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Finns in Douglas County

Alma Abell

Teacher, Waino School, Brule, Wisconsin

"All I can hear is the din of land, land, land - land to divide, for a sawmill, to raise crops, cattle, chickens, pigs, children and hell. It shakes the reason out of men!" (Meridell Le Seuer, North Star Country, p.115). Thus thought the early pioneer who opened up the wild lands. He left the comforts of his own homeland to pioneer in the United States. He brought with him his indomitable spirit, his love of freedom to be assimilated into the community life of some area in our country. Many pioneers who came to Douglas County were Finns.

Many people wonder why the Finns settled in the colder areas of the United States. They concentrated along the western Great Lakes area and along the east coast of the United States north of Maryland. Mr. Langley, in his thesis on Geography of the Maple Area, says that people tend to migrate in latitudinal lines; therefore, you find northern Europeans in northern areas of the United States. Mr. Holmes, in his book, Old World Wisconsin, says that the main reason the Finns migrated here is that the lands sloping toward Lake Superior are typical of Finland; therefore the Finns sought them out. Both are glaciated areas and there are big boulders strewn about. The birch trees, spruce, and pine grow in both areas.

The two areas are very similar as the writers pointed out. When I visited Finland, I felt one big difference; I feel that over Finland, especially northern Finland, there seems to hover a mist or curtain of sadness. It is hard to define that feeling. It is dreamily and lovingly sad. You can almost see it. The Finnish literature and life reflect this feeling. You cannot sense this dreamy sadness in the "Finn Country" in America.

The Finns are very resourceful. That they were able to make their homes in the wilderness speaks for itself. Mr. Rudolph Harju, in his article, Finns Pioneered Douglas County, tells about Davidson, an early pioneer in the Amnicon River area. He was truly resourceful. He built a windmill to be used for grinding grain for the pioneers. He hauled the stones four miles down the river and then carved them by hand. He carved the wooden gears by hand. The sheet metal for the eight wings he hauled by horse and wagon from Superior, fifteen miles away. The mill was very usable, and it was in use for twenty years. It is still a landmark for tourists and farmers of Douglas County.

Mr. John Paananen of Brule, although over seventy years old, still makes birchbark berry baskets for berry pickers. He also weaves lunch baskets out of birchbark strips. These baskets can be slung over the back and carried with ease.

I visited Paananen's recently, and in old Finnish fashion Mrs. Paananen took the old coffee grinder and "ground the coffee fresh" for our cup of coffee.

The Finnish knack of building log houses with only an axe is widely appreciated by other nationalities. The workmanship is unusual - logs are dovetailed in the corners with fine accuracy. This art is losing ground today, because lumber is a cheaper building material. The Finns in Brule town did much to preserve a sample of this fine art. They built the Northern Wisconsin Cooperative Museum, four miles north of Brule. It is built by older Finns in true Finn fashion.

The Waino Round Hall is also a typically Finnish building. Today it is used for recreational purposes.

You can recognize a Finnish farm at a distance. It has about a dozen small buildings huddled together. Usually there is a summer kitchen, a bathhouse, a sheep shed, a cow barn, and a horse barn. These buildings are set in a semicircle near a log "living-house".

The steam bath is the sign of the Finn. It is warmed on Saturday. There are many types of "Saunas", but they all serve the same purpose to the Finn - to steam out anything that ails you. It also serves a social purpose; for after the bath everyone enjoys "coffee and biscuits" in the farm kitchen. On Friday afternoons at school it is common to hear the children say, "Come to our house to bathhouse tomorrow night".

Much handwork is done in the Finnish communities. Both men and women are skilled workers. It is considered quite a "shame" if the girls cannot knit and the boys turn a hand to make some wooden articles. Many homes have spinning wheels. The older women still card wool and spin yarn at home.

In the Maple area the women still hold "spinning bees". They gather at one home, each bringing her spinning wheel, and they work together. The Finnish proverb says, "He who sleeps in the calm must row during a gale"; therefore everyone keeps busy.

In the "Finn Country" you still see women walking down the road and knitting. This is an old Finnish custom. In Finland the women knit on the way to and from work in the fields.

Some years ago the traveling shoemaker was a common sight. He came twice a year to each house to make "shoepacs". The first thing he did, when he arrived in a home, was to line up all the children for the size measure. Each one had to step on a piece of paper so he could draw a pencil line around the foot. Then he began to work. It was days and days of sewing and pounding. The rawhide was rather hard to shape. The most thrilling time came when the shoes were finished. They were comfortable when they were new, but when they were soaked through with water and then dried, they became lumpy, bumpy and hard. Every evening they had to be tarred and oiled and hung on the "shoe pole" to dry. Each child usually had a pair of "store shoes", but they were worn so seldom that they always pinched. At Oulu there stands an old shoemaker shop. It has on the side a picture of a large shoe, so even those who couldn't read would know where to find the shoemaker.

In the Finn Country today you find much to remind you of Finland in story and customs. On school programs appear Finnish songs and folk dances, especially for the benefit of the "old folks".

The Finnish women have done much to organize clubs and guilds to plan recreational and educational movements. They also carry on many well-planned youth programs.

With the background of Finnish culture it seemed very natural that the Waino Girl Scout Troop and the Waino school children became very interested in an International Friendship Program with a school and a community in Finland. We have carried on this work for the past three years. We have learned much about life and work in Finland. We exchanged art work with the Finnish children. They have sent us many lovely things; one set of postcards of life in Finland was very interesting. We have sent them food and clothing. We remember each one at Christmas time and for the midsummer festival (Juhannus). They are so glad to receive the little gifts, but more glad to have the friendship of the American children. It has been a great satisfaction to all of us to know how much this work has done to promote good will between the two countries. It is especially inspiring to adults to watch and work with children for they have no prejudices about nationality, color, or creed. Each child has a pen pal and I am sure that some day these children will understand world problems better for having had first-hand information from their friends in a far-off land.

Published in School Arts, 1948:47, p. 244-246.

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