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My Great-Grandmother: The Life of Anna Törrö

Joanna Hoekstra

Between the years of 1880 to 1920 about 25 million immigrants came to the United States looking for a new life. Of these, 90 % started their American experience on Ellis Island. One of these immigrants was my great-grandmother, Anna Elizabeth Törrö.

Born in 1906, she was the daughter of Abram and Wilhelmiina Törrö. Abram and Wilhelmiina had five children in Finland, Anna being the youngest. Her siblings were: Hilda, John, Abram, and Charles. They lived in Pudasjärvi, Finland where her father Abram, floated logs and herded reindeer for a living. In 1907 he, like many others before him, left all he knew to start a new life for the family in America.

Abram left because he believed a better life with more opportunities could be found for his family in what was being called "The Land of Gold". There wasn't enough money for the whole family to all come together, so Abram came over by himself to find a job, a home, and enough money to send for the rest of the family.

The first employment he got was working in a mine in Hurontown. After working and saving for almost three years, he had raised enough money by 1909 that he was able to send for Wilhelmiina and young Anna who was only three years old. It took them three weeks on the boat to get to Ellis Island. They were followed a year later by Anna's brothers, John and Charlie. Hilda, being the oldest, was left with relatives to wait until her father raised more money. When the funds were obtained, a family already returning to Finland was asked if they would bring Hilda to rejoin her family. This family, however, took the money and used it instead to buy passage for their own children. Hilda was left in Finland and died at the age of fifteen, having never seen America. Baby Abram never came to the United States either as he died when he was just an infant.

Abram stayed at first with his cousins, the Moilanens in Elo, but later moved into the poikatalo, or boarding house, in Hurontown. After his wife and children came over and he was injured in the mine, they moved back to Elo, staying with their relatives until their own house was built in Tapiola in 1912 on a forty acre plot of land. When the Törrö family moved from Elo to Tapiola, Anna remembered stopping along the way at the Tarvis farm to rest the horses and being given fresh buttered bread and coffee. Abram found work in the Tapiola woods as a logger.

The rest of the Törrö children - Armas, Martha, Urho, Hugo, Theodore, Donald, Eino, Impi, Viola, and Irene were born and raised in the two story log house in Tapiola. They had no televisions or movies to occupy the children's time so they made their own fun. In the summer they fished, played baseball and swam in the river. My great-grandmother once said that her brother Armas and sister Martha almost drowned in the river, but older brother Charlie caught and saved them just in time. In the winter they skied and went sledding. She said that one year her brother John built her a toboggan out of a four foot piece of log which he split in half and carved into the shape of a ski.

Of course there were always chores to do. Anna often baby-sat not only for her younger siblings but also for some of the neighbors' children. As well, she and her brothers and sisters carried the neighbors mail for them. In the summer they would walk and carry as much mail as they could. In the winter they used skis. As a teenager, Anna earned her own money by trapping weasels and rabbits. With the money she earned, she bought her first pair of new shoes.

When she was seventeen, Anna married Victor Petrelius after a six month courtship. They had eight children - Dorothy, Edsel, Margaret, Robert, Ruth, Hazel, Donald, and Richard. Robert and Ruth were twins. Like the previous generation, they also had to entertain themselves. They played games like Hide and Seek, Kick the Can, and baseball. During the long winter they played in the snow and even went sledding in the morning before school. My grandmother, Margie, also remembers being given two weeks off of school in order to pick potatoes for local farmers in the fall.

Growing up during the Great Depression and the following years, money was scarce, but food sure wasn't. Anna's growing family raised their own cows, chickens, pigs, and even a few sheep. There was always fresh meat, butter, milk, and eggs. Anna made nisua, juustoa, tarts, head cheese and she also canned things like meat, vegetables, apples, rhubarb, and plums. She fed her family on salted fish and dried beef as well as other traditional Finnish foods. During the summer, meals were prepared and eaten in a small detached building called a "summer kitchen" to avoid heating up the main house and sleeping quarters.

Suddenly, at the age of forty-eight, Victor died of what was probably a stroke. Anna was left alone to raise the children. About three weeks after the death of her husband, her son Richard died at the age of five from Meningitis. Finally after almost eight years of being a widow, she met and married a Danish man named Nels Plough.

Anna's youngest sister told me a very sweet story about how Anna and Nels fell in love. Nels was driving Anna home from sauna at her father's house, and he reached over and patted her on the knee and told her that it was a love tap. It was then that Anna realized there was a new love in her life. Before they were married Nels jokingly told her that he wouldn't marry her unless she was an American citizen. He also teased Anna's father, Abram, saying that he should also become an American citizen or they might send him back to Finland. Abram didn't seem too concerned, as his reply was, "Me no give sit!" He may not have cared, but Anna did became naturalized at a late time in her life. She soon married Nels in Laurium. In 1954 they moved to Houghton. During this time Nels taught Anna how to drive a car. Her license gave her a new lease on life, and together the two of them spent much time on the road visiting family and friends in the area. Anna drove until she was almost eighty years old. Anna worked at the Trimountain Hospital before she was married. She later worked at what is now called the Houghton County Medical Care until 1960 when she got so sick that she couldn't go back to work. Ironically, more than thirty years later, she was a patient there. Anna and Nels moved back to Tapiola in 1961, and she lived in that community for the rest of her life until she died in 1997 at the ripe old age of ninety-one. Throughout her life, the church was very important to Anna. The fellowship in being with people of the Christian faith meant a great deal to her and she attended church as often as she could.

Anna did go back to Finland in the early 1970's and said that she loved the trip, but she found it was enough for her to return once. This woman who braved all the dangers of a new life in America managed to fit much into her life. For a lady who only completed the third grade in school, she knew much about life. All of her family, including her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends learned a lot about life from her. None of them will ever forget her. Memories of Anna will live on forever.

© Joanna Hoekstra

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