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The Finnish People of Webster's Corners

Sheila Nickols, et al.

How did the first Finns find their way to Webster's Corners? It was by chance - work became available just at the time when a small group of Finnish men were looking for a place to locate. These men, some with families, had left i Sointula on Malcolm Island in the Queen Charlotte St. a short time earlier.

Sointula was the dream of a group of Finnish immigrants who had come to B.C. in the 1880s and 1890s. They worked in the mines on Vancouver Island - became disillusioned and began searching for a place where they could establish a socialist settlement. By 1901 they had recruited a leader and had been granted property by the provincial government provided they could meet certain conditions.

Their leader was Matti Kurikka who had been a radical in Finland and who had sailed to Australia in 1900. Enthusiastically he began to prepare and plan a new idealistic society. The property they had acquired was Malcolm Island and so they set off to build Sointula, Haven of Harmony. Others came to join this quest for Utopia - some from as far away as Australia where they had first emigrated in their search for a better life. Many followers joined Kurikka after he had travelled to Finland and in his eloquently persuasive manner spoke about the wonders of this new venture in British Columbia.

One can imagine the excruciating difficulty of this hazardous scheme. They were going to an isolated barren island with only the providence of nature to supply them with food and shelter. But they were young and brimming with enthusiasm and vigor, and they toiled and struggled with typical Finnish 'sisu' (a particular kind of stubborn determination and fortitude) to build their dream. But it was not to be. Difficulties of the undertaking, coupled with lack of practical experience and continued indebtedness, brought about differences of opinion. Another disheartening force was a disastrous fire which levelled their largest communal dwelling with the loss of eleven lives.

Eventually Matti Kurikka admitted defeat and went back to Vancouver to arrange jobs for those men who wished to leave the island. Others elected to remain at Sointula and they and their families have seen it develop into a pretty little town to which other nationals as well have come.

Arvo Skytte related that in 1904 they left Sointula in a wreck of a scow on which was built a shelter of sorts. That trip to Vancouver took two weeks. All along the 200 mile route they had to make stops to replenish firewood for the engine and to take on supplies of food and water. On reaching port, the group booked into a hotel on Heatley Avenue. They learned that the only job available for them was land clearing at a very minimal wage. Family men, especially, had a hard time managing.

All the while, the group was hoping to find a place to begin again. Then Matti Kurikka obtained a shingle bolt contract at Webster's Corners. John Puska and Emil Parras left to investigate. However, the prospects were not encouraging. The Chinese workmen who had been there departed because they wanted better payment and they left the campsite in a dismal mess. Despite the disappointing outlook, the group decided to go ahead with the venture.

The first settlers with their team of horses, wagon, and supplies arrived on January 1, 1905, the year of an extremely severe winter. John Puska repaired the campsite left by the Chinese so that the families could join their men folk, but he did not remain with the group. They formed an association and the group became known as "Sammon Takojat".1 Hardships prevailed but they managed a meagre livelihood.

Shingle bolt cutting was started. The bolts were floated down Kanaka Creek to the Fraser River. But since the water level in the creek was often too low, this movement of the shingle bolts could be done only at freshet time. Even then the bolts would often get hung up on the rocks and the men would have to jump in and manually get them moving again. By the time the weary and hungry water-soaked men got back home it was late at night. They had worked a strenuous shift to earn the $3.50 per cord which was the price paid to them by the shingle mill in New Westminster.

During the summer, ten men with five boats went fishing at the mouth of the Fraser River. The cannery rented out the boats at a fee of one-third the catch. The salmon run during this season was one of the biggest ever - the river was simply teeming with fish. Unfortunately for the fishermen, the cannery had to limit the daily catch to 200 fish (sockeye only) per boat as this was its capacity. For six weeks' labour, the men received one hundred dollars per boat and this total sum was handed over to the association.

Now they had some capital and were able to negotiate the purchase of a 159 acre farm, complete with house, barn, team of horses, a cow, some chickens and a fine stand of cedar forest. One acre had been set aside previously for the school. This quarter section was bounded on the north by Dewdney Trunk Road and on the east by Webster Road (256th Street). On the municipal map, on page 59, the owner of the property is shown as Mr. Knight. This is confirmed in the 1902 municipal assessment rolls. However, oldtime residents of Webster's Corners remembered a Mr. Leslie living there when the Finnish colony bought the i property. The purchase price was $2,700. They called the farm Sampola.2

One of the first buildings to be added to the existing ones was a long building with a dining room and kitchen at one end, the indispensable sauna at the opposite end, and a changing room in the middle. A few tiny cottages were also built to provide sleeping quarters for the families and men.

Thus began their farming venture along with the shingle bolt work. Each man did the job suited to him. Mr. Hendrickson tended the chickens and became known as 'Chicken Charlie', a nickname that he retained for his lifetime.

Mr. Nikander with his team of horses drove shingle bolts from the cedar stand to Haney. The shingle bolt work was a source of considerable security for the families; as many as 1,000 cords were cut in a year. After the building of the Selkirk-Pelletier shingle mill, Mr. Nikander drove the shingles to Haney. These trips also provided a means of transportation when it was needed. "Hop up on top of the wagon load, girls, and you can have a ride," was his familiar remark.

In the winter, the Finns continued the old country practice of cross country skiing. Their skiis were homemade, fashioned from available materials.

To maintain communication with their own people and with current events they ordered every available Finnish newspaper and eagerly awaited the weekly postal delivery.

Within two or three years other Finnish families moved into the community. Before long the Finns began to create their own entertainment. A brass band was organized with the Sammon Takojat purchasing the instruments and Mr. Peippo as band leader. Concerts, plays and folk dancing took place. These events were held in the big friendly dining room at Sampola. The addition of a stage made possible the presentation of the plays. After the evening's entertainment, music for dancing was supplied by a gramaphone. On rare occasions Eino Kujanpaa might be in the district to play the accordian. Money was scarce but the people were light-hearted and gay. They were content and happy with a simple life and brushed off hardships with their own particular brand of humour.

The older men left the dancing to the young and would retire to the sauna room which had earlier been the scene of the weekly bath. In the same room the smaller children were bedded down on the platform, and they would remain there until picked up by their parents at the end of the festivities. The children slept soundly in the warmth of the sauna room, unheeding the animated conversation of the older generation. In those days the children accompanied their parents everywhere.

Though the group flourished and the endeavour provided a good start for these pioneers, the needs changed. Families grew; communal living became crowded; people's ideals varied; and touchy, irritable situations developed. After seven years of co-operative effort the association decided to disband. The land was divided amongst the families and bachelors living at Sampola at the time. They were:

John & Miina Skytte

Matti Karttu

Armas & Jenny Skytte

Victor Karst

Arvo & Armi Skytte

Karl Hendrickson

Urho & Mini Teppo

Gust Pederson

Chas. & Henni Bell

Emil Anderson

Ruussa & Axsel Nikander

 

Messrs. Parras, Salo, & Groholm had been members of the company but had left earlier. The Bell's were the lucky family to acquire the original Sampola house and barn.

One acre of Sampola land was reserved for a hall site with Axsel Nikander and Nestor Toikka acting as trustees. It was agreed that the land would be given to the Finnish Club that first organized in the area. This was the Socialist Club, later renamed the Finnish Organization, a nation-wide organization with headquarters in Toronto.

At the time that the Sammon Takojat Company was dissolved and the land subdivided, the president was Urho Teppo and the secretary Victor Karst. Mr. Teppo was actually the eldest of the Skytte brothers, but upon marriage took his wife's surname. The subdivision was registered in the Land Registry Office at New Westminster on April 18, 1913.

The other Finnish families that had been drawn to Webster's Corners during this eight year period were:

Aho, Mielty, Pelto, Rossi, Toikka, Johnson, Peippo, Davidson, Raitanen, Jackson, two bachelor brothers Jack & Eino Tantari, Mattson, Bolkky, and Hermanson.

They had come from all over - Coquitlam, Vancouver, Vancouver Island, Sointula, Ontario, Finland.

The distinguishing feature of every Finnish farm was the essential sauna building. Besides providing the necessary Saturday bath, the sauna melted away the tensions and worries of the week. In those early days strangers considered this custom an oddity, but today the sauna has come into its own.

Efforts began almost immediately to raise funds for a hall. Picnics were planned and concerts and plays continued to be held at Sampola. Although this building was now on Mr. Bell's property, he had agreed to allow the community members to use the 'hall' for a period of five years. Enthusiasm was at a peak and it mattered little that one had to walk many miles. Emil Raunio happily commuted by foot from Albion for play practices. Of course everyone came on foot to Sampola. Tiny tots had the privilege of riding in a carriage but older children had to jog alongside their parents. Mr. Rossi had a buggy big enough for his three children which he pushed up Mielty's hill with heated brow.

In the summer of 1915, after three years of planning and fund-raising, the new hall building was started. With the hall, as with their homes and farms, the people built as they could afford. The original hall measured 25 by 50 feet but with additions the hall was finally about 3 times that size. The materials had to be bought but labour was voluntary. Mr. John Vianto, then of Vancouver, was hired as overseer at $1.00 per day plus lodgings - the latter supplied in turn by the farmers. The hall opening ceremonies were held on January 1, 1916, and it was indeed a great occasion for all. After much sacrifice and effort at least one dream was fulfilled ... their own hall at last! They felt it was absolutely necessary (second only to the sauna in priority) to have this activity centre. In honor of the occasion a really ambitious play called "Karkurit" (The Fugitives) was presented to a truly appreciative audience.

Programs began to be scheduled for every Saturday night. English speaking people came to enjoy the entertainment even though they could not understand the language. The hall became a real community centre and during the next decade prospered and grew. To the original hall were added a more elaborate stage, kitchen, committee room and cloak rooms.

Saturday Night at the hall always ended with a dance. The music was supplied at various times by The Mielty Family Orchestra, Mattson Brothers, the violins of John Wren, John Rajala, and Kalle Kujanpaa, and Kalle Kukkola with his familiar button accordian.

As at Sampola the children always came to the hall. Little ones slept most of the evening. A large buggy donated to the hall could accommodate two babies and the others slept on chairs cushioned with a coat or two. When the lively music started the rest of the children would happily join the dancing with the adults.

The Drama Club, performing every second or third week during the fall and winter, was open to everyone. In order to save money, only one complete script of the play was rented. Individual roles were hand written by each eager thespian. There was no regular director; instead this job was handled in rotation by the more experienced players. Staging of productions was a major project. Permanent scenery was hand painted. These sets of reversible canvassed panels on wood frames were easily handled by one man and provided adequate changes for a variety of stage settings. The canvas drop curtain, which attracted much attention, was painted by Toivo Aro of Sointula.

In the large stage addition there was ample room for props and sets, costumes and accessories, a dressing room and make-up room. The latter room was well equipped with built-in vanities, complete with mirrors and theatrical lighting. "Did we kids have a ball in there!" reminisced Eleanore Rajala Wilson.

The more ambitious productions would be presented in Vancouver as well. In exchange the Vancouver group would bring one of their plays to the Corners' audience.

During intermission the audience moved to the buffet in the kitchen where they stood around a large horseshoe-shaped table and were served their coffee and 'pulla' (a Finnish coffee bread) quickly and efficiently. This coffee interlude was as necessary at the hall as it was in the home, where promptly at three everyone stopped for coffee. Afternoon coffee was an elaborate affair with homemade cakes and other baked pastries served in addition to the traditional pulla.

For the hall activities the voluntary catering and caretaking were cheerfully performed on a monthly rotating basis. One family would look after the cleaning and heating of the hall. In a similar manner a group of women would be responsible for making the pulla and coffee, for serving, and for cleaning up afterwards.

The children, too, had their club with Henni Bell, John Myntti, Hilja Toikka, Jenny Raunio, and Minda Katainen rotating the adult leadership. Sometimes the youngsters put on concerts - even on occasion a play - and these were especially enjoyable. For the children it was an enriching experience to go to summer camps at such places as White Rock, Deep Cove and Cultus Lake.

The mixed choir was conducted by D. Tolonen who also conducted a Youth Orchestra. Some members of the choir performed in quartettes, trios, duets, and as soloists. Ina Bell accompanied these singing groups on the piano, and supplied the music for the various light operettas that were staged. For some years she directed the singing groups as well.

There was a Gymnastics Club, the first director being Axsel Nikander. At the height of activity during the 1920s and 1930s, there were three groups - for men, women, and children. They provided gymnastic displays for variety in the Saturday night presentations at the hall.

In addition to the Gymnastics Club, there was a Wrestling Club. Lauri Kauppinen, an amateur wrestling champion,3 was the instructor.

There was a well stocked library at the hall usually open on Saturday nights with Grampa Skytte acting as librarian - a task he performed with exceptional precision. He was by trade a book-binder, so paperbacks were purchased (another economy measure) and were replaced by hard covers by Grampa. He kept the widely circulated books in excellent condition.

Summer festivals and picnics were customary with sports events, games of skill, entertainment, and lively conversations the order of the day, climaxed with big bowls of delicious mulligan soup made in a special way using young cockerels.

At times, too, the hall was used in a variety of other ways. Numerous funerals were held there and so were many wedding receptions. It served as a school classroom for a few years and as the school's auditorium for gym classes and for Christmas concerts. Other activities included meetings of all kinds, a church gathering, night school classes, and whist drives.

A social custom of the community that developed early was visiting. It was a family outing on Sunday afternoons or of an evening - unannounced but not unexpected because visiting was done regularly by everyone.

During the first world war there was much unemployment. Many single men came to the farms. Some worked for their board while others 'hatched' and somehow managed to survive the winter. Summers were somewhat easier with the possibility of employment in the woods. When he left for camp, a logger had a huge knapsack, for he carried his own bedding and clothing. He made his mattress of fir boughs.

Often times farmers were engaged in logging or mining away from home to supplement their income and thus improve their farms. During those periods the women had to take on the added chores of the farm.

Clothing was very limited but thanks to the faithful old cotton sugar, feed, and flour sacks of those days, and also the ingenuity of clever fingers, all manner of apparel appeared. Clothing and dry goods stores were a luxury, rarely visited. Many women did not even own a coat. When it was necessary to journey to Vancouver, one had to borrow a coat - usually from Miss Minda who at that time worked for Mrs. Nels Lougheed. Some amusing cases of mistaken identity occurred over that much travelled garment. When a new garment was acquired it served a long and varied life, being remodelled and made over several times. Finally it found its way to the rag bag. When enough of these rags were collected, they were woven into colorful, practical mats for the floor.

In 1918 Mr. Dale began to make grocery deliveries from Hammond on Saturdays and at the same time he bought eggs and butter from the farmers. If one forgot items on the food order, one did without until the next week or walked to Haney for them.

The one-room school at Corners with its predominately Finnish student enrolment had its linguistically hilarious moments. In their primary year, the children had to learn to speak English which they dutifully did during classes. But at recess and noon back to the mother tongue they reverted, with the result that the few English-speaking pupils picked up Finnish. To this day, they recall some Finnish words. Finally, the teacher had to make a firm rule that only English would be allowed within the school area, and thereafter the young Canadians learned their new language rapidly.

For the parents it was a different situation. They did not always have the time, the opportunity, nor the inclination to become fluent in the English language. Mr. Bob Emmerson will tell you that because of necessity he picked up some Finnish expressions during the years that he delivered for Muskett's Meat Market. Even today he sells 'makkara' (bologna) to a long-time Finnish customer.

After 1918 times began to improve. More local employment became available when the Webber Logging Company started logging and sawmill operations. The company transformed Martin Road into a solid 'plank road'. It became a definite part of the community just as did the long wooden bridge over the Kanaka Creek on Dewdney Trunk Road. The distinctive rumbles of the planks echoed in every direction.

The Finnish people continued to practice their philosophy of co-operation. They had their work bees, helping each other in land clearing, barn and house building, and at haying time. The haystacks, ideal for the game of hide and seek, were a typical feature of the farms. These were formed around a central pole supported by cross bars and shaped with a rounded top. This characteristic style protected the hay from water damage since during a wet haying season only the top surface layer of hay would become rain-soaked.

In illness, too, the community helped one another. A new baby was born into the world at home with only the help of a neighbour's wife, and perhaps the doctor. Hilma Aho, Henni Bell, Ina Mattson, and Jenny Raunio were the 'nurses' of the district. When needed, the one who was least busy at the time came.

The Tanttari's house became known as a 'poika talo', a co-operative boarding house for bachelors. Later this house was used for the meetings and social events of the Kalevala Brothers and Sisters, a benevolent Finnish Lodge organized on April 27, 1927.

There was a co-operative waterworks company which supplied water from South Kanaka Creek to its members and a co-operative egg hatchery.

Sam Saari's was a singular enterprise. While working at Abernethy & Lougheed Logging Company and then at Commercial Lumber, he started his garage and blacksmith shop. He combined 'sisu' and ingenuity in repairing logging equipment and earned a reputation as a skilled blacksmith.

In January 1922 Ray Aho bought a second hand Model T truck and started one of the first trucking businesses in Maple Ridge. He hauled the farmers' eggs to Vancouver and delivered feed for them from Haney.

In 1923 these same families started pooling grocery orders and established a co-operative buying circle which supplied bulk goods to its members. Mr. Salmi took care of the orders and distributed them from his kitchen once a week. Ray picked up the food and produce orders while in town. Later he had many added individualized, personal orders to fill. He managed surprisingly well. Ray still lives in Maple Ridge and among the Finnish population holds the distinction of the longest continuous residency here. As membership increased the distribution centre was transferred to various locations and from this beginning the Consumers Co-operative Association came into being. On July 26, 1932 the association bought property on the S.E. corner of Dewdney Trunk and Martin Road (location of Mr. Webster's home and post office). The store by the hall was moved to this new location with Mr. J. Korhonen as manager.

The first new addition to the co-op was the feed warehouse, since supplying feed to the many small poultry farms comprised much of the business. As the volume of business increased, a feed mill was added to the warehouse. The grocery and general store grew too, and the co-op flourished; but, characteristically for the Finns, not for long. Change in management accompanied by conflicting personalities and differences in political beliefs resulted in a bitter rift that pervaded the community. It was at this time that a group still dreaming of an idealistic society left Webster's Corners for Karelia in Western Russia.

During the ensuing years a feeling prevailed amongst many of the co-op members that old grievances should be settled and forgotten but nothing definite was accomplished.

Finally, in 1941, a second co-op - Webster's Corners Co-op Exchange - was started just west of 25th Avenue (256th Street) on Dewdney Trunk. It progressed to the point that a cold storage locker was added (1945). This project was overly ambitious and proved unprofitable. Poor management and limited trading area added further to financial difficulties and in 1956 this business ended in bankruptcy. Then for a few years the Consumers, once again, was the co-op for everyone.

In the meantime, the Consumers Co-op had been broadening its membership and changing with the times. The small egg producers in Corners were quitting business. The co-op bought a small warehouse (including the 99-year C.P.R. lease) from the Pitt Meadows Farmers Institute to serve the farmers in that area. Subsequently a new warehouse and mill replaced the first building. At the Webster's Corners store sales declined and finally in 1966 the store was closed. Operations continue in Pitt Meadows.

This history illustrates the contributions made by the Finnish residents to the community as a whole. They brought their culture and customs to the area and contributed significantly to the community mainly through the activities at the hall. Their enthusiasm for recreation was evidenced by the support and encouragement they always gave to all sports. Consumers Co-op sponsored a softball team; basketball practices and games were held, rent free, at the hall; the lacrosse box was constructed by the club on hall property.

By the late thirties activities at the hall were slowing down. During the second world war it was ordered closed for a time and after that activities slowly resumed but on a much reduced scale. The Finnish population was becoming assimilated into the community with only a small proportion being of the first generation. Finally, the Finnish Organization in Webster's Corners decided to disband. In 1958 the hall was transferred to the Vancouver branch. Now it is used mainly for picnics during the summer months. They call it Sampola.

In the last two decades the numbers of the early pioneers still residing at Corners has diminished to four: Hilja Latomaki, Amalia Rajala, Armi Skytte, and Minda Katainen.

This chapter in the history of Maple Ridge has been recorded as a tribute to these people. Along with their love of family and sense of humour they have given us examples of creativity, self-reliance, thrift, enjoyment of self-made entertainment, the helping-hand, pride and courageous 'sisu' that add up to a philosophy from which we can all learn.

1 Forgers of the place of the Sampo (Sampo from the Finnish folk legend "Kalevala", meaning magic corn, salt and coin mill).

2 Haven of the Sampo.

3 1925 silver medal award winner at the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada championships held at New Westminster.

Page 84-93 in Maple Ridge. A History of Settlement, written by Sheila Nickols (editor), Violet Bokstrom, Isabelle MacDonald, Grace Mussallem, Daphne Sleigh & Margaret Smith, published by the Maple Ridge Branch, Canadian Federation of University Women, 1972. The book is for sale at the Maple Ridge Museum, e-mail mrmuseum@axion.net.

© Maple Ridge Museum

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