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The Finns in the United States: The Project on Finnish Immigration of the Michigan Historical Collections

Keijo Virtanen

Introduction
I. The Finns in the United States
II. Selected America Letters
III. Resources on Finnish Immigration at the Michigan Historical Collections

II. Selected America Letters*

Immigrant farm like those inhabited by Finnish settlers in Michigan in the early twentieth Century

Immigrant farm like those inhabited by Finnish settlers in Michigan in the early twentieth Century


Letter 1
Amerika Mich.
March 3, 1890
My friend
Fiina Nygord
 
Since I have time now I am going to favor you with a few simple lines. I let you know now that I feel all right and I am well at this moment. I wish you, my friends, the same gift of God which is given to us. It is the best gift here on earth to have a good health. I would be grateful if you could send me Oskar's address. If he is still in this country, please send his address when you answer my letter. It has been a year since I last heard about him. I wrote him a letter in Canada but it came back to me, because he had moved away. So at the moment I have no idea where he might be. I would also like to hear news from Karvia. Please tell me how the young people in Karvia are doing .... I want to tell you a little about the winter in this area. We have had three inches of snow, but at the moment we have no snow. It is raining every other day. So it is a bad winter here. We have been working every day though. There are some people of Karvia here. Last week they had 15 inches of snow in eastern Oregon and California. It is true. I read it from the newspaper myself. I have nothing special to write about this time. So I leave you to God's hands. Many warm greetings to all my friends, especially to the girls. You are the first and the last ones to get my greetings. So be with God. Goodbye and be well.
 
Respectfully
A. Erikson
Please answer my letter. My address is
Mr. A. Erikson
East Lake Box 117
Manistee County Mich.
North America.
 
Please send my greetings to Johan and Kaisa at the parsonage and tell them that I am all right.

COMMENT: This letter was written in the early stages of Finnish immigration to North America. There is no record of a village called "Amerika" in Michigan in 1890; the writer is probably only indicating that Michigan was a place in America. "America fever" began to rise during the 1880s in Satakunta province, the area from which the writer of the letter originated. The letter itself does not say much; in that sense it is quite typical. The writer wants to get in contact with another immigrant (his former friend) in North America. Like other immigrant groups the Finns tried to keep in touch in the new land. The writer was quite interested in developments in his home area in Finland which is typical, too. This could be interpreted to show that the immigrant had not yet forsaken the idea of returning to Finland some day. The writer also tells about his health and the weather, two of the most common subjects in the America Letters collection. In all, the relationship between the sender and the receiver of the letter does not seem to be very close, and the letter on the whole is not particularly informative.

SIGNUM: Satakunta America Letter Collection / MER: III / I / reel 15

 

Letter 2

Stambaugh, June 24, 1900
Dear parents
 

I just finished today's work. I took a walk downtown. When I came back, I went to my room, closed the door and thought that it is Midsummer's Day in Finland. Exactly one year ago, I for the first time partook of Communion. And now I am here already. I have to admit that I have broken it [the sacrament?] many times already. I do not know why. I have been drinking a great deal this week and now have this letter from you. I could not read it without crying. It was supper time and they asked why I was crying and what the problem was. This town is like full of pagans, because we do not have a Finnish minister or a church. We have a Finnish temperance society, and I am a member of it. You asked whether my Finnish school education is of any use here. It does not help me here. Well, maybe a little because I can write and count. It would not have been very useful to me in Finland either. I would have had to shovel manure anyway, and I can do it without education. I understand that Hilma Stunfors is a teacher there. If I had got a nice job in Finland, I would not be here now. But that is God's will.

You asked about Fiina's husband. He is only a regular workingman and not rich. But he is good for Fiina. I think this is all this time. I will write again if we move to another place. You will get our new address then. I just got a letter and he promised to come and pick us up soon. Greetings to friends, but especially to you and Elle, Panu and Martta. Kaarlo sends his greetings, too. What does Martta say now when Elle is going to come here. Is Painu still at school.
 

Goodbye
Lyydi and Petter
 

COMMENT: The letter is more personal than the first one. It was written by the daughter to her parents. It shows that the writer was very young when she immigrated because she just had had her first Communion. Economic factors were the chief motive for her emigration as they were for most Finns. The letter also tells something of the situation of Finnish-American societies in 1900. Emigration from Finland had become quite heavy by the turn of the century, but Furnish organizations were only in their formative period. Upper Michigan was very strongly populated by the Finns, but there were towns like Stambaugh which did not have a Finnish church yet. It came there a couple of years later. In the meantime, a Finnish temperance society was active.

SIGNUM: Satakunta America Letter Collection / MER:XXII / I / reel 15

  

Letter 3    Kaleva, Mich., September 3, 1902
Dear Brother!
 
Many thanks for your letter I received today!

It was very nice to hear from you except that you are still sick.

It was news to me that you have rented out your house. I first answer the light parts of your letter and afterwards the more serious parts.
………

You say that I am a real American by nature. It is true. This is like home. If it would not be so, I could not compete with others.

It is really possible to make money here with great eagerness. It is quite different from Finland. Everybody devotes his work for dollars and everybody is working. I wish you could see this Siirtolainen (Immigrant) company working. Even the clerks have "over alls" clothes on. Therefore even the high school graduates do not look very fancy.

But everyone works like hell. At the beginning that kind of fever for working seemed strange and disgusting but now it goes like nothing. At 5 P.M. free time begins. Then everybody takes working clothes off and begins to have fun.

The owners of the paper work like others. Nobody is anybody's master. Everyone can do what he can do best. Thus every person in America loves dollars and is able to get them easily. Resourcefulness is the best virtue here.

So - you want the straight facts about agriculture in this area. I will try to tell you as well as I can. In addition to my own stories, I send you a couple of primed lists.

Kaleva is located in southern Michigan near the great Lake Michigan. Manistee and Onekama are the nearest cities. The area is very fertile. This can be shown by large fruit forests which are scattered all over the area. The branches of the trees are bending under the load again this year.

Never in my life have I seen apples as big as here. There are innumerable sorts of fruit that I have not seen earlier. Grapes grow wild in virgin forests entangled around the trunks of the trees. Corn grows mostly in farms as well as potatoes which even taste different from the ones in Finland. The Finns have started to raise chickens also here to a great extent. The eggs are sent to Chicago and they say that it is a good business. Some farmers have only cattle. This printed information is incomplete, however. A new one (brochure?) - with pictures - is in the works. I do not know when it will be ready.

The first Finns came here two years ago. Now they come here every week from all over America and they say that the conditions for farming are best here.

People who have money enough, buy houses from the older residents of the area. Because of the fact that the Finns have started to come here, the Americans do not want to stay here any more. They are afraid of Finnish "witches" and sell their farms.

Last year the farms were quite cheap but now - when many people want to get them - the prices have gone up 20%. With 2-3000 dollars you can get the best farms (80-100 acres), however.

People without means buy uncleared land (6-10 $ an acre) and clear it. The ground is good with no stones. It has good minerals. There are lakes, rivers and creeks with clear water. Time is money in this business if you really are going to come here as a farmer.

The land is getting more expensive all the time. The bad time in Finland at the moment is increasing the stream of newcomers, too. How much does the delay cost in other respects. Whatever the frost leaves for you, the Russians will take the rest anyway, slowly but surely.

I lave not suffered homesickness for a. moment yet. The only thing is that it would have been very useful to have a course in gardening in Finland. It is not available here in Finnish.
…….

I just heard that one American will sell his farm for 3000 $. He earns yearly with the work of himself and his wife 1000 $ from fruit. That farm is located 6 miles (8 kilometers) from here. It has 100 acres of land. I urge that everyone with as little as 3000 marks in their pockets should come here. The amount of capital will make eating bread quite easy.

Even the poor people have made good progress here. They get one and a half $ a day in lumbercamps. But the progress of this kind of pioneer is naturally slower than that of the person who can get the land and the houses immediately.

That is all this time but I can repeat this if you want.

The miserable news from Finland and from your area I know quite precisely because I can read almost all the Finnish newspapers here. Other papers give good information of this nation.
……

I have wondered that Arvo has not written me even though I have sent him many letters and postcards. But I am not going to write him any more. Already one month ago I wrote that I would stop if I did not get anything.

Greetings for my friends and get well soon and sell everything like I did. I first spent all my money in big cities. But now I have so much that I could come back to Finland. But I will buy land instead.

MARGINAL NOTES OF THE LETTER:

The climate is very good for health!
The government favors a Finnish immigrant colony.
The roots of the Finns are deep in Kaleva.
You can hear the Finnish language everywhere!
There are a lot of schools in the farm area!
The Russians cannot threaten anybody here!
Kaleva will need active men like you.
If you are in good health you really should come here! Do not wait too long!
Write soon again and get well! Sincerely Emili Aalto,
Kaleva, Mich.

COMMENT: This letter is exceptionally interesting. It tells a part of the story of a unique Finnish farming community in Kaleva, Michigan. In 1888 two railroad companies were constructing lines in northwestern Lower Michigan. At the intersection of their lines a station known as Manistee Crossing was built. The railroad companies had cut down the forests, leaving the countryside desolate in appearance, but the New York National Land Association sent a Finn, Jacob A. Saari, to examine the area's potential more closely. Saari saw the possibilities for farming and began to publicize the district among the Finns. The name of the station was changed to Kaleva, after the Finnish national epic of that name. The Finnish newspaper, Siirtolainen (The Immigrant) was especially useful as an instrument of propaganda. Siirtolainen moved front Brooklyn, New York to Kaleva in 1901. Soon the town became a lively Finnish community. A Finnish temperance society and a Finnish church were formed by 1902. Until the 1940s Finnish was the dominant language o£ the area. It was not until the 1950s shat Kaleva began to "Americanize".

This letter, sent by Emil Aalto to a friend in Eura, Finland in 1902, is a good example of the propaganda for Kaleva. The writer worked for Siirtolainen, and the letter shows that he had learned quite well the methods of the newspaper. He exaggerates considerably when he describes the farming possibilities of Kaleva. Still, apparently such propaganda was effective, for Finns from all over America came to Kaleva at the beginning of this century.

Emil Aalto tells in his letter how easy it was to get dollars with hard work. America's reputation in Finland was based in large part upon the opportunities for getting rich quickly. The writer also says that he has adapted to his new home quite well, but evidently his command of English was not yet sufficient to enable him to take a course in gardening. In this respect he was probably no different from most Finnish immigrants when they first arrived in the new country. Emil Aalto's financial resources were probably better, however, than those of most Finnish immigrants. We know something of his activities before and after his years as an immigrant (information not contained in this letter). He was successful in business both before his arrival in America and later after his return to Finland in the 1920s.

Aalto also refers to political conditions in Finland, specifically, the menace of Russia. Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire from 1809 to 1917. At the turn of the century, Russian pressures on the Finns were very strong, and the attitudes of the writer of the letter must be seen in that light.

SIGNUM: Satakunta America Letter Collection / EURA: II / I / reel I

 

Letter 4 Bessemer, Mich., November 29, 1907
Hello Brother Kusti from Bessemer and many greetings.

I have been all right and I hope the same to you. The Flambo camp stopped running in the middle of November. I spent one week going from camp to camp but could not find work. All the camps were full of men. There were not enough beds and I had to sleep on the floor. I went to one camp on Saturday evening and I was planning to stay there over the weekend. But next morning I had to start walking to another camp again to get there before dark. And when I could not find work, I drove to Bessemer. So now I lie here at Lehtonen's. I am not sure whether I can find work before Christmas. I was planning to come to see you for Christmas but it is so cold that I will leave it until next summer . . . . .

Jussi Mikola left for Finland on November 26. I am going to stay here until Christmas. After Christmas - if the camps start running again - I have to work for two or three mouths to get money for boarding. Because at the moment I just lie in bed and spend.

Goodbye again, your Brother W.R.

address Wictor Roos
Box 934 Bessemer, Mich.
My dear brothers and mother, I wish you Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

COMMENT: In 1907-1908 there was a deep economic depression in the United States. Wictor Roos, who sent this letter to his brother in Lappi, Finland at the end of 1907, had to face these bad times. The lumber camps had been closed, and all he could do was wait for better times. The other choice was to return to Finland, but the writer either did not have enough money to do that, or he really had chosen to stay in America, at least for some time. His friend had left for Finland because of the depression. So too had many ocher Finns; in fact, the years 1907 and 1908 were the two years of heaviest Finnish return migration.

SIGNUM: Satakunta America letter Collection / LAP:XI / 15 / reel 13

 

Letter 5
Negaunee, April 26, 1910
 
Dear parents. I write you now from America to let you know that I have arrived here. I did not write anything during the trip. My trip was quite long. It took four weeks altogether, because I had to wait in Hanko for one week. There were so many people going to America that there was not room for everybody in the ship which left on Easter Wednesday. There was no ship on Saturday either. That is why there were many who had to wait. I left Hanko on April 6 and arrived in Negaunee on April 24. Wille was waiting for me at the station. There are six boys living in this house. It is nice in this house. They do not allow drunks here. The rent is 18 dollars a month and they also wash clothes and give food. There are many boys from Tyrvää here. I do not miss Finland. The Tuominen boys reside in another house. Frans Koskinen, Kalle Koski, Johan Alpin and Toivonen also live in the house where Wille and I live. Men are needed for work here. Times are better here now, and the wages have gone up. I went to ask for a job already and I got it. But I have not started working yet. I am going to rest for a couple of days first. During the long trip a man gets strained, because it is hard to get enough sleep.

A lot of immigrants froth Finland arc coming here now. There were about 800 Finns at Hankoniemi's emigrant house when I left. But medical doctors sent many of them back. They check nowadays very carefully all the emigrants. They check five times before they let you emigrate. Especially the eyes are important. And if you have scars in your chin they return you immediately. It is impossible to avoid the check-up because they make one in Boston, too ....

Many greetings from Wille. He is all right and is feeling well. Greetings to all the relatives and friends. Goodbye and may God bless you.

Your son
Kalle Pykälä

address is

Mr. Kalle Pykälä
Box 75 Negaunee
   Mich
US of America
 
COMMENT: The writer describes his first feelings as an immigrant. The letter was addressed to his parents in Tyrvää, Finland. As late as 1910 the trip from Finland to the destination area in the United States still took some time and obviously was not very easy. Like many Finnish immigrants Kalle Pykälä first came to a town (in this case Negaunee, in the iron region of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) where he could meet his friends who had come earlier. This certainly eased the first problems he might have had to face otherwise.

The letter also shows that there were good times in America in 1910 (in contrast to 1907 and 1908). The writer could find work immediately. His first work was in a Negaunee mine, and he stayed there for fifteen years (not in the letter). He also tells in his letter that there were a lot of Finnish emigrants at. the port of Hanko, Finland where the voyage began. 1910 was one of the peak years for Finnish emigration, certainly due in large part to the good times in America.

The letter also gives a description of the physical examinations the immigrants had to face both at the port of departure and at their destination point.

SIGNUM: Satakunta America Letter Collection / TYRV:V / I / reel 24

 

Letter 6
Marquette, Mich., December 2, 1923
My best greetings to all of you and many thanks for the letter I received a couple of days ago. I have been all right and I hope the same for you. It is nice to hear that mother is still in good health. Not like father who had to be ill for many long years. I noticed in your letter that you have not been well. That is no wonder. You know, I have heard about the treatment the White Finns gave to the RED prisoners. Very few could return home. Haven't you tried fasting? It is good for the stomach. They use it here a lot. And I think that it is the only way to make your stomach well.

You mentioned in your letter drat progress has taken long strides there. And it really looks so according to the information I have got. You even have telephones. When I left, there were no telephones in the whole village. Now you need only electricity and you have taken another forward step.

I saw in your letter that you will have a big building project next summer. As you said it requires a lot of money. So you asked me to send you cheap money. Well, it is not so easy because a workingman does not see cheap money here. It is in many ways more expensive here than you can imagine. This is a great industrial country which means that they really can take everything you earn. I make $100 a month. And one half of it goes for living. In Finland it would be a good amount of money but not here. And secondly, I believe that there is no sense to try to collect and save the capital. I think the best method is that a workingman should save his body as much as possible. And next summer I am planning to buy an automobile which will take all my money. I am not quite sure yet about it. So if nothing special happens and it I do not buy the car, in that case I could try to help you with dollars next spring.

That is all this time. I say goodbye and wish you Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Tell MOTHER and the people I know my greetings.
 

Your brother,

 Victor Koivunen,
Box, 764. Marquette, Mich.
U.S. America.
 
COMMENT: This letter was written by an immigrant who had been in America for 23 years. His brother has asked him to send money to Finland. America was 'a land of opportunity', and therefore relatives in the old country did not hesitate to ask for help openly. The writer is not ready to send anything though. He needs his money for the car which was a real status symbol for the Finns in America in the 1920s.

The letter also shows that Victor Koivunen probably belonged to the Finnish-American socialist movement. He wants to save his body more than collect capital because the capitalist society takes everyhing anyway. When he talks about the White and the Red Finns, he refers to the Finnish Civil War which took place right after Finland became an independent country in 1917.

SIGNUM: Satakunta America Letter Collection / JAM:VII / I / reel 6

  

Letter 7
Kaleva, Michigan
U.S. of America
February 22, 1946
 
Thank you for your letter. I got it on February 18.

It is nice to know that you are still alive. It is good that your children have grown up. This has been a terrible time for the world. And now there is hunger.

We are going to send you a package. I put coffee and raisins in it. I will buy candy and something else, too. You should go to your post office to ask what can be the weight of the package.

We have one son who has always been at home. We also have three daughters. Ellen works for the government. She also was a teacher for four years. They have a farm in Upper Michigan and her husband is a teacher at the moment. Elma - the youngest daughteer - is married to a business agent in Chicago. In summer time they sometimes come here to visit us. We have four grandsons.

At the beginning of the war a man on the radio said that a cannon explosion required 800 pounds of sugar (that's where the sugar is). But soon people will start to get sugar free.

You took care of mother, and father died earlier. I have wondered why you haven't written anything of their deaths.

We have had a cold and windy Februaary, many times a high of only 31 degrees Fahrenheit. Are there many evacuated persons from Karelia in Siikainen and have they divided the farms?

We hav alot of work, even during the weekends.

We wish you a good health!
 

With love your sister
Kristiina L.
 

We do not have a box number. Our mail comes to our door.
 
The address is:
Kaleva Michigan
U.S. of America.
 
COMMENT: As a result of World War II, Finland had to give up parts of its eastern territory to the Soviet Union. This letter is closely tied to matters related to the war. Times were bad in Finland, and since the beginning of the war Finnish-Americans had sent a lot of material help. Sending packages to relatives was probably the most common form of assistance. About half a million Finns were evacuated from Finnish Karelia which went to the Soviet Union. Finnish farms were divided to provide land for these Karelians who were usually farmers. This explains the question of the writer at the end of the letter.

The letter shows that the contact between the sisters has not been very close. Probably Kristiina had spent decades in America. Even the news of the death of her parents had not come very quickly.

The children of the writer are doing well, which it is always nice to tell the relatives in the old country.

SIGNUM: Satakunta America. Letter Collection / SIIK:CI / I / reel 23

 

Letter 8
Detroit, Mich., November 11, 1955
Dear Väinö Pellonperä

Thank you for your letter we received. My brother has written to us that we should sell our home of birth in Finland. We talked about it together. So I will let you know now that it will be as he has suggested. I just wonder why the nearest relatives have not written us about this. Well, they are well educated. We are not very close anyway because we were only children when we were together last.

We have ahead of us a long cold winter, but it is not too bad here. There will be only a little snow in this area even though the winter is quite long. I have heard that last winter in Finland was very severe. I hope that this one will not be as bad. You are now the master of Pellonperä. That farm is of a good size, enough work for one man. Children are not much help. When they are older they trust in themselves. Therefore they leave their homes, here in the United States anyway. I know very little about Finland today.

I have been away from Finland already almost 50 years. But I may yet visit the country if I live long enough.

I will finish this letter now. I wish everything good for your life.
 

Sincerely Nikolai and Ida Nummi
7133 Chalfante Ave.
Detroit 38 Michigan
U.S.A.
 
COMMENT: The writer (Ida Nummi) immigrated in 1906 which explains why she had become estranged from Finland. She practically has no contact with her relatives. She even writes about selling their home of birth to a person who may be some kind of manager of that landed estate. She has, however, been corresponding with her brother.

The rest of the letter does not say much. It only gives a general idea of the Detroit area weather in winter time. The purpose of the letter is simply to give information about selling the home in Finland.

SIGNUM: Varsinais-Suomi America Letter Collection / POY:IV / 14 / reel 11
 

* These letters are examples of the collection described in chapter III. They were sent to Finland by Finnish immigrants in Michigan. The translations cannot be precise because of changes in the Finnish language and various errors in writing.

Published in Michigan Historical Collections. Bulletin No. 26, June 1976, 25 p.

© Keijo Virtanen

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