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In Praise of the Finnish Backwoods Farmer

John Ilmari Kolehmainen

Heidelberg College

One of the impressive accomplishments of the Finnish Americans has been the transformation of the cutover wreckage left by the lumber barons in northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota into life-sustaining 40- and 80-acre farms.1 Where once stood "a tiny, rough-lumber, tar-papered shanty", there is now a neat, substantial frame dwelling; sunlit fields and wind-touched meadows and garden plots of turnips and potatoes have replaced "a desert of stumps and tree tops and brush".2

This achievement has elicited generous praise. The Finn, testified the agricultural agent of Houghton County, Michigan, "took over that cutover land when nobody else in the world had the courage to tackle the proposition.... He turned that worthless stumpage into mighty valuable farm land."3 A Wisconsin writer, returning from a visit among the Finnish settlers of Bayfield County, stressed "their adaptability to pioneer conditions. They are superior in intelligence, physical strength, patience and persistence. They are self-contained and somewhat apart from the rest, but they are the makers of history as it will be written of this new empire."4 Minnesota's able historian, Grace Lee Nute, has expressed the view that "probably no other group could take over stump land, perhaps also burned over, and make successful farming country of it".5 Extravagant was the encomium bestowed by a book reviewer in the New York Times: "In a land of charred stumps, the Finns are creating a paradise." 6

Victory over the wasteland was not easily won. Every opened furrow, glistening in the sun with sweat and tears, was eloquent evidence that "in this life, bread does not come through play". Work days were long, providing no time for the settler to "observe the rising or the setting of the sun. He noted only that the days were too short in his kingdom."7 The ugly countenances of stones and boulders leered from beneath the mulch. Imperishable pine stumps sweated resin in the heat of summer, as though shedding tears at the graves of the fallen giants. The newcomer confidently tested his sharp ax-blade against the nearest stump. "The wound grinned at him like a resinous mouth. He swung the ax a second time, and he now felt how deep the roots really were. The carth shook, but the pitch-filled tentacles clung fast to the sand and the stones. He swung again, and again, in a frenzy, but the stump won the battle - it did not budge." After hours of maddening toil, the intruder "realized for the first time that his quest for fortune in the wilderness would not be as easy as he had imagined."8 Like Willa Cather's pioneer, he came face to face with the truth that this "land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness".9

Such a formidable and hostile foe merited a worthy antagonist, and the wilderness found its match in the Finnish immigrants. "They seem to thrive", reported a writer in 1912, "where the hardships are most severe..."10

What assets, what attributes of body and mind did the Finn possess that made triumph possible, more often than not, in this mighty, desperate, silent struggle?"11

First of all, he generally brought into the fray arms of steel, and a body which, although not always Gargantuan in outside dimensions, was wiry, resilient like the juniper tree, driven by a well-nigh inexhaustible fund of power. The Finns were, in the words of one of their number, "healthy, stiffnecked, endowed with the strength of a bear and the endurance of a mule".12

A second, highly important, advantage was found in the Finns' conception of their unique nature and their mission in life. To them, a wilderness blazer's role was no fortuitous adventure, no passing episode, but a charge pregnant with meaning and inner satisfaction. Many immigrants believed that God had commanded men to seek their happiness from the soil, and confidingly they read the reassuring words: "When God wanted to make man completely happy, He put him on a piece of land."13 It was widely held, moreover, that the special obligation of the Finns, in whom it was said dwelled an irresistible "land-spirit", was to conquer the wasteland, to carve "little holdings out of forest and rock-strewn soil".14 The Finnish spirit was likened to the "spirit of the backwoods. Where there was uninhabited wilderness, there one found the Finns. It enticed and attracted them. Its silent call could not be refused, not even in America."15

A backwoods' existence meant, in addition, the opportunity to satisfy the old, deep-rooted craving of the impoverished landless to own land. "The Finn is singular", affirmed one of them, "in that sooner or later he is conquered by an unreasoning, mad passion to own his own place, which means that he has to get a small plot of land, on which he can stand legs apart and say: 'This is mine and others have no right to trespass here.' He has to have something, if only a birch tree, a spruce or a pine, a goat or a cow, around which he can fling his arms and exclaim: 'This no one, not even the richest lord, can take away from me. For this is mine!'"16 "A house of his own, thus, was the dream of every Finn. A cabin in a clearing out in the wilderness was the end product of heavy labor and great personal denials. Every cut of the ax in its logs was a token of energy and the will to triumph over hostile elements."17

The Finn's contentment with his 40 acres grew as he reflected upon his past experiences as a wage earner. He called to mind the awful dangers of mining, and the portrait of the mistreated, castoff miner still haunted him:

For many a year he'd toiled in the mine,
And for wages had pocketed
An ailing body besides his bread,
A caved-in chest and a crooked spine.18

He remembered the deplorable conditions in the logging camp:

A wretched home, this cheerless camp;
And "finer people" sneer, make cracks:
"You ruffians, bums,
bearded lumberjacks!"
Our wages are the rags we wear,
Our scraps of food no one digests.
Our beds are bunks
And fleas our only guests.19

Factory and railroad work had been wearisome and difficult. The rewards of fishing had been "lashing gales, blizzards, bitter cold, disaster", and sometimes foam-crested wreaths.20

In happy contrast, the life of a backwoods farmer, hard though it was in tangled brush and mucky swamp, promised independence, security, and the right to eat the fruits of one's labor. Across the borders of the tiny, newly-acquired realm rang the exultant song:

Here I am lord and give commands
Free from the bosses' bad intent.
My toil's rewarded by my lands,
Which once to the extortioner went.21

How sustaining in time of adversity and hardship was this view of life, which embodied the will of God, the fulfillment of the Finnish "land-spirit", the realization of landownership, and freedom from he evils of wage employment. "Where there is land, there is hope."22 That was the living motto of the Finnish pioneer.

A third asset was the willingness to sacrifice present comforts for the promise of future rewards. As a rule, the Finns "worked harder, saved more, and lived with fewer of the material comforts" than their American neighbors,23 who, as the immigrants observed, frequently "had too many ornaments in the front room ... too many paintings in the guest room".24 The Spartan standard of the immigrant demanded: "Be content with the sternest simplicity. Deny every pleasure and luxury. Avoid day dreams and high hopes."25 Often enough, Finnish thrift was regarded by the outsider as an excellent trait. "If the Finn's frugality would he contagious", complimented one, "it would become one of our most valuable national assets."26 Sometimes, be it admitted, self-denial was carried to extremes, the immigrants emulating "the ways of the bees and the ants too earnestly."27

Let no man underestimate the significance of the fourth asset: the Finnish farm wife. "Never attempt to sell a farm or cutover farm land to a man whose wife objects to moving to the country",28 was the sound advice given to the American Railway Development Association in 1922 by the foremost Finnish-American colonizer. In truth, the wilderness would not have been tamed without the pioneer woman, working on an 8-hour schedule: 8 hours in the morning, 8 hours in the afternoon and evening. Three quotations serve to reveal the extent of her activity. "It was back-breaking, grubbing, lugging, tugging work with stumps and brush and roots so that her body ached with weariness, sheer and utter",29 was a native American's picture of the immigrant woman. A second writer pointed out that the hardy, yet soft-spoken, Martha "plowed and sowed, hoed and harrowed, dug ditches, cut hay, and gathered the harvest better than her spouse".30 "Farming and cattleraising", read a third description, "were left in the hands of the wife, who in addition acted as the dairymaid, stableman, veterinarian, doctor, bookkeeper, tailor, shoemaker, carpenter, midwife, trapper, poultry specialist, and so on".31 With justification did the Finnish farm wife ask: "When did I begin my work today? At what hour of the night did I find rest? What is my recreation?"32 And surely she had every right to bite her tongue in suppressed anger when conceited or blind males described wilderness breaking as a "man's job".

The Finn's fifth asset was sisu, a quality that defies simple translation, that is a rare combination of courage, persistence, doggedness, the ability to take the bad with the good, the unexpected with the calculated. The vulgar Americanism "guts" is part of it, as is the saying, "The Finn doesn't know enough to quit". Finland's national poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, has caught this fine trait in the net of language in his epic, The Peasant Paavo. The story is well-known. High among the moors of Saarijärvi stood Paavo's frosty farm. Devoutly he prayed, diligently he toiled, and eked out a scanty livelihood for his wife and children. But hard times came. Pelting rains and autumn frosts stole the crops.

Paavo's wife now tore her hair, lamenting:
   "Paavo, Paavo, thou ill-fated husband!
   Seize thy staff, the Lord hath us forsaken;
   Begging bread is hard, but worse is dying!"
Paavo grasped his spouse's hand and uttered:
   "The Lord is trying us, and not forsaking.
   Thou must mix with bark our bread together;
   Ditches I will dig, in double numbers;
   From the Lord will I expect a blessing."
So she mixed with bark their bread together;
Ditches dug he then in double numbers;
Sold his flocks, and buying grain he sowed it.
Springtime came, and from the sprouting cornfield
Nothing floated off with melting snow-drifts;
Summer came, and now the pelting showers
Beat the ears to earth - just half the harvest;
Autumn came - the frost took the remainder.
Paavo's wife then beat her breast, lamenting:
   "Paavo, Paavo, thou ill-fated husband!
   Let us die, the Lord hath us forsaken!
   Death is hard, but ten times worse is living!"
Paavo grasped his spouse's hand and uttered:
   "The Lord is trying us, and not forsaking.
   Twice as much of bark thou must be mixing
   With the bread; I'll dig as many ditches.
   From the Lord do I expect a blessing."
Twice as much of bark the wife now mixed
With the bread; he dug as many ditches;
Sold his cows, and buying corn he sowed it.
Springtime came, and from the sprouting cornfield
Nothing floated off with melting snow-drifts;
Summer came, and now the pelting showers
Beat no ears to earth in ripening corn-field;
Autumn came - the frost, no more destroying,
Left the golden crops to greet the reaper.
Peasant Paavo bowed the knee, and uttered:
   "The Lord hath tried us only, not forsaken."
And his wife knelt down, and murmured with him:
   "The Lord hath tried us only, not forsaken."
And with joy spoke she unto her husband:
   "Paavo, Paavo, seize thy scythe, rejoicing;
   It is time to live a life of gladness,
   It is time to leave the bark forever,
   And to make our bread of pure corn only."
Paavo grasped his spouse's hand and uttered:
   "O Wornan, no one bears his trials so calmly
   As the man who ne'er forsakes his brother;
   Twice as much of bark with bread mix thou.
   For frost-bitten stands our neighbor's cornfield."33

"A courage and a hardihood almost heroic",34 an abiding faith in the rural way of life, a patient, plodding wife, and stern austerity - these have been the essential ingredients for success in the cutover regions of the Middle West. Without them "the wilderness would not have been cultivated, and the foreposts of civilization would not have been planted in the midst of the forest."35


[1] This article is an adaptation of the author's adress at the Finnish Pioneer Day celebration in St. Paul, Minn., on Aug. 21, 1949.
[2] James K. Jamison, This Ontonagon Country: The story of an American Frontier (Ontonagon, Mich., 1939), 248.
[3] Mining Gazette (Houghton, Mich.), Nov. 2, 1919.
[4] Wisconsin Agriculturist, Feb. 18, 1915.
[5] Grace Lee Nute, Lake Superior (Indianapolis, 1944), 258.
[6] New York Times, Aug. 27, 1944.
[7] K. Rissanen, Amerikan suomalaisia (Superior, Wis., 1924), 94.
[8] Ibid., 95.
[9] Willa Cather, O Pioneers (Boston, 1941), 15.
[10] LeRoy Hodges, "Immigrant Life in the Ore Region of Northern Minnesota", Survey, 28: 709 (1912).
[11] There were, of course, defeats as well as victories in the submarginal areas of the Middle West. As K. Rissanen vividly reveals in his story, A Prisoner on the Farm, some Finns, burdened by indebtedness, ill health, and ignorance of agricultural techniques, were compelled to return, thoroughly disillusioned, to wage employment, saying: "The law of the frontier is like that. The weaker will be defeated. We have been defeated." Amerikan suomalaisia, 103.
[12] Toveri kymmenvuotias 1907-1917 muistojulkaisu (Astoria, Oregon, 1917), 67.
[13] J. H. Jasberg, Maalaiselämän edut (Hancock, Mich., 1913), 1.
[14] Juhani Aho, "Pioneers", in Arthur Reade, Finland and the Finns (New York, 1915), 148.
[15] Samuli Vire, "Kyrö", in Suomen Sosialidemokraatti, July 31, 1947.
[16] Helsingin Sanomat, Mar. 27, 1949.
[17] H. Aho, ed., Picturesque Finland (Helsinki, 1948), 12.
[18] Pelto ja Koti, 5: 229 (1916), reprinted from Vappu 1915.
[19] Palkkaorjain lauluja (Duluth, Minn., 1925), 38-39.
[20] Clay Perry, "Herring Are Silli", Collier's Weekly, Feb. 17, 1945.
[21] M. Rutanen, "Uutisviljelijän laulu", Pelto ja Koti, 8: 9 (1919).
[22] Eugene Van Cleef, "The Finnish Farmer of Northeastern Minnesota", Northland Farmer and Dairyman, September 1917.
[23] J. H. Jasberg, My Ideas and Practice in Colonization Work, manuscript copy of paper read at Denver, Colo., in 1922, at the annual meeting of the American Railway Development Association, in the archives of Suomi College, Hancock, Mich.
[24] Pohjan Tähti (Fitchburg, Mass.), June 11, 1902. See also Amerikan Suometar (Hancock, Mich.), May 7, 1902.
[25] J. Nelson, "Farmeille aikoville ja farmeilla asuville", Koti-Home (1922), 40-42.
[26] L. M. Geismar, "The Finn as a Farmer and as a Citizen", Mining Gazette, Nov. 5, 1919.
[27] Angus Murdoch, Boom Copper: The Story of the First U. S. Mining Boom (New York, 1943), 206-207.
[28] Jasberg, My Ideas and Practice....
[29] Jamison, This Ontonagon Country, 249.
[30] Aura, 6: 4 (1919).
[31] Cooperative Pyramid Builder, 2: 68-69 (1927).
[32] Pelto ja Koti, 9: 310 (1920).
[33] Suomen kansalliskirjallisuus, 9: 50-52 (Helsinki, 1941).
[34] Jamison, This Ontonagon Country, 249.
[35] Aho, "Pioneers", in Reade, Finland and the Finns, 150.

Published by Agricultural History, Volume 24, p. 1-4, January, 1950.

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