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Finns

Richard M. Dorson

The coming of the Finn has rocked the northwoods country. He is today what the red man was two centuries ago, the exotic stranger from another world. In many ways the popular myths surrounding the Indian and the Finn run parallel. Both derive from a shadowy Mongolian stock - "just look at their raised cheek-bones and slanting eyes". Both live intimately with the fields and woods. Both possess supernatural stamina, strength, and tenacity. Both drink feverishly and fight barbarously. Both practice shamanistic magic and ritual, drawn from a deep well of folk belief. Both are secretive, clannish, inscrutable, and steadfast in their own peculiar social code. Even the Finnish and Indian epics are supposedly kin, for did not Longfellow model "The Song of Hiawatha" on the form of the Kalevala?

But where the Indians lost, the Finns have won the Peninsula. Streaming into America after the Civil War, Finns today live in every northern state from Massachusetts to Oregon, but cluster most thickly in Michigan and Minnesota. Michigan has more Finns than any other state, 63,871,* and four-fifths of them live in the Upper Peninsula. In eleven of its fourteen counties they form the largest foreign-born group. Many settlements are almost entirely Finnish: Toivola, Nisula, Mass City, Winona, Tapiola, Forest Lake, Rock, Kiva. Finns sprinkle every village and are lumped in every large town. Bullied by Russia and ground by feudal landlords in their homeland, they now own and till most of the private land in the Peninsula.

A whole folklore has grown around the Finn. One hears it spoken, in hot and excited tones, when natives swap tales in the boardinghouse parlor or around the kitchen table.

• A Finn is stronger than an ordinary man. I've seen a couple of Finlanders down by the railroad tracks, fooling around with some car wheels. Finally, one takes the axle in his hands and lifts it up over his head.

Finns always fight with knives. They hold a knife in their fist and scratch you up and down with the blade, just breaking the skin, not digging in deep. There was a Finn found lying on a lot outside the church when the people came out of Sunday service, lying like dead with his chest all crisscrossed and bloody with knife cuts. They sent for a doctor because he was too weak to move. The doctor took a look at the chest, and poured some turpentine over the cuts. You could see smoke come out of his flesh. He sat up and screamed "Satana". Then he got to his feet and walked away.

You can't believe what a Finn can stand. I saw a fight between two Finlanders at Calumet during the Copper Country strike in 1913. A little fellow who was on the union side came into the store and slapped a big company-man Finlander standing there so hard he knocked his hat off. The big one, John Lonzo, pulled out a gun and shot a bullet right through the little one's hip. We set little Aljo up on a grocery shelf, and wanted to fix him up. But he just laughed, and said the bullet had come out, so he'd walk home and be down again in the morning. He was dead in the morning. They got the big guy later though - the Finns don't forget. The company protected him then, but after the strike he got a job with a construction gang in Lion Mountain, New York, and some of the workers pushed him off the side of the road and dumped wheelbarrows full of gravel over him.

Maybe they got tough from taking those steam baths. I've seen them in their saunas, those wooden bath-houses, pouring water on the hot rocks until the steam is so thick you can't see. Then they beat each other with birch branches to whip up the blood. Men and women go in there together. After they get hot enough, they run out naked and jump in the snow to cool off, or chop holes in the ice and go swimming in Lake Superior. Is that why so many Finns have t.b.?

Speaking of those steam baths, did you hear that story they tell of the Finnish G.I. who was captured by some cannibals in the Philippines? They put him in a big pot to boil and left him there about six hours. Then the cannibal chief lifts up the cover, and the Finn sticks out his head and says, "What blace is de switches and towel?"

Shoveling sand is the hardest kind of work. Only one man in ten can do it - it's in the way you grab hold of the low end of the shovel. We had a Finn working for us, by God how he could shovel! He'd come in so drunk he couldn't stand up - we'd lift him up, he'd fall again - finally the third time he stayed up. In twenty minutes he was covered with water. There would be two men on the other side of him and he'd fill his half of the truck even with them.

The Finns always stick together. They have a peculiar lastditch loyalty and defend each other right or wrong. If one's done a murder, it's almost impossible to convict him, because they won't talk to an outsider, no matter how much they fight among themselves. Besides they have their own way of settling a matter. There was an old Finn in Ontonagon County who used to play around with his own daughter. He had a child by her, and the fellow she was engaged to found out. He told the other Finns, and a group took the old man out in the woods and strapped him down to a stump. They piled pine boughs around the stump in a circle, leaving a little alleyway, and set them on fire. The girl's fiance walked down the alley, and gave the old man a straight razor. The old fellow could do three things. He could stay there and burn. He could slit his throat. Or he could cut himself loose from the stump by cleaning out his crotch. That's what he did.

Social Tales

A half-blind old Finn living by himself in a lonely tar-paper shack turned out to be a human anthology of Finnish folk tales. I met Frank Valin by the sheerest good luck.

The last week of my trip I turned back to Marquette and hunted up a new friend, Aili Johnson, a young American-born Finn whose enthusiasm for her people's lore had already aided me greatly. I told Aili that, although I now had a fairly good bag of Finnish stories, the prize game, the most elusive quarry, still disappointed me: the fairy tales, which the Grimm brothers had discovered so abundantly in Europe, but which very few collectors have found in twentieth-century, mechanized America.

Aili had a hunch; she knew some friends in Forest Lake who might help. We drove to Forest Lake, a few farmhouses in a wilderness. Three browned Finnish farmers stood by a gate and gossiped. Aili descended on them with a torrent of Finnish and friendly handclasps, fanning some childhood acquaintance; they were beaming; we were in the little house, and they were talking limpid Finnish while I followed their faces eagerly for signs of a strike. But the talk dried too soon, save for a story or two about wizards, and we rose to go. I walked to the door with our host, Viking-built Charles Niemi, and asked him, more by way of conversation than with any serious hope, did he know any teller of Old-Country stories.

Like a shot he answered, "Sure, Frank Valin at Rumeley."

"Who is he?"

"He is an old man who used to work in the lumber camps, and lived with us between seasons. He would often tell us long stories in the evenings. I heard them many times."

"How can I find him?"

"Oh, he is usually at home. He doesn't work any more. Why don't you bring him back with you for the evening? We have not seen him in a long time."

And now the men knotted around me and began to discuss the prospect of fetching Valin and having a party with some enthusiasm. Niemi turned to Aili and said in Finnish:

"Night after night he would sit by the box stove in the lumber camp and tell stories. Night after night, year after year, we always listened as if it were the first time. He knew songs, fairy tales, jokes, romances; he was a true word-smith."

We agreed that Aili and I would drive to Rumeley, and try to find Frank and return with him. Off we went in some excitement, although of course this might be another false alarm, like so many before; we might not find Frank, he might not talk, perhaps he knew only stories from books, perhaps he had forgotten what he knew.

Rumeley proved to be a handful of empty dwellings, without even a postoffice. Nowhere did we see any sign of life. We drove slowly up the highway looking for Frank Valin's shack. That must be it, that tiny structure pinpointed in the open fields.

We knocked on the door. A frail old man opened it and peered out. He was dressed in rags, wore thick-lensed glasses, and showed only a few stumps of teeth when he opened his mouth. A pathetic, wispy man of seventy-six, speaking no English, separated by an ocean from his family, walking six miles a day to get his wants.

"We hear that you are a true word-smith," Aili began, and he smiled with pleasure. "We have been told that you charm your listeners with stories and romances. Your friends at Forest Lake wish to see you, and to hear again your stories."

Yes, Frank would come as soon as he had fixed up a bit. He put on his good serge suit.

At the Niemi home that night no one would have thought that a black forest lay outside the door. Frank, the center of the stage, sat on a sofa and spun his romances to the three husky farmers sitting across from him, who listened all attention, occasionally chuckling, eyes shining with interest. Niemi's daughter, a paralytic, wheeled about the kitchen and prepared the coffee and cakes Finns always serve their visitors. The house stirred with a cheerful spirit of reunion, and a sense of pride because faraway guests had called. In the back country, a visit is a major occasion.

His friends had not underestimated Frank Valin. He knew genuine fairy tales in the oral tradition - tales replete with kings and princesses, dragons and trolls, wizards and heroes. And he knew other kinds of stories, about noita magicians and peasant heroes. On the way home he suddenly burst into a plaintive folk song. He was thanking us for the evening.

Valin told us he was born in the province of Pori, Finland, in 1870, and came to Sault Ste. Marie in 1904, without his family. He writes to his sons, one of whom was injured in the recent Russo-Finnish war, but they steadfastly refuse to leave Finland. Actually Valin would appear to be the last person to strike out on his own in adventurous fashion. "As a boy, I was not like other children," he says simply. "I was always undersized, a weak, spindling coward. The sight of blood was horrible to me, and I suffered greatly when my father made me hold the sheep at slaughtering time."

After a term of compulsory army service, Valin returned to farm work as a "trenki" or hired man to the large landowners. Although he attended the "Kansakoulu", the public school, for one year, and was praised by the schoolmaster, he never followed up his education. "If I had not been so meek or shy," he says, "I would have become a scholar, or at least a clerk." In this country he has worked as a road laborer, and as teamster and blacksmith's helper in lumber camps. In this last occupation he nearly lost his sight when sparks flew in his eyes, and has since lived by himself on an old-age pension.

Valin came to America to escape the bitter serfdom of the crofter's life, and his memory burns still at its rigors. "The sharecropper's life was very hard. Until 1906, when the reform came in, the laborer worked from four in the morning until eight, when he was given breakfast, from nine until one, and from two till eight in the evening, or later when some task made it necessary. After the reform, the working hours were shortened to from six in the morning to six at night. The food was always miserable; sour milk thinned with water, potatoes and herring, day in and day out, while the tables of the landowners groaned with stews of beef, lamb and pork, and carrots and onions. The lakes were full of fish but we could not fish in them; neither could we hunt game, except by stealth, for the land was owned by our 'betters'. Is it a wonder that we left Finland to come here?"

Then Frank Valin told with relish a cycle of tales about Jussi the workman, who always discomfited the landlords.

Jussi the Workman (Frank Valin)

• Jussi went about from landowner to landowner, hiring himself out as a workman for a year at a time, as was the custom. Jussi was a strong, robust rogue, but a good workman when it suited him to work. He never spent more than a year at one house, but all the crofters and servants knew that where Jussi went, the food grew better.

Once Jussi was at a farm called "Kesti". The landowner was a stingy man and drove his men from early morning until late at night without stopping.

The story goes that Jussi had been having trouble with his stomach. This day he had been ploughing, but cramps had driven him to the edge of the woods once or twice for relief. The master saw the horses standing idle, and called loudly from the other end of the field, "What are you doing, loafing out there in the woods? Get to work."

Jussi returned meekly enough, but the next day when he came to work he was wearing only his shirt, with its long tails tied up about his waist. He chose the side of the field next to the public road, and all day long he walked up and down the furrows behind the plow, fertilizing the field as he went.

Someone stopped him and asked, "Why do you do this?"

"Our master is a busy man; we can't take time out for anything."

At another house the servants were given potatoes floating in water for their noon meal, always potatoes and water and nothing else.

"I like this place," Jussi said, in the hearing of the housewife.

"How is that?" asked the fat dame, flattered with praise.

"In the last house they were not very clean; they kept messing up the stew with meat and carrots and turnips and such - it made it thick and dirty. Here the soup is so nice and clean - so clear -and the potatoes are so white."

Suddenly he leaped up and began tearing off his shirt.

"What is wrong?" asked the frightened housewife.

"I saw a bean floating in my soup; I'm going to swim for it."

One spring day Jussi saw the master getting his lines together for some fishing. Jussi watched him take out the boat.

"What is that?" he asked.

"A pig trough - for pigs like you," said the master.

"I'll not go in that on the water," said Jussi, and went back to his farm work.

Later in the summer, noting what fine catches the master brought home for his own household, Jussi asked him, "Why can't I go fishing?"

"Why didn't you go last spring?"

"I wasn't feeling so good." (He had been insulted.)

"Well, fishing is the sport of the gentry, but you can take the basket and lines and get us some bream."

Jussi went out in the boat, and caught a fine lot of bream. He went back to the shore, cut off the heads and tails of the fish and put them in the basket. The middle parts of the fish he put in a weir and hid in a stump. Then he went back to the fishhouse of the landowner, where his master was cleaning fish with his wife.

"This is a heavy basket," said the master.

"A good catch," said Jussi, and walked off. He had not gone far when he heard his master calling, "Jussi, come here."

Jussi came back slowly.

"Where are the middle parts of these fish?"

"Oh, do you take those home, too?" asked Jussi innocently.

"You idiot, of course we do."

"Jas soo," said Jussi. "Up to this time I have never seen anything but the heads and tails of fish; how was I to know the middle parts are fit for food?"

Noita Tales

The peasant Finns had not only their own landlords at home to dread, but also the Russian monster at their gates. Their sons had to serve time with the Russian army, greatly against their will. "When I was of age to be conscripted, I entered without resisting," Frank Valin told us. "But many young men who were braver than I cut off their fingers or their feet so they would not have to serve Russia."

Against the Russian bully the peasants had in the past called on their noitas for succor. The noita, varously described as a religious magician, a wizard, or a healer, played a prominent role in village life. He cured the sick, with or without herbs, charmed and cursed evildoers, and on special occasions used his powers to defend his people from the enemy and so became a national folkhero. Such a one is Kalami of Varpus, whom Frank Valin celebrates.

Kalami of Varpus (Frank Valin)

• At the time of the Great Hatred, about 1808, when Russia was invading the Finnish people, there appeared a noita called Kalami of Varpus. In Ikali people still talk about his power; a man called Kusta of Isavalta told me these things and he said they were true. The Russians were afraid of Kalami, let me tell you! He had the power of turning men's eyes, so they saw things other than they were.

Once Kalami was surrounded by Cossacks. They could see him standing alone from where they were hidden. But when they rushed on him, he disappeared into a thin wisp of smoke. Another time he turned into a gray stump before the very eyes of the Cossack troops.

A third time they were sure they had him circled; he was standing in a meadow with his black horse beside him. They pressed closer, and all at once he was gone, seemingly into the horse's mouth. The soldiers killed the black stallion, but of course they found nothing of Kalami.

Kalami was a kind man in many ways, and loved by the poor people who worked the rich farms for the landowners.

One Saturday night he went out to the hayfields where there were sixty crofters working to gather the hay to take it to the lofts. Evening was near and the rain clouds were hanging low.

"It's time to quit work, boys," said Kalami. "The sauna is waiting."

"We can't stop now," the men said. "There is too much hay left on the field."

"I'll take care of that," said Kalami. He took a bundle of hay under each arm and walked to the loft. Whoosh! At once all the hay from the field was in the loft.

"Be on your way. I shall meet you at the sauna," said Kalami. Then he said to a lame man who was left behind the others, "You see that mattock? You sit on one end, I'll sit on the other."

The lame man did so, and whoosh! At once they were at the sauna, long before the others came.

Another time Kalami killed a Russian who was carrying mail and money from Finland to Moscow. He took his money from him, of course. No one paid any attention to this misdeed except the Russians. (This was at the time of the Great Hatred, as I told you.)

This money he stole from the rich Russians, Kalami gave to the poor. There were many crofters in the land who could not pay the heavy taxes, and it would have gone badly with them without Kalami.

Kalami went to the Russian sheriff who was sitting with eight of his men about a table. "Here is money for the taxes of this province," he said, throwing down his heavy money bags.

The Russian sheriff gave him the proper receipts.

"Is the debt paid?" asked Kalami.

"It is, indeed," answered the sheriff, who counted the money into a box before the eyes of his eight men.

The next morning the sheriff went to count the money again to make sure it was right, and what do you think he found? A drawer full of birch leaves.

Following Frank Valin's tales of the legendary Kalami, his friends began to gossip about noitas they had known personally. "Noitas were burned in Finland," said Michael Seppi, "and sometimes hanged for their witchcraft. The hanging law is discontinued, however, because it was found that the weakest of the noitas could be strung up, and hang there rattling for a week or two, and then walk off when he was cut down. He'd twist his neck about a bit, and say, 'This is good training for the neck muscles'. "

"Even in my time there were several people in the Old Country who had noita knowledge," Charles Niemi said. "I remember one man who liked to trade horses, and would play tricks on the buyers in the marketplace. The biters, kickers, and most mischievous of horses appeared docile and well tamed when he was with them. He would sell one of these horses, and a few hours later it would kick up a fury, break away from its new owner, and return to the noita. "

"Did you ever hear of the noita called Tilli of Kuru?" asked Seppi. "He had the power to open church doors and to heal the ill. He would set the person to be healed in the cemetery, instructing him not to take any hand that might be proffered. Then in the middle of the night he would call the headless folk, and they would come and walk about the man, calling to him and reaching out their hands. But if he did not grasp their hands, his sickness would go with them."

"In this country, too, are people with noita powers," Niemi said a little fearfully. "When a man won't let anyone enter his barn, you can be sure he has some noita tricks. There was August Sunnell, who lived in Munising about thirty years ago, and could escape from any kind of chains or boxes or from any jail. He became a rich man, and his pride was a flower garden with an iron fence around it that cost five hundred dollars. Suddenly he left Munising, overnight. That was not strange, but what made everyone wonder most was that his flowers disappeared with him, and in the morning when people went past his iron fence they saw only sand inside."

Fairy Tales

These strapping sunburned farmers believed beyond question in the feats of noitas. But when Frank Valin began telling them about a noita shoemaker who eloped with a princess, they knew this was a fiction, a fairy tale, and sat back to enjoy it.

Contrary to general belief, fairy tales are not syrupy fantasies for children. Your genuine Märchen bristles with violence and death, and displays earthy touches fit only for adult ears. Grown men tell and listen to Märchen, like these Finnish farmers who sat fascinatedly listening to the stories they had often heard Frank Valin tell, laughing heartily when the giant burst after plugging up his behind with a stick, or the peasant hero literally skinned the intriguing generals. A Marxist could read a good deal into the social tensions revealed by his tales. The princess won't marry her successful suitor when he appears in rags, but acknowledges his claim as soon as he dresses up; hatred of the military class crops up plainly in one story where a swineherd ridicules the king's generals.

Valin's peasant tales show Finnish local coloring, with frequent references to the sauna and to noita magicians. His flight-from-the-dragon story uses an older form than the one Trefflé Largeness gave, with the conventional rock and twig as the magic obstacles rather than a razor and bar of soap; but his version of Cinderella has a modern prize which the suitors strive for, not gold and silver apples, but a photograph of the coveted princess. Like Hollywood movies, the tales run to standard box office types and plots, with characters all black or all white, romance triumphing over class obstacles and gangster-villains, and enough topical allusions to fit the particular audience.

The Shoemaker and the Princess (Frank Valin)

• There was once a king who needed a shoemaker, so the best shoemaker in the land went to live in the king's castle. He had been there for some time when he noticed that the king's daughter was never seen to go outside the castle; she always remained indoors.

"That is bad for the young princess," said the shoemaker.

"The young woman is enchanted; if she goes outside some evil will come to her," answered the king.

"I shall protect her," said the brave shoemaker, but nevertheless, when he and the princess went to walk in the courtyard, a large thunder cloud came, swooped low, and carried off the princess.

Then the shoemaker, who knew some noita tricks, was sure that an evil giant had taken her. At once he set out flying like a bird, and soon reached the house of the giant.

There the shoemaker changed himself into an ant, and crawled in between the crack of the door, into the house, and into the room where the princess was hidden. He resumed his man's shape and spoke to the princess.

"I cannot escape," said the princess. "The house is made of bricks and there is no way out."

"Wait a bit. Then say what I say when the right time comes, and we shall escape," said the shoemaker, changing himself once again into an ant.

The giant's wife was sweeping the floor when the giant walked in. "Who has been here?" he roared. "I smell Christian blood."

Together they began to search, but they could not find the shoemaker, who was hiding in a sand box as an ant.

"I must go away; I shall be gone for two weeks," said the giant and started off again.

Again the shoemaker crawled into the room of the princess as an ant, and changed back into a man. Then the princess showed him three charms which she had found in the room in which she had been hidden: a drop of water, a twig, and a rock.

"It is now time for us to go," said the shoemaker, "and I know the use of these charms." Thereupon the shoemaker spoke the magic words "Mikkel myyra," and became an ant.

At once the princess repeated, "Mikkel myyra," and she too became an ant. Together they hurried out through the crack in the door. When they were outside the shoemaker said, "Foken falk," and became a bird. The princess repeated, "Foken falk," and set out flying with him.

But the wily old giant had lied; he had returned, and finding the princess gone, at once came as a thunder cloud after them.

The princess looked back and saw the giant thunder cloud.

"Drop the rock," said the shoemaker. At once the rock became a mountain that towered so high that the cloud could not pass over it. The giant had to stop, then hurry back to his home for a hammer to break down the mountain.

After a while the princess looked over her shoulder and again saw the thunder cloud, whereupon the shoemaker said, "Drop the twig." She did so, and the twig grew into a great forest, so high that the cloud could not pass over it. Thus the giant had to return to his home for his axe, and it was a long time before he was able to cut his way through the giant thicket.

Once again the princess saw the giant coming. "Throw down the drop of water," said the shoemaker, and at once the water became a great lake.

The giant at first began to try to fill the lake with sand, which he picked up in great mouthfuls and spat into the water. Then he began to drink the lake dry, but to no avail, for the water ran out his other end.

"Put a stick in your behind for a tap," sang a small bird. And when the giant did this, and began to drink, he swelled larger and larger until at last he burst in two.

The shoemaker carried his princess home and there was a wedding, as you may well believe. There were sixteen hundred men gathering corks at the drinking bouts; this is too much feasting for a sober man, so I soon left.

Cinders (Frank Valin)

• There was once a king who made a glass mountain; he placed his daughter on the top, with her photograph. Whoever could ride to the top of the mountain and receive the photograph could get the girl for a wife.

A nearby smith had three sons; the two eldest were anxious to win the king's daughter and worked at forging shoes that would carry them to the top. The youngest son was Tuhkimo, "Cinders", a bashful boy who stayed at home tending the fire, and who slept on the hearth so that he was grimy with ashes.

"Can I go to see my brothers ride?" Cinders asked his mother the first day of the trial.

"Go, but return before the others," said the mother.

That evening when the eldest sons returned, Cinders asked, "How did the riding go?"

"Stay behind the hearth and don't ask what doesn't concern you," answered the brothers.

Now I forgot to tell you that each night an old man would come to Cinders and talk to him in his place behind the hearth. "Go now to a place in the forest and I will give you soldier's clothes and a horse with silver shoes," said the old man.

The boy did this, and the next day he appeared at the trials in fine clothes and riding a horse with silver shoes.

"Would Herr Lieutenant like to try?" asked the king. The boy tried to climb the glass mountain, but the silver shoes were slippery and he did not succeed.

The next day the boy appeared again at the trials, wearing fine clothes, and riding a horse that had golden shoes, and the king asked, "Would Herr Captain like to try?"

The boy tried again, but the gold shoes were too soft, and wore away, so that he did not succeed. Again, as on the night before when he went home in his rags and asked his brothers, "How did the trials go?" the answer was, "Go to your hearth, and don't ask what doesn't concern you."

The third day of the trials the boy appeared in finer clothes than before, riding a horse shod with diamond shoes. "Would Herr General like to try?" the king asked.

The boy rode quickly, so that crumbs of glass flew right and left, crunch, crunch, to the top of the glass mountain. Here the king's daughter gave him her photograph. Instead of riding back the way he had come, the boy clattered down the other side of the mountain, and back to the forest to change his clothes.

Again he asked his brothers, "How did the riding go?"

"It doesn't matter to you. Get behind your hearthstone."

Then the king sent out his soldiers to seek the man who had won the trials - two in each direction.

Two soldiers came to the home of the smith. "Are all the men at hand?" asked the soldiers.

"Here we are," said the two brothers.

"Did you try to ride the glass mountain?"

"We tried, but we failed."

"Are you all here?"

"There is the youngest, behind the hearth, but he never goes anywhere."

The young Cinders was fetched, and as the soldiers began to search him, the photograph fell out of his miekko. (The miekko is a kind of long shirt, that field workers used to wear. "A smock?" "Yes, that's it.")

In all his rags, Cinders was taken to the king. "Here is the man with the photograph," the soldiers said.

There was great laughter, and the king's daughter said, "I don't want to marry that ragged dirty fellow."

"Can I go outside? I shall soon return, but I must take the photograph with me," begged Cinders.

Out he went, and to the forest, where he changed his clothes again, and took his horse with the diamond shoes. Then he returned to the king's house where guards met him at the gate.

"You cannot enter," they said, "You have no permission."

"Here is the passport," said Cinders, showing them the photograph.

And now he was truly welcomed. "Hevonen talliin, mies selliin." "The horse to the stable, the man to the table" as the old saying goes, and the wedding was held, and they may all be there yet.

Seer Tales

"Seers and second-sighters command great respect from the Finns," my friend Aili told me. "Some say a child can become a seer if his face and eyes are washed in water in which a dead person has been bathed."

From her grandma she heard much about a famous Old Country seer, John Katajamaki of the province of Oulu. Sitting in a Finnish tupa he would say, when nothing could be seen in the distance, "I see a horse-drawn sleigh coming. It's old Heikki with his wife and children." And half an hour later Heikki would arrive. On one occasion Katajamaki attended a wedding, when the bridegroom was suddenly stricken ill and could not stand.

"There's evil at work here," said Katajamaki, and asked the bridegroom to remove his coat. From the lining he drew out nine rows of pins laid in sets of nine.

"I'm sorry that I couldn't avert the evil entirely," he said and buried the pins. The ceremony was continued, but nine months later the husband died. His jealous rival had applied to an old witch who had employed a charm to prevent the wedding.

"Are there seers in this country?" I asked Aili.

"There was one in Marquette County who died not long ago. All the Finns here still talk about him. He lived for a while in the house of Herman Maki, who is Dad's best friend, and a locally famous humorist; well drive over and see him tonight. He has built a typically Finnish home out in the woods."

We drove off into the forest, and came eventually to a cleared spot, a piece of Finland tucked away in the wilds of Michigan. In the middle of the clearing stood a red and white log house with a broad porch facing an islet set in a little lake, reached by a toy red and white bridge. On the porch stood Herman Maki, round and twinkling, but with the pointed features of the witty Savolainen. Behind him huddled Mrs. Maki, timid and withdrawn like the Old Country wives, one eye on the stove where the coffeepot perpetually simmered, symbol of Finnish hospitality. The group fell to chatting genially in Finnish, and as I looked at them all in that setting, Aili with her high, slanting cheekbones and her husky father, Theodore Kohlemainen, bronzed and furrowed with the outdoors, I thought myself in a foreign country.

At the first break in the chatter, Aili asked the men, "What do you remember about Emmanuel Salminen, the mystic?"

Maki's twinkle died down, and Kolehmainen's pleasant features grew grave.

"He was heavy, dark, and tall," said Herman. "He was like a tree; he had his roots in the ground, but tore them loose from Mother Earth."

"I saw that man, the far-sighted one, when he came from the East and stayed in Negaunee and Palmer," said Theodore Kolehmainen. "The first time I met him I said, 'I understand you know something about the future.' I didn't really believe it, but I wanted to try him out.

'Not much, but something,' he said.

I asked him where I came from, without telling him my name or anything. He told me, 'You come from the south and are going north a few miles to get something, but you will have to go back empty.'

I said, 'No, I guess not. I'm going to the Consolidated Lumber Company with my truck and catch some lumber.'

I left him and went on up to Negaunee, but I found that a large truck was taking lumber back to Gwinn that day, and the company wouldn't load my small truck. So I had to go back south to Gwinn empty, and his prediction came true."

The two men (both hardheaded storekeepers, incidentally) fell to comparing the prophecies and visions with which Salminen had amazed the Finns of the area. People often visited him to see what their relatives in the Old Country were doing. The mystic would close his eyes, place his hands over them, and get his second thoughts. He could see the dead even better than the living, if one wished to know of the dead. The hardest to communicate with among the living were those whose spirit was "away", because they drank, were immoral, or behaved in similar ways which they wished to keep secret from their families.

Salminen once made Herman Maki a map of Herman's home in Finland - which the seer had never seen - perfect down to the last rowan tree. The house, barns, trees, the distance from the main road, were all indicated in exact detail, even to the color of the neighbor's house, yellow. But here Herman objected, saying the color was red. Salminen reconsidered, and then said, "You'd better think." Maki thought. Suddenly he remembered the house had been painted yellow the year before he left for America.

Salminen forecast his own death. Because he was sick and cold, Mr. Maki brought him to his house. The seer said, "On the fifteenth of March I will know whether I will live or whether I will die." The evening of that day Mr. Maki found him downcast in his room.

"My days are up," Salminen said. He asked that he might die in the bed in which he was lying. Maki promised, but during the night the seer took a turn for the worse, so Herman decided to send for a doctor to take him to a hospital.

In the morning Maki and the doctor entered the seer's room, and Salminen said, "I know what you want to do, but you should have kept your promise. Go ahead, but the doctor won't help."

The doctor marveled that Salminen could read his unuttered thoughts. He had Salminen taken to the Twin City Hospital at Negaunee, where the nurses all feared him because he could read their minds. In three months he died of cancer.

Herman Maki had known another mystic intimately. "When I lived in Mass," he said, "the Finns of Ontonagon County marveled at John Bjorklund, who left Iso Kyro as a young man to come to Michigan. Even as a child he knew events beforehand, although he could not distinguish the past from the future until he reached maturity. People would laugh at him, and call him crazy, but in time his prophecies and eccentric ways won him respect. He traveled widely about the United States, usually on foot, and prospected for gold in Alaska and California.

"Once he came to Lukkarila's, having just returned from out west, wearing six or seven pairs of trousers and several shirts. Whenever he traveled he wore all his worldly possessions, and it gave him a queer and laughable appearance. To begin with, he was thin and shaggy-haired, and had odd blue eyes.

"In California he lived on a mountain with a rattlesnake as his only companion. In Michigan his neighbors noticed that no animal ever feared him. We tested him often with angry dogs, and no dog, however angry, would growl in his kindly presence. Anyone who was near him could feel his power over living things."

Many skeptics became convinced of Bjorklund's esoteric powers. Maki remembers well the first time Bjorklund impressed him as a seer. Herman was walking along the streets of Mass with two other men to a coop meeting, when they encountered Bjorklund looking sad and dazed. "I saw a strange happening," he said. "Within three days a man will cut his throat on a high hillside of stumps."

Neither Herman nor his companions, Jack Luoma and William Store, felt any surprise when a fellow called John Maki cut his throat on a high hillside of stumps in the next three days. But John Bjorklund declared himself much surprised, saying, "I could have sworn it was John Kermu who would do this. I could see the happening very clearly, but not the men. I suppose I mistook Kermu for Maki because they are both thick-necked men."

And on occasions such as this he would say sadly, "The gift of sight is not always a happy one."

Tall Tales

The talk of second sight had sobered the group, and my friends now asked Herman Maki to brighten up the atmosphere with some of his famous comic stories. He rattled off a string, Aili translating them for me, and I was startled to hear "American" tall tales coming out from the Finnish.

How Herman Maki Met the Devil or One of His Little Cousins

• When I was a boy of thirteen, living in Merikarvi in the province of Pori, I went out walking one Sunday morning. I had just received a new double-barreled shotgun from America, and I was very proud of it. Because I worked hard every day of the week, I thought I would try the new fowling piece on Sunday. I had worked already for many years as a hired man on farms, tending cows, ducks, and geese.

As I was hunting birds in the woods, I saw a rather odd-looking man coming through the woods. I turned, sat down on a stump and waited for him to approach. I noticed two very short horns on his forehead. When he perceived I saw them he drew his cap down over his eyes. Then I noticed that while one foot was like any other man's, the other was shaggy with a horse's hoof. Next I spied his long black tail switching from behind his coat. He hastily tucked it under.

You understand, I'd never seen the Devil.

Then he spoke to me, "Why are you always in the woods on Sunday morning, young man?"

"I have no other day to come out into the woods and I come out to get fresh air."

"What is that thing you have in your lap?" he asked. (The gun was on my lap.)

"That's my pipe," I answered.

Then he said, "Let me taste it to see what kind of tobacco you smoke."

So I put the double barrel in his mouth and let her blast with both barrels. (I had fine shot in one barrel and buck shot in the other.)

"That's mighty strong tobacco for a young one," he said, spitting out the fine shot and the buck shot.

Now you understand I've never met the Devil, but that might have been one of his little cousins.

How We caught the Silver Fox in Finland

• We do not wish to kill the silver fox, nor to tear his pelt with a bullet. So we put a nail in our guns, wait until the fox stands by a large tree, and fire the gun, nailing the fox to the tree through his tail.

Then we draw a cross on the fox's nose with a knife, splitting the hide. Finally, we whip the fox with a little switch until in its fury it runs out of its skin.

After two years the same fox would have grown himself a new coat, and would be ready to be skinned again.

Hunting the Bear in Finland

• A long pole was peeled and tapered down toward one end. The opposite end of the pole was fastened to a stand and bolted, at about the height of a bear from the ground. In the small end of the pole a hole was bored, and a crosspiece made that could be taken off when it was needed.

The pole was smeared with syrup. When the bear came around, smelling sweets, he licked the pole. He kept on licking it, and the pole went further and further into his mouth, down his gullet, and at last came out the other end. A man holding the crosspiece was watching, and at this moment he slapped it on the pole, and thus we had our bear, captured alive without a bullet wasted.

A Clever Hunting Dog

• My dog can tell by my gun what I am going to hunt. When I pick up my shotgun, he starts out to hunt birds. When I pick up my rifle, he knows I'm going to hunt game. I even try fooling him by picking up the gun, clicking the hammer twice, and then putting it away quickly. Musti is already out in the woods. So I pick up my fish rod instead. And what do you think Musti is doing? He is under a pine tree digging worms. When I get there, he has dug a big pile, and he looks up at me and winks as if to say, "You can't fool me."

Shooting Partridge in Michigan

• I am an old hunter who has long traveled the woods, and folks often ask me for a tip on good hunting. It reminds me of the time the deacon asked me to go partridge shooting. "You ought to know a pretty good place," he said.

"You bet. I know a fine place, but it takes two shots to get a partridge."

"That can't be much of a place. How do you figure it takes two shots for one bird?"

"Come with me, and I'll show you," I promised him.

Soon we were in the woods and as we came near the partridge, they set off flying from a small thicket. There were so many of them that the beating of their wings sent off great clouds of feathers, so that the sky seemed dark, and not a single bird could be seen.

I shot a hole through the cloud of feathers, and through this hole we aimed at the partridge, and brought down a fine catch. We filled our knapsacks, and could have broken all conservation laws on partridge catches ... but it was Sunday, and the deacon was there. Besides, it's good to leave a few birds for another day.

An Unhappy Bear Hunt

• We get a lot of lower Michigan fellows up here to hunt. A year ago four men came up and rented a camp not far from here. They set out the first morning all bright and cheerful in their nice red jackets and red caps, carrying shiny new guns. By ten o'clock every one of them was back in camp, all hot and tired and disgruntled because no one had seen even a porcupine.

One of the fellows said, "The rest of you stay here and cook up that ham we brought. I'll go out for one more try."

He hadn't gotten very far out from camp along an old logging trail when he ran onto a large bear. He lifted his gun to shoot, but the bear leaped toward him so quickly that the man got nervous and dropped his gun. Then he started back on a run towards the camp, with the bear behind him. He got as far as the camp door, where he fell on the door-sill, having strength left only to grab the door open. The bear behind him ran with such speed he jumped over the man, scraping his mackinaw with his claws as he went. The terrified hunter quickly shut the door and fastened the outer latch, leaving the bear and his three companions inside. "Skin this one!" he yelled to his friends, "I'm going off after another one!"

He got back to Palmer where he told the folks what had happened. After three days some of the men got up enough nerve to go out and see what had happened, and took along a few conservation officers. When they opened the door a crack and peered in, they saw the bear sleeping happily under a woolen blanket in a bunk in the corner. On the floor could be seen nothing but a pair of shoelaces and two underpants buttons.

A sign "Do Not Disturb" was hung on the door, and the next spring the bear was given a medal for heroism. I think it may be this same bear that can be seen on so many of the conservation department posters.

Savolainen Jokes

The Finnish sense of humor is salty and sharp. In sly rural anecdotes and spoofing tall tales it betrays a surprising kinship with what is called native American humor.

One favorite species of the Finnish story is the Savolainen joke, so styled because the wits in the stories come from the region of Savo in central Finland, and are nationally known for their agile retorts. This humor compares with the Attic salt of the Greeks, representing shrewd psychological insights distilled over the centuries. So Martti Nisonen told me, professor of music at Suomi College at Hancock, and himself a fine-looking Savolainen, with pointed features and a clever tongue. The jokes are deceptively simple in appearance, but all neatly puncture conceit, pomposity, and arrogance. I have heard Savolainen jokes from many Finns, from saloonkeeper Gus Ilminen to President Nikander of Suomi College.

When I called at this Finnish college in the Copper Country, young, studious Dr. Nikander greeted me politely, but could offer no suggestions. The idea of recording Finnish traditions had never crossed his mind. He called in Professor Nisonen, who had no help to give either, but relieved the tension with a Finnish joke. The president countered with another, and suddenly the two educators were discharging Savolainen jokes as fast as they could talk.

• A man from Savo was working on a construction job, and fell off the fourth floor. Everybody was quite shocked, including himself. When he picked himself up, the people crowded around and asked, "Did that fall hurt you very much?"

"It wasn't the fall so much," he answered, 'but the sudden stop."

• Kuopio in the province of Savo has a railway station two and a half kilometers outside the town. One day an important salesman from a big city, after making the long walk, complained to a man in Kuopio, "Why did they build the station so far from town?"

The Savolainen answered, "They must have wanted it by the railroad."

• A Savolainen riding on a train took a bottle of whiskey from his pocket and drank from it. A minister passing by said to him, "Don't you know that is a slowly killing poison?"

"I'm in no hurry," said the Savolainen.

• A Savolainen went to Helsinki with an old white horse. A city slicker sneered to him, "How much do you want for your limeboat?"

The Savolainen lifted the horse's tail saying, "You go down and ask the captain."

• The hired man was taking a high-toned lady out in the sleigh. The snow was deep, and she kept complaining about losing the way. He went out to look at the road sign, picked it up and brought it back to her.

"I don't know how to read, so I brought it over to you."

Lapatossu, which means "shoe pack", was a knavish railway worker about whom many jests are told.

• Lapatossu kept moving about from place to place as a laborer and did not keep himself very clean. One time when he was traveling on a boat, the captain saw him scratch himself several times; he had some "renters" on his person.

The captain said to him, "I will give you a new coat, shirt, and pair of pants if you will lie still on the deck of the boat for five minutes."

Lapatossu, who badly needed new clothes, lay down at once, but the creatures made him wriggle and he couldn't lie still.

"Captain," he yelled out suddenly, "when you give me that coat, will you put a button here" ( and he pinched the skin hard to show the place) "and here - and here - and here."

So Lapatossu won the suit of clothes, with a coat of many buttons.

• Lapatossu asked the conductor, "How far is it from Tampere to Helsinki?" He was told, and then asked, "How far is it from Helsinki to Tampere?"

"Well, you numskull, don't you know it's the same distance?"

"No, it doesn't always work that way" replied Lapatossu. From Christmas to New Year's is one week, but from New Year's to Christmas is a long way."

• Lapatossu went to the drugstore so often the druggist told him, "Don't open your mouth when you come in the store." (Druggists were just like dictators then; they thought they were learned professors.)

Lapatossu came in and stood on the floor and said nothing. Finally the druggist snapped at him, "What are you looking for?"

Lapatossu answered, "I'm looking for what you have to sell."

"Only donkeyheads, dumbbell, don't you seel"

"By gosh, you must have a good business then, because there is only one left behind the counter."

• Lapatossu went to the druggist and tried to explain his wife's ailment. "I don't know what is the matter with her," he said, "but she is wriggling, shimmying, swaying, and squealing, like this." And he demonstrated.

The druggist could understand from the actions what the trouble was so he got peeved and slapped Lapatossu twice. Lapatossu walked home without a word and hit his wife once across the face. Her toothache stopped hurting at once, and she stopped wriggling.

Lapatossu walked back to the drugstore and slapped the druggist, saying "I only needed one of your pills, here is the other one back."

* Census of 1940.

Published in Bloodstoppers & Bearwalkers. Folk Traditions of The Upper Peninsula. 1952, p. 123-149.

© Reino Kero

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