[ End of article ]

Stumps and Boulders: The First Encounter*

John Kolehmainen

As the two of us gazed upon our $400 purchase, my eyes took in the rank after rank of jagged stumps standing like the remains of stout Doric pillars, the decaying, browned slashings matted among the scarred poplar saplings, a multitude of boulders, only their bald pates showing above the grass. A chill of despondency ran through me.

But Maija, her eyes half-closed, beheld something different. "We'll take a hoe, an ax, and magic", she whispered, "and where the tangled brush is thickest, we'll clear a site, hew a cabin, and a barn, and a sauna, too, in Finnish style. You break the ground, sow the seed; soon crops will grow and potato vines bloom. I shall feed and milk the mooing. Inside our nest the spinning wheel will hum, and little ones scamper across the floor. Side by side, we'll toil the day and extend our work by candlelight. Well sing away the sorrows, and sleep together the peaceful nights."

Her pluck shamed my fears. I took a second look at our situation. After all, what had we left behind us? A two-room rented flat; prostrating toil in the mines; exploitation and injustice.

All of a sudden I felt an overpowering aversion to mine whistles and petty tyrant bosses and a shoveler's drab existence: ten hours yesterday, ten hours today, ten hours tomorrow - a straitjacket in which life was imprisoned. It seemed right and proper to abandon a society which was engaged in a conspiracy to defeat the rights of the weak. "A thousand flaming goblins!" - the words of Juhani, the eldest of Aleksis Kivi's famed seven brothers, came to mind - "hasn't a man the right to live his own life, and as he likes it in peace, where he stands in no one's way, tramples on no one's rights?"

Yes, Maija was right. The backwoods promised freedom and peace. And life, too. I bent down and wrenched loose a small boulder; the soil beneath was moist and rich and sweet-smelling.

She handed me a new ax, and pointing to the nearest stump, said half jokingly, "Matti, let's see if that stump understands Finnish."

I swung jauntily. The sharp blade stuck fast in the pitchy bark. I yanked it loose with great effort, revealing a slight flesh wound that grinned back at me. I struck a second blow, and I now felt how solid was the foothold of this monster, which after having lost its head and shoulders to the lumber barons without a struggle had now vowed to yield no more.

Again and again I whacked in a frenzy. The ground shook, but the resinous roots held fast. I enlisted the support of a five-foot iron bar, with which I tried to twist, to turn, to uproot this formidable remnant, but it did not budge.

A miner's curse left my lips. It was picked up by an echo, which in high spirits carried it away, as if proclaiming, "Hark, the intruder greets the wilderness."

The stump readily won the first round. I laid aside my ineffectual weapons, ruefully noting that the ax-blade had been blunted and chipped by dancing blows falling on hidden boulders and stones.

Earlier doubts were thus confirmed: winning a livelihood here would demand unceasing toil and drudgery. But there was no escape: the lands brimming with honey and milk were not for us, a poor man's horse does not feast on oats. What could we do except grin and try to drown out an inner skepticism with the avowal: Yes, of course, we Finns really prefer this boulder-strewn wilderness, these lands encircled by gloomy and frost bottomed swamps.

We began our labors. With the help of Maija, whose proficiency with hammer and saw truly astonished me, a shack was put together quickly of rough board and tar-paper. "The more humble the hut in which the farmer starts", was her comment as she surveyed its workaday exterior, "the more magnificent the castle in which he dies".

The interior, on the other hand, soon radiated with hominess as we arranged the simple furniture and Maija scattered her clean and cheery home-made rugs on the floor and draped the windows with neat white curtains.

"A small bird's nest it is", she remarked, sitting down on her favorite rocking chair, "but where love dwells, there is no winter". She was about to set the alarm clock near the head of the bed when I protested, "No, let's put it away - at least for a few days."

Maija insisted that a shelter for a cow had to be built at once. "A horse can wait", she explained, "and potatoes can be cultivated by hand. But we'll never stoop to get milk from a neighbor's cow."

She soon had her Mansikka. Did any creature ever receive more doting care? Every morning a loving hug and a pailful of precious grain; every evening fresh wild hay from the swamp. Later on, after we built a real barn for our growing family of stock, Mansikka's name, like the others, was neatly painted above her stall. Somehow or other, these pets managed to get into most of the pictures Maija took when she got (years later) a camera. I joshed her about this once, and got a pert reply: "And why not? A Finn and cows go together like heat and fire".

The first day's battle with a stubborn stump had given us notice that clearing even a small patch of land for potatoes, turnips, and oats would not be easy - not for one whose vigor had been sapped by seven year's toil in the mines.

Maija and I tried every manner of attack against the resinous, unrotting demons. We hacked, dug, pulled, burned, and blasted. Progress was dismally slow. I cursed the avaricious vandals who, after stealing the gold, left behind these annoying protuberances and gave us this vale of tears in lieu of primeval beauty. When I sought a word of sympathy from Maija, she coolly observed, "Infants cry, the grown man fills his pipe."

"Matti", she continued, "I have heard it said that people react in different ways to stump-farming. The American ignores the stumps, and demands that the Creator give him grain without labor. The Irishman becomes enraged and soon departs. The Swede becomes intensely religious. But the Finn, at first sentimental, then momentarily rebellious, settles down to rid his land of stumps whatever the cost. He is a true scavenger of the woods. In time his clearing looks as if King Bruin had turned it upside down searching for ants."

She concluded with some advice about my anxiety: "We'll have to get a horse to do the worrying, Matti. It has a big head."

Huge, deep-lodged, and slippery boulders also tested our wits and endurance. Day after day we slaved, prying them free, rolling them off to one side where the smaller ones were lifted to the top of an ever-growing monument of victory. Needless to say, these exertions brought to an end any lingering faith in such Old Country maxims as "Stones are the seeds of a garden". "A stony field produces grain, an angry spouse does the work".

After long hours of heaving and tugging, it was easy to become vexed, but Maija knew how to deal with me. On one such occasion, she put a copy of Topelius into my hands, pointed to a passage, and bade me read aloud:

Matti was sent to hoe the boulder-strewn land into a garden. He started his job slowly; he was sullen, grumpy, and recalcitrant, and finished his plot much later than his companions. When the master came to inspect their labors, he observed that Ivan the Russian had finished his work quickly, but he had not removed any stones. Erik the Swede had taken out only the small stones, the large boulders remaining in the soil. But Matti had wrenched loose the large boulders, leaving only pebbles behind. So when God wants boulders removed from the face of the earth, he sends Matti.

This was nonsense, of course, but somehow it comforted me. And surprisingly much did the ax, the hoe, and the shovel accomplish that first summer in the backwoods of St. Louis County.

Sources used include the following: Esiraivaajien muisto (Memorial to the Pioneer Settlers of the New York Mills, Sebeka, and Wolf Lake regions of Minnesota, New York Mills, Minn., 1939; J. A Mattinen, Thomsonin maanviljelysseudun historiaa (History of the rural regions of Thomson township), New York Mills, Minn., 1935; Kalle Rissanen, Amerikan Suomalaisia (American Finns), Superior, Wisc., 1924; J .W. Lähde, "Ennen ja nyt" (Then and Now), New York Mills Uusi Kotimaa, September 25, 1902; John Manni, "Pioneer Life in Carlton County", Carlton County Vidette, July 1, 1937; Johan Nelson, "Farmeille aikoville ja farmeilla asuville" (To Those Planning to Farm or Living on Farms), Duluth (Minnesota) Koti-Home, July, 1922; Wilho Reima, "Ensimmäiset suomalaiset raatajat Minnesotan mailla Amerikassa" (First Finnish Pioneers in the Minnesota Lands of America), Helsinki Kansanvalistusseuran kalenteri v. 1907, pp. 101-106, and the same writer's "Suomalaiset maanviljelijöinä Minnesotan metsissä" (The Finns as Farmers in the Minnesota Woods), Kansanvalistusseuran kalenteri v. 1911, pp. 211-219; Eugene Van Cleef, "The Finnish Farmer of Northeastern Minnesota", Northland Farmer and Dairyman, September, 1917. This sketch forms part of an unpublished study of Finnish immigrant life prepared under an University of Minnesota regional writing fellowship.

* (Author's note: This is the story of Matti and Maija - two of the thousands of Finns compelled to seek refuge in the backwoods of St. Louis County following the unsuccessful Mesabi strike of 1907. Matti and Maija, it should be apparent, are not historical figures, they have been used to unify and give dramatic effect to a wide range of immigrant experiences in northern Minnesota drawn from sources indicated in the appended bibliographical note.).

Published in Turun historiallinen arkisto 34(1980), p. 241-245.

[ Beginning of article ]