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The Finns on Cape Cod

Eugene Van Cleef

The presence of the Finns upon Cape Cod seems anomalous. Extensive sandy soil deposits do not normally represent the type of land to which Finns have been accustomed in their homes, although such are not unknown in Finland. Winters are not so severe as in Finland; the snow is not so deep or the temperature so low for so long a time.

Investigations into other Finnish settlements in the United States have yielded abundant evidence to show that certain characteristics of natural environment were paramount as affecting the distribution of this people. We find those same elements prevailing here - moderate summer temperatures; cold winters, with a considerable snowfall; numerous lakes, as well as the presence of the sea; boulder-strewn rolling country; extensive forests; and a thinly-populated countryside affording ample opportunity for seclusion and isolation. In contrast with the pioneer log-cabin types of homes such as are occupied by many Finns in the upper Great Lakes region, the homes here are of characteristic Cape Cod style of architecture - colonial or modern. Many of these homes have been purchased as parts of abandoned farms. The modern home identifies a new structure built by the Finnish occupant. Regardless of the architecture or setting, the grounds about the dwellings are generally barren. The severity of the environment in the home country seems to have impressed itself so indelibly upon the temperament of these people that wherever they migrate, the harsh discipline of their severe struggle for existence is reflected in the simplicity of their conditions of life.

One poetic writer effectively, even though slightly erroneously, observes that "as the sons and daughters of the Cape have wandered inland, as their progenitors wandered seaward to win fame and fortune, a comely and a quiet race has humbly taken possession of the deserted houses and is patiently and with infinite persistence making the light but productive soil to blossom like the rose".

According to the census of 1930 there were 13,077 foreign-born Finns in the state of Massachusetts, of whom 351 were located in Barnstable County, that is Cape Cod. If Plymouth County be interpreted as a part of Cape Cod, according to the fashion of the local inhabitants (particularly whenever the cranberry industry is under discussion), then the total number of Finnish inhabitants must be increased by 492 to make a total of 843. However, unless otherwise specifically indicated, the discussion which follows will be confined to a consideration of the Finns living upon the cape proper. Their numbers rank third among the foreign-born, or 8.9 per cent. of the total. They are exceeded only by two other foreign nationalities, namely, those peoples known locally as Portuguese (numbering 1162), of whom 438 give Portugal as their native land, and 724 the Azores as their country of origin; and by Canadians numbering 988, of whom 147 are Canadian French. The total of all foreign-born whites on the cape is recorded as 3,918. In addition to the foreign-born Finns there were, in 1930, 505 native white of foreign or mixed parentage.

The coming of the Finns to Cape Cod began some forty years ago. A gentleman by the name of Franklin Crocker owned a cranberry bog in the village of Hyannis, located on what is now known as Ocean Beach Drive. Crocker was instrumental in importing the first Finn who settled in the village in 1890, putting him to work on the bog. Subsequently, the property was sold to Mr. Makepeace, whose business acumen and alert mind led, in a relatively few years, to his becoming the "cranberry king" of the cape and the United States. In 1887 he produced 16,000 barrels of cranberries. Although Mr. Makepeace is generally called a pioneer in the commercial development of the industry, the beginnings of cranberry production actually go back to 1846. The cranberry vine is indigenous to the cape.

Makepeace early recognized the value of the Finn as a worker. On one occasion, it is reported, he observed three men struggling frantically to move a tree stump, when two Finns happened along and, seeing the vain efforts, waved the workers aside and walked off with the stump. Although the story savors of exaggeration, in principle it may be accepted at face value. However that may be, Mr. Makepeace had to go to Boston from time to time to get new workmen for his growing business. Whenever he could induce a few Finns to return to the cape with him he did so. Other Finns, exhibiting the clannish propensities of their group, filtered into this region slowly as they learned of the presence of fellow-countrymen and the chance to earn a living.

Two Finns - brothers who are still working for the Makepeace firm - form an interesting link in the history of the development of cranberries. These men, John and Jacob Syrjela, came to the United States thirty-eight and forty years ago, respectively. John first worked in the granite quarries at Gloucester, another focal center for Finns, and then went to Cape Cod to work on the railroad. After a few years of this experience, he joined the Makepeace industry twenty-eight years ago. He began work on the very Crocker cranberry bog which was subsequently sold to Makepeace. This bog was situated immediately behind the Crocker home in Yarmouth, on the east boundary of Hyannis. Enterprising Syrjela purchased Crocker's home when the latter decided to move to another locality. Today he is a bog foreman for Makepeace, still supervising the work on the original bog behind what is now his own home.

Another of the early settlers arrived in New York in 1902 and after living there ten weeks heard of the need for labor on the cape, and proceeded to Hyannis, where he met Mr. Makepeace by whom he was immediately put to work in the local bogs. At the end of sixteen years he was a helper in the warehouse. Then, like many other Finns, he got into business for himself and became his own boss.

Although these Finns go back to an early period of Finnish settlement on the cape, they do not represent the very first colonies. It is reported that the first Finns came to Harwich about 1872, but, finding little employment, became discouraged-some returning to Finland and others going on to upper Michigan and northeastern Minnesota. The present colonies of Finns represent the growth from a second invasion, which began about 1887.

The first permanent group settlement seems to have been made at West Barnstable, where the largest group resides today. One of the first settlers in this group, Emil Lundquist, from Ustad, near Turku (Abo), Finland, still survives. His father, who came over two years before him, is said to have been the first Finn in the village. His name implies Swedish blood, but his mother was a Finn. Lundquist reached West Barnstable forty-three years ago and first worked on the railroad. Then he shifted to a brick plant in West Barnstable - the only one on the cape, and a haven for Finns for many years. The sequence of jobs is typical of the Finns who did not go to the bogs at once. Many of those who first toiled at railroads or brick-making, eventually cultivated cranberries.

The only other settlement at present outside the town of Barnstable is at Wellfleet, where twelve families remain. This colony dates from 1904 and was never large. The principal occupation is fishing, especially gathering of quahaugs.

In the early days of cranberry culture, most of the cape lands were forested; so clearing was the first thing to be done. Skill acquired in their home-land in cutting trees and special ability to remove stumps stood them in good stead. Finns are unexcelled as lumber-jacks. Once the land is cleared, it must be levelled, and where water is available for flooding, drainage ditches must be introduced. Here, again, the experience of the Finns in the poorly-drained lands of the homecountry provided a skill quick to be appreciated by the cranberry growers. Those growers who have employed them always comment upon their uncanny eye for grading and their ability to dig ditches easily and properly. Some of the Finns themselves remark that bog work reminds them of farming at home and hence appeals to them.

Other occupations which have attracted the Finns and for which they were well prepared are fishing and dairying. But no great numbers of them drift to either of these pursuits. Today a few own bogs; some are carpenters; others keep shops and engage in miscellaneous work. By far the greatest number seem to be associated with three industries: cranberry culture; truck-farming, including dairying; and fishing. Fishing, for them, means gathering clams and quahaugs.

The Finns themselves declare that the primary attraction of Cape Cod for most of them was the work of clearing land. But of almost equal significance was the development of the cranberry industry. To both they brought an economic efficiency surpassing that of any other nationality. Yet their increase in numbers was not wholly a matter of an intensive willful exploitation on the part of their employers. Clannishness had much to do with gathering them into certain localities. The lure of an opportunity to gain a living provided an added incentive. Yet, this migration would not have been effected had there not been still another interest which held the first settlers and made them so enthusiastic as to urge friends and relatives to join them in their colony. This interest was their love of the natural environment.

Published in New England Quarterly VI, p. 597-601. 1933.

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