There are still many halls, but only a few of them are owned by Finns.

   Religious communities, Evangelical – Suomi Synodi, National - Kansalliskirkko and Apostolic Lutherans - Lestadiolainen, as well as Finnish Congregationalists - Vapaakirkko and Finnish Pentecostals  - Helluntailainen, each built their own places of worship throughout the North American Finntowns. For example, the small community of Atlantic Mine, Michigan has three Finnish Lutheran churches of which two are Apostolic Lutherans; two of them existing side-by-side and sharing a parking lot.

   All the different groups had their places for spending the summer on the lakeshore, sometimes next to each other like the Kaleva movement's Sampo Beach and the cooperatives' Co-op Beach near Duluth, Minnesota.

   Finns also founded utopian communities, which, however, disbanded due to changing economics and inner disputes. The best-known one was Sointula, headed by the charismatic Matti Kurikka on Malcolm Island (Fi. Malkosaari) on the west coast of Canada in the early 1900s. When Sointula failed, Kurikka was expelled, but undaunted he founded a second community near Vancouver, British Columbia called Sammon Takojat. A cooperative farm was also launched in Jesup, Georgia in the United States and a similar venture in Redwood Valley, California. Descendants of the Finnish immigrants still live in these communities.

 

Finnish baking and folk dances

 

   Many descendants of Finnish immigrants maintain their Finnish identity at the annual national festivals Finn Fest USA and Canadian Grand Festival - Suurjuhlat. Wilho Saari plays the stringed kantele; people dance to the Finn Hall Band; Conga Se Menne [a wordplay on “Kuinka se menee?” (How’s it going?)] plays American Finnish reggae; Jorma Kaukonen plays roots music on the guitar and talks are given by Finnish American, Finnish Canadian and Finnish historians.

   Over the generations, everyday life has become American or Canadian. Mementoes of Finland in homes consist of flags, ornamental objects and national costumes.  The tools and implements of grandparents may be kept and Finnish cuisine is cherished. Younger generations learn to bake traditional Finnish pulla coffee bread, Karelian pasties or rye bread using starter passed on from a grandmother.

   Some second and third generation immigrants still speak Finnish. In many cases it is the dialect of their parents' home regions, of a kind that is no longer heard in Finland. The Finnish spoken by some gains an extra flavour from English, or Finglish vocabulary, with words such as peikkaa – bake, äpylipai – apple pie, pilttaa –build, neepörhut – neighbourhood, tauni – town and many others.

   Children and grandchildren can be sent to the Finnish summer camp Salolampi at Concordia College in Bemidji, Minnesota, while many senior citizens migrate for the winter to the Finnish communities in Florida. The Finn Hall culture still thrives at the Finland House – Suomi Talo in Lantana and at the American Finnish Club – Kerhotalo in Lake Worth, where visitors can have a Finnish pancake breakfast, dance, sing karaoke or use a library. There is also a Finnish bakery selling Karelian pasties, and Irma's hairdressing salon.

   Homesickness for Finland can also be assuaged by watching Carl Pellonpää's "Finland Calling" television program from Michigan on the Internet or by listening to Osmo Kanerva's "Finnish Window" radio show from Florida. Trips to the old country are arranged every summer.

 

Finntowns and farm country

 

   The old Finntowns of the cities have dried up. African Americans first moved to Finntown in Harlem, and now the middle class of New York is buying apartments there. Expensive investment condos have been built at the legendary 5th Avenue Finnish Hall. A few Finns still live in old cooperative apartment buildings in Brooklyn´s Finntown. Puerto Ricans and Chinese have moved into the area and the affluent white middle class may yet discover the fine row houses of Sunset Park, known in Finnish as Pukinmäki – Goat Hill. The old Finnish churches and halls are now used by other immigrant groups.

   The vast majority of the descendants of Finnish immigrants still live in the Great Lakes region in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario. Many Finnish farm communities have emptied as the youth joined their American and Canadian neighbours to study and work in metropolitan areas. When they can, they return to their cabins and saunas along lakes - to sauna, to fish and feel connected to Finland.

 

From Finland to become Americans

 

   The stories of Eino and Mirjami are part of the history of hundreds of Finns, who set out to find streets lined with gold in North America. There are almost 800,000 of their descendants throughout the continent. Finns emigrated in the hope of a better life and future, because of hunger or to escape conscription in the Russian army. They worked in mines, factories, construction, logging or in domestic service, usually in occupations where hardly any language skills were needed. They would save for their dream, a farm of their own, and they would remember a homeland to which they would never returned by giving their communities names such as Kaleva, Elo, Toivola, Nisula, Heinola, Onnela and Suomi.

   Eino and Hanna, the parents of my cousins born in Sioux Lookout in Canada were completely Finnish. But their grandchildren, all born in the United States, are fourth-generation American Finns, or because of intermarriage may also be American Polish, American French and American English, depending on which side of their family is asked. They are thus typical Americans.

 

FINGLISH Vesa Oja, Musta Taide 2013, ISBN 978-952-292-004-1

 

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