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The Finns in Ohio*

Eugene Van Cleef

The United States has been developed by motley groups of peoples from numerous divergent lands, principally from European countries. Among the representatives from these foreign nations are stalwart migrants from fascinating Finland. In the course of a century or more the Finns have settled largely in our northern tier of states. Their numbers today, including those born in this country, but of foreign or mixed parentage, total 320,536. Slightly less than half of them are classified by the United States census as living in rural districts. This proportion, however, does not really present a true picture of their reaction to rural life for great numbers of those living in small to moderate sized cities own a bit of land in the surrounding rural territory or in cooperative groups share a small acreage in the city outskirts. The Finns have very strong inclinations toward an outdoor existence and, for many of those who have been caught in the swirl of urban complexities, the major ambition is to own a piece of rural mother earth.

In recent years some of the notable achievements of the Finnish people have been made known to America through the masterful contributions of the great composer, Sibelius, and of the brilliant architect, Saarinen, to mention but two outstanding figures. Symphony orchestras everywhere include in their outstanding programs "Finlandia", "Valse Triste" or other unique numbers yielded by the fertile imagination of the great Sibelius. Architect Saarinen, builder of imposing public and private structures abroad, and recently creator of artistic Cranbrook in the environs of Detroit, has left his impress upon American building design through his concept of straight line architecture.

In the field of literature the Finns have evolved a thrilling epic, the Kalevala, which takes its place along side of the Iliad of Homeric times and the German tale of the Niebelungen Lied among the world's great epics. Like the other stories, the Kalevala is a tale of the struggle for existence among the peasantry who have fought against tremendous odds set by nature in a far northern forested land. Finnish contributions to the field of art and science are slowly but surely receiving international recognition. The Finns have blazed trails in vocational education, politics, and in national prohibition. They were the first among European countries to establish universal suffrage. In fact, the women legislators of Finland represent a highly influential force in national affairs. As business experts they hold their own in the presence of the keenest competition.

Investigations of the distribution of Finns in the Lake Superior District and in New England have revealed conspicuous numbers located permanently upon farm lands or planning to develop farms. Many living in urban centers of these localities are associated with agricultural industries, particularly with dairying. Miscellaneous industries occupy others. Finns who are in the process of acquiring land usually work in factories of nearby cities, in mines, sawmills, or during the winter season at logging.

The natural habitat for the mass of these immigrants seems to be farm land located in a cool area where lakes and rivers abound and where a generous distribution of glacial boulders apparently makes them feel contented as though in the presence of many friends. The Finns live in those regions which are physically similar to the home land. Their distribution in the United States, on the whole represents a clear-cut response to geographic conditions.

In Ohio, Finnish settlement has been concentrated in the northeastern sections in close proximity to Lake Erie. Many Finns have come to these parts directly from Finland, and some from other parts of the United States, more especially from western Pennsylvania. Considerable numbers were born in Ohio. Their history of settlement here reveals the fact that they came to Lake Erie ports as early as 1880, gained employment upon the ore docks and lake vessels in the summers and hired out as lumberjacks in the woods of northeastern Ohio during the winters. In this way they accumulated some ready cash and shortly entered upon the acquisition of nearby farm lands. A scattered few practiced an intercontinental trans-humance, that is they came from Finland in the spring in time for the opening of navigation and returned to the home land at the end of the shipping season.

In view of the characteristics of their native land it is somewhat surprising to find in Ohio 12,809 Finns of whom 5,633 are foreign born. In the landscape of north-eastern Ohio there is an almost total absence of lakes, and little or no boulder-strewn area. Can it be possible that the absence of these features, usually constituting a strong attraction for the Finns, has here led to a loss of interest in farming and in rural life generally?

As industries developed in the towns of Ohio and the business of the railroads increased, immigrant Finns found numerous opportunities for permanent employment. Their ready adaptability to heavy labor and their high order of efficiency caused employers to favor them among the many nationalities which have settled in these localities. While all Finns are not large of stature nor of unusual muscular build yet enough possess such physical stamina that they have established a reputation for these qualities among manufacturers. Steel companies utilize Finns in the "hot-mill" where endurance and resistance to high temperatures are desirable attributes. They are often employed on the docks or in railroad yards where ability to lift great weights and exceptional muscular exertion in other operations are essential requisites.

The assurance of permanent employment at good salaries, it seems, temporarily banished the Ohio Finn's thoughts of farming. After working in industry for a number of years the Finn purchased a home and then as his children became adapted to an urban environment separation from an industrial life became increasingly difficult, if not wholly impossible. In fact, choice no longer played a part in shaping his destiny. To farm meant to invest practically all his savings, to assume a considerable debt and to gamble upon potential returns, whereas, immediate occupation in industry assured him of a fixed income and guaranteed to his children an education and some physical comforts such as they might not enjoy upon a pioneer farm. The permanence of settlement thus assumed a purely economic aspect. Accordingly, those Finns in Ohio engaged in agricultural pursuits today represent a very small minority, likely to become even smaller within the next few years.

Examination of the distribution of Finns within the urban centers points to a location close to the shores of Lake Erie. In Cleveland there are 1,881 Finns. Three miles north of Painesville is Fairport Harbor, a part of the metropolitan district of Painesville. It fronts upon the lake shore and here are concentrated about 2,500 Finns. Eastward from Painesville is Ashtabula with a subdivision known as Ashtabula Harbor. Most of the 3,165 Finns live in the section known as "The Harbor" located at the mouth of the Ashtabula River. Farther east, in Erie, Pennsylvania, we find a continuation of the Ohio Finnish district, and there most of the five hundred Finns live in the northern part of the city near the lake shore. This distribution raises the query as to whether Lake Erie has attracted the Finns more strongly than has the back country, which is devoid of lakes and rivers of consequence. While some Finns are inclined to doubt the lake influence, others are of the belief that not only do the lake waters attract them because of opportunities for swimming but that the chill winds off the lake satisfy the Finnish desire for a cold atmosphere.

Reference has been made to the selection of Finns by manufacturers for duties which require an ability to withstand extreme heat or to engage in work necessitating unusual muscular strain. That they can work effectively under low temperatures as well as high temperatures has been amply demonstrated in their own country as well as in the Lake Superior region where winters in some respects are even more rigorous than in Finland.

Subjection from childhood to the rigors of the steam bath and the habitation of dwellings kept at extremely high temperatures during the long cold winters may have served as a weeding-out process, leaving to survive only those persons of exceptional stamina. The Finn swears by his steam bath. To him it is a vitalizing health-giving institution unsurpassed by any other device. In the Ohio Historical Museum located upon the Ohio State University campus may be seen an exact model of a private rural bath-house. This was constructed by four Finns living in Fairport Harbor and, so far as known, is the only model of its kind in the United States.

The bath-house usually covers an area of about ten by ten feet. Along one wall is a sort of fireplace constructed of glacial boulders picked up in the vicinity of the bath-house. They are cemented together in the oldfashioned beehive shape so that a fire may be built under an arch of stones. Along two other walls of the bath-house, platforms are constructed at three levels. There may or may not be a window. The doorway, of course, is built into the fourth side.

Saturday night is the great bath night, although in the summer season the bath may be taken several nights each week. On the morning of the day of the bath, or perhaps as late as noon, a fire is kindled under the stones and maintained until bath time, that is, about six o'clock. Then the hot coals are pulled out, buckets of water are thrown upon the stones until the clouds of resultant steam fill the room. Now the bathers, perhaps an entire family, having shed their clothing in their living quarters, enter the steam-filled room and distribute themselves upon the platforms or shelves. Here they lie for a time beating themselves with bunches of birch, willow or other flexible young branches and leaves until they are "done to a turn". The upper shelves are at the hottest levels. The bathers may begin their bath here and come down to the lower platforms toward the end of the bath or they may reverse the process, starting on the lower levels and ending on the top shelf. Having developed a beautiful red glow they throw pails of cold water upon themselves, or if the bath-house is located next to a stream or lake, as is frequently the case, the bathers may plunge into those waters or, if it be winter and snow is on the ground, they may roll in the snow and then return to their living quarters to dress.

The steam bath is not exclusively a Finnish institution. One finds it throughout eastern Europe and even in Asia. In the United States, aside from the commercialized so-called Turkish bath, the steam bath generally is found only in Finnish communities. If on a Saturday evening one tours through the rural districts and sees smoke or steam issuing from small shacks scattered off in the distance, one should not be alarmed; the shacks are not on fire. The scene merely announces to the passing world that the Finns are enjoying their sacred bath.

Least we gain the impression that the Finns are merely towers of strength, I would emphasize here that they constitute substantial law-abiding citizens of this State. They willingly subscribe to progressive ideas; their children are among the best scholars in the public schools. Their love for literature is unbounded and their skill in handicraft and design compares favorably with that of any other peoples.

A remarkable spirit of co÷peration developed in the home country has been transferred to Ohio as the Finns have settled in this State. Wherever their numbers are sufficient to muster an organization we may be certain to find a co÷perative organization of some kind. For example, in Fairport Harbor a large general store selling dry goods, groceries, meats and operating a dairy, is run as a co÷perative with two thousand members. Here, too, we find a commercial steam bath-house, a worker's boarding house and still other forms of co÷perative enterprises. A similar story may be told of co÷peration in Ashtabula, Warren, and wherever else that Finns congregate. True co÷peration is most successful where the efforts of an individual to get along alone are likely to meet with reverses. The co÷perative movement is eminently successful in Finland where it assumes national proportions because the struggle for existence is severe in a region where natural resources are few and agriculture must be carried on against great odds. Finnish co÷peratives are not monopolistic. They do not seek to dominate a market, but rather invite competition. Since the spirit of co÷peration has become essentially a part of the Finnish temperament, it travels with them and wherever they establish themselves co÷perative institutions seem just naturally to arise as a part of their organization. We in Ohio can learn much about successful co÷peration if we will study the attainments of our Finnish population.

Unfortunately, the modesty and general reticence of the Finns have prevented their fine qualities from becoming widely known and fully appreciated. To cultivate friendship among these sturdy Finnish peoples is to make a contribution to the cultural level of the State.

*A radio presentation for the Ohio Academy of Science, Station WEAO (WOSU), February 24, 1933.

Published in The Ohio Archaelogical and Historical Quarterly October 1934.

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