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The Finns Way And What We may Learn From It

Elias Tobenkin

How they are making their nature scheme work in our own New England

Men, women and children stood about the counters in the main branch of the Finnish Co-operative Stores at Fitchburg, Massachusetts. It was a busy Monday morning, and the clerks tied bundles swiftly and dexterously. Into each bundle went a leaflet fresh from the printer. The leaflets were in Finnish. They were not advertisements, but contained solid reading matter. I asked Karl Grandahl, manager of the stores, about them. "The leaflets", he replied, "are the soul that goes with the groceries. They are the seed we are planting for the new co-operative America. We distribute these leaflets once a month or oftener, whenever we have something to say - some idea to plant."

Kustaa Edward Grandahl as his name was before he Americanized it to Karl, came to the United States from Finland, a penniless immigrant, seventeen years ago. He was twenty years old, had an inordinate capacity for work, and stored away in the back of his gray and seemingly cold eyes was an immense lot of human sympathy.

Today--.

Well, Karl Grandahl has not travelled far in the seventeen years he has been in this country, in a financial way. His salary as manager of the Finnish Co-operative Stores at Fitchburg is only $150 a month. But if one were going to write the story of the men and movements at work rebuilding, or seeking to rebuild, America from the bottom up, Karl Grandahl would have to be given a good-sized chapter, in such a book. He is one of the builders of the America of tomorrow.

There are nearly a quarter of a million Finnish immigrants in the United States. The period of the largest immigration from Finland to America coincided with the period of severest reaction in Russia, between the years 1890 and 1905. The Finnish immigrants are mostly laborers with a sprinkling of socialistic intellectuals. Co-operation is a gospel with the Finnish workingman, and especially with the Finnish intellectuals. They brought it with them from the other side. They dreamed of it in Finland when the country was under the Tsars. They practice it in America. Wherever Finns gather in considerable numbers they start a co-operative society. The hub of the Finnish co-operative movement is Fitchburg, Massachusetts, and in that city Karl Grandahl is the high priest of the theory and practice of co-operation. He is the treasurer of the Finnish Co-operative Society of Fitchburg and the general manager of the society's business enterprises, which are known as the "Into Co-operative Stores".

"Into" is Finnish for zeal. Zeal is the slogan of the Finnish co-operative movement in Fitchburg. "We are not in the co-operative business for profit, but for an ideal", Grandahl told me, after I succeeded in detaching him from his work and made him settle down for a half hour on a sugar barrel in the rear of the store where we would not be disturbed. "Our ideal is a better America and a better humanity."

"We are not kickers", he said, cautiously, when I sought to pin him down to a definite statement of grievances that the immigrant, and the Finnish immigrant in particular, had against America, and which the co-operative movement was to remove. "We are not unappreciative of the freedom and opportunities we enjoy here", said Mr. Grandahl, "but there is room for improvement."

More questions, and Mr. Grandahl's tongue-tiedness began to give way. His gray eyes lost their studied coldness. A dreaminess came into them as if of a recollection of the past and a vision of the future.

"Millions of immigrants have come to America in the last twenty-five years" - Grandahl was now in full swing - "with a vision in their eyes and a song on their lips. To thousands of them their vision of America has come true. America, to them, has proved a kind and bountiful mother. But to scores of thousands, hundreds of thousands, yes, even millions of immigrants, she has proved only a stepmother - close-fisted, haughty, indifferent. What the Finns are trying to do with their co-operative stores and other co-operative enterprises is to make America a mother to all; to let every immigrant's vision of America be realized. Much is being said about the need of making the immigrant fit for America. There is no denying that need. But it is equally necessary to make America fit for the immigrant. We hear complaints about the quality of our immigrants, but it is equally true that the character of American opportunity and tolerance for the alien has changed. The immigrant sections of our cities, large and small, have become gold mines for the conscienceless exploiters and profiteers, both native and foreign. The immigrant pays the highest price for the lowest quality of everything so that the politician and the profiteer may prosper. For years the immigrant has been robbed of his savings by private bankers, while the government looked on indifferently. Labor agents of the most unscrupulous variety were allowed to play havoc with the man out of a job. The government has recently put a stop to this kind of exploitation. But there are plenty of other parasites growing more wealthy and more unscrupulous every day on the sweat and blood of the alien."

"It is against this exploitation of the immigrant that we are fighting. We are using co-operation as a weapon. We are trying, so far as it lies within our power, to make America fit for the immigrant - for the Finnish immigrant in particular - for we are Finnish by birth and education. And we are succeeding in proportion to our energy and endeavor and more especially in proportion to our numbers. We have made Fitchburg, for instance, a fit place for the Finn immigrant - splendidly fit. Go out around town, look us over, and be convinced. However, we do not stop with what we have achieved in Fitchburg or elsewhere. The Finnish co-operative movement in America is in its infancy. It has a great goal in the distance and it is going forward towards that goal, slowly at times, perhaps, but always irresistibly onward."

There are 5,000 Finnish immigrants living in Fitchburg, all working people, poor people. Without a doubt, however, theirs is the least slumlike, healthiest, and most. wholesome-looking immigrant colony to be found anywhere in the United States.

"Finnish homes are scrupulously clean", the superintendent of the Associated Charities at Fitchburg told me. "Their children are healthy. Rickets are unknown among them. They don't come to charity unless they are in grave distress, and that does not happen often. I believe the percentage of consumptives among them is rather high, but that is climatic rather than economic. They are a northern people, and our climate frequently tricks them into tuberculosis."

And a book agent whom I caught coming out from a Finnish home with a beaming face said to me:

"They are buying more books here, and, in fact, more of the things that are luxuries and make for the comforts of life, than anywhere else in this or in any other town that I know."

One out of every ten men among the Finns in Fitchburg is a member of the Finnish Co-operative Society. Shares sell at five dollars each, and one share makes you a member entitled to a vote. The Society runs five grocery stores, selling to the non-English-speaking immigrant housewife good groceries cheaper, instead of poor groceries dearer, which is the common complaint of the immigrant housewife almost everywhere in the United States. The Society also has its own co-operative dry goods and shoe store, a bakery, a milk store, and, for single men and women, a co-operative boarding house where the quality of the board is a hundred per cent. better than in any private boarding house and the price thirty-three per cent. cheaper.

Just as Gary, Indiana, is a "steel city", many a town on the slopes of the Sierras, a "mining town", or, in the northern part of California, a "saw mill town", so Fitchburg, Massachusetts, or rather, the Finnish part of Fitchburg, is primarily a co-operative town. The co-operative movement colors everything. The Finnish Co-operative Society arranges for lectures, and, as lectures are apt to be rather dry affairs, it arranges for dances and picnics in connection with lectures. It has built up athletic societies for the young men and Sunday schools for the children. It has gone into competition with the

W.C.T.U. and had cut drunkenness among the Finns sixty per cent. just before the dry wave set in. This latter item, the cutting down of drunkenness by sixty per cent., deserves to be told in detail.

Most of the five hundred members of the Finnish Co-operative Society at Fitchburg are also members of another society known as the Finnish Workingmen's Society. If the Co-operative Society looks after the body, the Workingmen's Society looks after the soul, so to say, of the Finnish immigrant. The members of this society are all more or less addicted to thinking. When they saw increasingly large numbers of unmarried, unattached Finns take to the saloon and develop a tendency to periodic spells of drunkenness, they began to seek reasons for it. They found one reason, perhaps the chief reason, very quickly. It was not drink so much that the men were craving, as company, sociability, a place in which to sit and feel at home. The Finnish immigrant was not getting enough room to expand in the United States. Back home, if a man worked in a saw mill he had a considerable walk to his work every morning and evening. Here the street car took him from his place of work to his home in a few minutes. Back home, the Finnish youth was pretty much of an outdoor creature. He rowed in the summer and skated in the winter. There was a family circle, too, where the cold winter evenings were passed in front of a fire amid the hum of women's voices and the chatter of children; so the members of the Finnish Workingmen's Society decided that it would be good for the souls of Finnish immigrants if as much as possible the old world atmosphere of sport and sociability could be reproduced here. They organized gymnastic and social clubs, and then they bought a hall, co-operatively, of course, to house these societies; to have a place where they could meet to read and dance. That was a success. It filled a want. It made winter evenings pleasant and inviting. The comfortable chairs, the glowing fire, and the heaps of newspapers and periodicals, in Finnish and English, became strong competitors of the bar room.

But there are summers as well as winters. Indoors is no place in the summertime, especially not for Finns. So the Finnish Workingmen's Society did more thinking. It delved deeper into the co-operation idea and finally came out with a plan.

This plan was a co-operative summer resort within walking distance of Fitchburg. The location for such a resort was soon found. It was a twenty-acre farm that was for sale. They bought the farm and up to date have spent $20,000 in improving it, in making it a real summer resort for the Finnish community in Fitchburg. They hired a manager to look after the place and opened a restaurant on it where food is sold co-operatively at prices no higher than those of the city. They turned the natural lake on the farm into a swimming pool.

They named the place "Saima Farm". Saima is a woman's name. Finnish poets have used it frequently. It is a name that carries a suggestion of home - longing - the eternal feminine. They thought it an appropriate name for the farm which was to be a home for the homeless and often heart-sick alien.

Just about the time when the newspapers in New York, Chicago and St. Louis get busy with their pathetic accounts of immigrant children sweltering in tenements and pining for the sight of grass and trees, the Finnish mothers of Fitchburg pack their telescopes full of lunch and take their children to Saima Farm. Some of them stay there for the day or afternoon only. Others pitch their tent (quite literally) and stay there overnight and sometimes for a week or two. In fact, all summer is a sort of a vacation with these Finnish mothers, for in Saima Farm each and every one of them has her own summer home within half an hour's journey from her city dwelling.

Saturdays and Sundays the young are taken care of at Saima Farm. There are dances, entertainments and picnics. A 1ecture on co-operation goes with every dance. But it is not an irksome lecture. On the contrary, the people welcome it because these co-operation talks, as one of the men put it to me, "tell how to make one dollar do where two were formerly needed".

I asked Mr. Grandahl for the story of the co-operative movement at Fitchburg, when and by whom it was founded.

"If you are looking for a hero, dead or alive, to whom to put up a monument", Grandahl said with a smile "then your effort is wasted. The Finnish co-operative movement in America is not a one man effort; it is a mass movement. And the story of Fitchburg, with some variations, is the story of Red Lodge, Montana, of Hancock, Michigan, of Superior, Wisconsin, and thirty-five or forty other places where we have Finnish co-operative stores and other co-operative enterprises.

"When several thousand Finnish immigrants steamed into Fitchburg many years ago they found a condition which existed in every other immigrant colony in the United States. There was the grocery man of their own country, speaking their own tongue, who would supply them with everything. The women flocked to him; they could not speak English, and were shy of the American store.

"The grocery man became a sort of a leading citizen in the colony. Whether because he was cleverer, or whether out of sheer necessity, he learned the English language faster than the others. Politicians began to look up to him. He was helpful around election time. He became a power; the political boss of the district. He sold groceries - and votes!"

"In a measure, as the grocery man rose, his stock of goods became poorer, and he became more arrogant. His influence and standing with American politicians had turned his head."

"It was at this time, however, that a new set of immigrants began to come to America from Finland. They were men with ideals; men who had left Finland in order to escape the oppression of the Tsar. They were socialists and were students of the co-operative movement in Belgium and England. Co-operation and socialism are closely identified in Finland. They resented the manner in which the groceryman was manipulating and selling the Finnish vote in his district. They offered resistance and decided to free the colony from the grip of these business-men politicians. Of course, the grocer became the enemy of these radicals. The radicals ceased to buy from him. They changed their plans and went to American stores, and they made a discovery."

"They found that the alien districts in America are the dumping ground for the worst goods which are sold here, at the highest prices. Whatever cannot be sold elsewhere is palmed off on the immigrant. The fact that the storekeeper himself is an immigrant like the rest makes little difference. In fact, the worst exploiters of the alien are generally his own kind."

"They then began to agitate for co-operative stores. Six or eight years this agitation lasted. Several stores were started and they failed. They failed because the public lacked faith in a co-operative store. They lacked faith because the men who headed the co-operative movement were in almost every case theorists and not business men."

"However we learned with each failure. Some of us went to commercial schools to study the rudiments of business. Practice on top of the Latin and Greek that we learned in the old country. Others began clerking in stores. In 1908 the 'Into Co-operative Store' was started. It has been in existence ever since. We have prospered and branched out. We own the building, worth $50,000, in which our main store is located, and we have four branch stores in various parts of Fitchburg."

"We do business in our stores on a 20 per cent. profit basis, which is the basis upon which all grocers do business - in theory. In practice, however, we find that even on a basis of 20 per cent. profit we are able to save for our customers from 8 to 10 per cent. on groceries, 12 per cent. on milk, and 30 per cent. on bread. On shoes we save for them a minimum of 12 per cent. The biggest saving is recorded in the boarding-house, where we feed daily between 200 and 250 people. Our board is $5.50 a week."

"But the saving in the amount paid out for groceries may be said to be only one half the saving achieved. The other half comes in the quality and food value of the goods. There are no relabeled and repainted cans of tomatoes in our store - no inferior goods of any kind. If the customer finds an article unsatisfactory, he obliges us by returning it. Another thing, we do not waste the housewife's money with forced sales. We do not buy goods that we do not need from the wholesaler just because there happens to be a sale on them, and we do not, by means of advertising, lure the housewife into buying things which she doesn't need, or which she only half needs, and thus, after buying, wastes half."

"Do you advertise at all?" I asked.

"We do. We advertise to keep the Finnish press, which supports the co-operative movement, going. We do that as part of our educational work, not for business reasons. We do not mean to stop with our co-operation plans here; we mean to go right on with them."

Just what are your plans in that direction?"

"Our plans", Grandahl mused; "well, you see, between two and three million dollars is spent every year by the Finnish immigrants of the United States in co-operative buying. We have eight Finnish co-operative stores in the State of Massachusetts. In Fitchburg alone we did a business of $247,999 in 1918, and that was before we went into the milk business. The next step, therefore, must be a co-operative wholesale house to supply the Finnish co-operative stores in Massachusetts and throughout New England. Our plan, after that, is co-operative production. We are even now looking about for a likely farm to buy. We mean to raise on that farm our own product and vegetables. We mean to raise cattle on it and have our own milk. We are now selling milk for thirteen cents a quart. Others are selling it for fifteen."

"And next?"

"Next", Grandahl smiled, "comes co-operative manufacturing. It is on our programme all right. And when the Finnish immigrants and all others in America get to the point of co-operative manufacturing, we shall be very close in this country to the co-operative commonwealth."

"What about banking? Don't you ever get short of cash?"

"When we do", was the reply, "we borrow it from our own bank. We have a Worker's Credit Union in Fitchburg which is one of the livest institutions of the kind in the country. You cannot call it a bank because it does no checking business. But it lends money. It was incorporated in April, 1914, and its total turnover since that time has been a million and a half dollars. It has 3,000 depositors, and the total assets on hand now are $600,000."

There is a Finnish daily paper in Fitchburg named "Raivaja" (The Pioneer), which, while not formally incorporated as a co-operative enterprise, is owned by its readers. Raivaja is a staunch advocate of co-operation among the Finnish immigrants. There is no national organization combining the various Finnish co-operative branches in America. There was such a national league, but geographical distance was against it, and it had to be abandoned. Now, the Finnish co-operative organizations of the east have their own combine, while those of the middle and far west form a separate unit. At Superior, Wisconsin, where there is a strong Finnish co-operative center, there is a sort of headquarters for the Finnish co-operative movement. Here the official journal of the movement, 'Pelto ja Koti' (Farm and Home), is published. Here, too, a six-weeks' course in the training of men for the management of co-operative enterprises is given. Lectures and the printed co-operative literature are all in the Finnish language.

"Where does the Americanizing influence come in?" I asked.

"Our contribution to the Americanization of the alien - and I think it is an important one", Grandahl said, after a thought, "lies in our removing the barriers between the alien and America. It is a notorious fact that the alien labor agent, the alien banker, the grocer and business man, have in the past kept the immigrant from becoming Americanized. When the alien becomes Americanized he ceases to be their customer."

"We do not drag the alien away from his American surroundings. On the contrary, we encourage him to Americanize himself, to maintain an American standard of living, to model his home as nearly as he can afford it after the American home. You would be astonished to see what substantial furniture the Finnish families of Fitchburg possess. We encourage them to have good homes. A home is essential to good citizenship. Next to the school, a good home is the biggest bond between a man and his country. Every one of our immigrants know that he has come here to stay; that this is to be his land and the land of his children."

"The Finnish co-operative movement inculcates no foreign atmosphere. It does not build up barriers between the immigrant and America for profit as the private alien business does all too frequently. It is not in business to profit from the immigrant, but to help him in every way."

"Our literature is printed in Finnish; that is true. But we use the Finnish language as a matter of convenience rather than of principle. We all understand Finnish well and we don't understand English well. It is no use incommoding the older generation whose language and habits are settled. But we leave the young generation alone. America takes care of the children - America makes them her own."

"And do you think that this is all that it is necessary to do to Americanize the alien effectively?"

Grandahl thought for some moments, then said:

"Different people have different ideas about such things. So far as I am concerned, however, I have an abiding faith in America and her ability to absorb her immigrants, if no artificial barriers are placed in her way. I have been in this country seventeen years. I began life here as a common laborer. I worked on a railroad with the worst paid aliens. Later, I went to Valparaiso University, where I studied commerce and economics. I managed co-operative stores in the far west. I saw America at work modeling, adapting and absorbing the alien in many parts of the country, and I am convinced that America needs no outside stimulation and assistance in this work. Of her own accord she draws the alien to herself. To my mind, the problem is not to feed the alien Americanism by artificial spoons and tricks, but to keep the road between him and America's feast table clear. He will do the eating himself and he will do it greedily."

These are the views of one of the builders of the America of tomorrow.

Published in Red Cross Magazine, March 1920.

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