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The Finland-Swedes in Duluth, Minnesota

Anders M. Myhrman

The Pioneer City - Duluth was named after a French explorer and trader, Sieur Dulhut, who first visited the place about 1679 and built a stockade and established a trading post not far from the present city. In 1752 another trading post was established in the vicinity, which later became an important depot in the Northwest of John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company.

A settled community did not, however, arise before the early 1850s. The first railroad reached Duluth in 1870, and in 1880 the population had, according to the census, exceeded the 3,400 mark. The community experienced a typical boom, whipped up by promoters, with great areal expansion and rising land values during the years 1883-1888. This was followed by a slow but steady growth. By the turn of the century Duluth had become one of the great centers of the lumber industry in the Central states. In 1890 the great iron ore deposits of the Mesabi Range were discovered and within a decade Duluth had become one of the greatest ports for shipment of iron ore, with the extensive docking facilities that this required. By that time the storage and shipment of grain through the port of the city had also become important. In 1900 Duluth had a population of about 53,000 which, by 1920 had increased to nearly 100,000.

The Early Finland-Swedes - It is known that some Finland-Swedes had visited the pioneer community before 1880, but the first settlers probably arrived that year. In any case, a few families had definitely established themselves there by 1882. In that year Mrs. Hanna Kynell, a native of Nedervetil, arrived in Duluth by train from White Cloud, Mich. That town together with Bailey and Big Rapids were at that time lumbering communities where many of the early immigrants from Österbotten were employed. Mrs. Kynell related later that when she got off the train and had a look around, she began to cry. She had expected Duluth to be a large city but found that it was only a crude town spread out for a couple of miles along the water front. Superior Street, the main thoroughfare even then, was only a crude road. A great deal of the town area was covered with stumps and bushes.[1] Wooden sidewalks, later so characteristic of the city, were beginning to make their appearance in a few places.

The early Finland-Swedes located in two places. A few families settled on Grass Island, a small island in the bay on which the Peavey grain elevator was built later. But the greater number located near the early sawmills of the sand flats next to what later became Gaffield Avenue. A later immigrant described the houses of the early comers as "shanties" made of cheap lumber. Water for these households, as apparently for most of the households in the town, had to be carried from the lake. Later it could be bought for five cents per pail from enterprisers who drove water-wagons through the town. One of these was August Signer from Närpes, who had previously had a saloon on Lake Street. After a try at the water business he apparently went back to his previous occupation.

Information seems to be available about only a very few of the earliest of these immigrants. Alfred Johnson came to Duluth at the age of eleven in the early 1880s, apparently in company with his parents. He was born in Gamlakarleby. Andrew Korén, also from Gamlakarleby, came about the same time. So also Andrew Åkerman from Närpes. Korén was a cabinet maker and later moved to West Superior. About 1890 Johnson started a shoe and clothing store in company with Andrew Kiljander, also from Gamlakarleby. But ten years later he bought out Kiljander and started his own store on Michigan Street.[2]

Johnson's career was rather exceptional for the early corners. A few of them apparently made a living by fishing. But as the logging and sawmill industry developed most of them found employment in that. A small number still later found employment in connection with the shipment of iron ore and grain. But true to the skills for which these people have always and everywhere been renowned, many of them became carpenters and housebuilders in a city largely built of wood.

At Turn of the Century - With the passing of time and the arrival of more immigrants they gradually moved westward, first to West End and later to West Duluth, where the greatest number of them was located already by the turn of the century. By that time the number of families was variously estimated as between sixty and seventy. In addition there were of course quite a large number of unmarried young persons. There was also a considerable influx of new immigrants, mostly single persons, each year during the first decade.

In 1903 a reporter wrote in Finska Amerikanaren that most of the families, some seventy altogether, seemed to he quite well off, most of them having their own houses. He then went on, "Altogether there are here between 300 and 700 Swede-Finns, depending upon the season. In the summer the number is highest, for then all the 'lumber jacks' come down from the woods and get work in the sawmills and lumber yards. Pay is fairly good, between $1.75 and $2.25 a day. When winter comes they go to the woods again."[3] Work at the ore docks and grain elevators was also seasonal to a great extent, thus adding to the seasonal movement of workers.

What may be called "family boarding houses" were common. That usually meant that a family with rooms to spare took in from two to six single men as boarders during the summer. There were also two or three larger boarding houses where ten or twelve men could be accommadated. A few lived at a large Finnish boarding house that was known as the "Poikatalo" and had its own "sauna" (bathhouse).

About the social conditions, especially of the unmarried, around the turn of the century, an immigrant who arrived in Duluth at that time later wrote:

"Many young people from seventeen up came from Finland at that time. The boys got themselves jobs in the sawmills, or at the ore docks, or on the railroad. The girls got jobs as domestics, in laundries, or in a match factory."

"In order that life should not become too tedious in the new country the newcomers used to gather in the home of some family Saturday nights or on Sundays and played games just as in the Old country. On Sundays in the summertime, when the weather was pleasant, they went to some park and played "last couple out" and some of the Old singing games (lekdanser).

"At that time there were also many saloons in West Duluth. Two of these, one of them named 'Vasa', were run by Swede-Finns. There our countrymen often gathered even if they did not drink. They just sat around and played cards to kill time. But there were also many who wasted their money on strong drink. Later a temperance society was organized (1904) and fewer visited the saloons. The two Swede-Finn saloons then went out of business."[4]

Business Enterprises - Johnson and Kiljander have already been referred to as early business men. In 1904 Udell listed several other business enterprises. M. L. Olander from Vasa, certified as a pharmacist in Finland, had after some years of practieal experienee in several cities in America, established his own drug store in West Duluth in 1900. John Mattson from Larsmo had started a meat and grocery business. Saloons were operated in West Duluth by K. Jackson from Gamlakarleby and A. Eklund from Jeppo. In Duluth saloon business was carried on by Engelbert Anderson from Gamlakarleby, Jack Erikson from Lappfjärd, and Gustav Signer from Närpes.[5] Information about business enterprises during the next two decades is very incomplete. However, West Duluth Mercantile Company was started early in this period and continued as a successful grocery business for several decades. Gunnar Frost conducted a small stationery business for many years in West Duluth. Some former carpenters had also become building contractors and built a large number of houses in West Duluth.

In 1928 Silfversten reported on the West Duluth Mercantile Company as a going concern with William Holm as its long-time manager. There was also the West Duluth Realty Company managed by John A. Forsman. Another was the Roller Harrow and Manufacturing Company. The largest business concern owned and managed by Finland-Swedes at that time was the Jacobson Brothers Construction Company, operated by two brothers Jacobson, natives of Maxmo. The company erected the new High School building in Hibbing as well as a number of buildings in Duluth. Silfversten also estimated that there were at least 2,000 Finland-Swedes in Duluth and its immediate environs at that time, counting two generations.[6]

Religious Organizations - Religious activities of Baptists among the Finland-Swedes in Duluth apparently go back to the year 1893.[7] Prior to that time a number of young persons who had been members of Baptist churches in Finland had arrived in the city, and some of them had joined the First Swedish Baptist Church in West End. In the year given above they are mentioned as a group that held meetings and collected money to support F. B. Berglund as an evangelist in Finland.

The leader in this group was John Mattson, a gifted and energetic young man from Larsmo. Others from the same commune were John's younger brother, Gust Mattson, a younger sister, Mrs. Chas. Hill; John Henrickson, John Jackson, Mrs. Chas. Johnson, and John Strom. From the Baptist church in Monå (Munsala) had come Isak Nyman, Otto Jacobson, Erik Nyman, and Sophia Hägglund. The Baptist church in Överpurmo was represented by the tailor Gust Nyman and the blacksmith Jacob Nylund.

The activities of this group apparently continued through the next few years leading in 1901 to the organization of a "Mission Society". Meetings were continued in homes and occasionally in a rented hall. The next step was taken in 1904, when the Ebenezer Baptist Church was organized with 24 charter members. A Sunday School and a Ladies Aid Society were founded shortly afterward.

During the next ten years the congregation had its headquarters in "Vasa Hall" on Ramsey Street in West Duluth. It grew in numbers by new immigrants and conversions though it had settled pastors for only brief periods. Under the leadership of Herman M. Myhrman, who served as pastor of the church during the period 1914-1917, an adequate church building was erected on the corner of 40th Ave. West and 4th Street. Other ministers who served the congregation for some considerable periods up to 1950 were J. E. Kasen, 1921-23; A. J. Stormans, 1924-35; Bruce Fleming, 1938-42; and Emil Nylund, 1943-49. Out of the many active members two should be mentioned: Gust Nyman who had charge of the Sunday School for 17 years, and John Fagerstrom who was a deacon for many years and who conducted the services during the periods when the church did not have a regular pastor.

When the Ebenezer Baptist Church celebrated its 40th Anniversary in 1944, the statistics revealed that during its history 290 persons had joined the church, letters of transfer had been given to 100 members, 60 had been dismissed, and 18 had died. The membership was then 112. Total income from all sources over the 40 years had been about $90,000.

According to information secured by Silfversten from such oldtimers among the Finland-Swedes in Duluth as John Skomars, Matt Simonson and others, a meeting was held in 1896 to consider the organization of a Lutheran congregation. No decision was made at that time, but the following year, at a meeting called by those interested in such a venture, it was decided to organize a Lutheran congregation among the Finland-Swedes. The chairman of the meeting was Herman Johnson and the secretary Andrew Anderson, the latter probably from Larsmo. A committee elected to get the congregation legally incorporated consisted of Matt Simonson, John Erickson, Matt Sven, Erick Johanson, and Alfred Ladin. The original name of the church was the Swedish-Finnish Lutheran Bethel Church.[8]

The first minister and apparently one of the organizers of the church was the above mentioned Erick Johanson (Ryss) who served until 1901. In Finland he had been a village teacher but had after some study of theology in America been ordained a minister. For some years thereafter the church was served by students during their vacation periods and otherwise aided by pastors of neighboring Swedish churches who conducted services once or twice a month. Gustav Oberg, a native of Purmo, ministered to the church two periods, 1908-1912 and 1915-1919. He was followed by Carl J. Silfversten, a native of Närpes, who started his ministry with the church in 1920 and continued twentysix years. He in turn was followed by Alex B. Falk in 1946.

Soon after its incorporation the congregation bought a small church building from a Norwegian congregation. This building was moved to a more convenient location and renovated twice. In 1916 it was completely destroyed by fire. After considering but rejecting a merger with a neighboring Swedish Lutheran church the congregation decided to erect a modern church edifice at the corner of 53rd Ave. West and Ramsey Street. It is a brick structure, the exterior in pseudo-Gothic style with stained glass windows and the interior in true Gothic. It was dedicated in May, 1917, and has since then served the growing congregation well.

In 1900 the church had 61 communicant members. Large gains in membership were made especially in the years 1905, 1917 and 1921. In 1930 the church counted 555 members; 329 of these were communicants. A total of 523 young people were confirmed during the period 1908-1948. In 1948 the church had 518 members - 320 communicants and 198 children.

Fraternal Organizations - The Temperance Movement was making headway among the Finland-Swedes in America during the latter part of the 1890s. In 1902 sixteen local temperance lodges which had been founded before that time were organized into an association named "SvenskFinska Nykterhetsförbundet". After this step the number of local lodges grew rapidly. In September 1904 a temperanee lodge named "Ljusstrålen" (No. 37 of the above named association), was organized in West Duluth. There were 27 charter members. John Udell, who was then secretary of the association, was the organizer. As a result of the activities of this lodge the temperance idea gained rapidly, and the two saloons run by Swede-Finns in West Duluth soon went out of business. In 1908 the lodge had 80 members. In 1917 the membership was 55; of these about 20 were American born.

In 1906 a Sick Benefit lodge named "Fram" was founded. It became No. 20 of "Svensk-Finska Sjukhjälpsförbundet" which had been organized in 1898 in Michigan. In 1913 this lodge was reorganized and its name changed to "Norden".

These two lodges frequently arranged greater common festivities, such as the annual "Runebergfest" on February 5, the birthday of Finland's great Swedish poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg. In summertime they also arranged large picnics to which lodges in other cities were invited.

In 1920 the two national associations merged and became the "Order of Runeberg". The two lodges in West Duluth became lodge No. 21 of this Order. The membership was quite large, and in 1921 the members living in West End formed a separate lodge. Both were very active for a couple of decades but after a separation of thirty years the two lodges again united.

The greatest event in the history of these lodges occurred in 1939, when they were hosts to the National Convention of the Order of Runeberg. Many hundreds of Finland-Swedes attended. At the large Convention Banquet the Mayor of Duluth, Rudolph Berghult, introduced the main speaker of the evening, Harold Stassen, then Governor of Minnesota. About the picnic at Fond du Lac a reporter wrote in Ledstjärnan, the organ of the Order, that the picnic was attended by more Finland-Swedes than ever before congregated in one place in America.

Persons of Prominence - Among the Finland-Swedes in Duluth several persons have through education and ability risen above the average. Dr. Jacob E. Nyquist, born in Kvevlax, studied first at Gustavus Adolphus College and received his M.D. degree from the University of Minnesota in 1905. After a decade of practic e in Cloquet he moved to Duluth in 1915, where he carried on his practice as a highly regarded physician until his death in 1933. He was also active in the fraternal associations and a leading layman in the Bethel Lutheran Church.

Carl J. Silfversten, born in Närpes in 1879, was a graduate of the Augustana Theological Seminary, and served as pastor of the Bethel Lutheran Church for 26 years. He was one of the founders of "Svenska Kulturförbundet" in the city and also active in getting Swedish introduced as an elective subject in the Denfeld High School. In addition he published Hälsningar från hembygden in 1926, Finlandssvenskarna i Amerika in 1930, and several minor works later on.

E. William Holm, born in Närpes in 1875, took a Business Course at North Park College. In 1906 he became the manager of the West Duluth Mercantile Company when this was founded and served in that position during most of his life. He was a leading member of the Bethel Lutheran Church and was very active in the fraternal organizations. He served as treasurer of the Order of Runeberg for many years. Holm died in 1949.

John A. Forsman, born in Pedersöre, was a graduate of the University of Minnesota, taught some years, came to Duluth in 1912 and organized West Duluth Realty Company. Forsman served as the last president of Sjukhjälpsförbundet (1919-1920) and as the first president of the Order of Runeberg (1920-1922). He was also active in many capacities in the Bethel Lutheran Church. He died in 1956.

To a younger generation belong Mr. and Mrs. Waldemar Johnson. After Mr. Johnson had completed his college and university studies, he was first a teacher at the high school in Humbird, Wis., and later its principal. In 1931 he was appointed a teacher of languages, including Swedish, at the Denfeld High School in West Duluth, where he has also served with great success as a coach of athletics and trainer in cross-country running. Active in the Bethel Lutheran Church, he has served as youth counselor, secretary of the congregation, and member of the board of deacons.

Mrs. Johnson, nee Elvira Thompson, a graduate of the State Teachers College in Superior, Wis., taught English and speech arts over a period of years. In Duluth she has heen very active in the women's groups of the Bethel Lutheran Church and has served as a youth counselor. She is a poet and writer of note. In 1957 she was elected treasurer of the Duluth Board of Education and served in that capacity until May, 1962, when she chose not to seek re-election after 12 years of service on the Board of Education.


[1] Carl J. Silfversten, History of Bethel Lutheran Church, West Duluth, 1928. Silfversten apparently based his statements about the early conditions in the town on recollections by Mrs. Kynell.

[2] John Udell, in Hälsning från Amerika (Brooklyn, N. Y., 1904), p. 141.

[3] June 17, 1903.

[4] Private letter to the author.

[5] Udell, op. cit., p. 145.

[6] Silfversten, op. cit., p. 6.

[7] This account of the early Baptist group and the Ebenezer Church is based on "notes" by John Fagerstrom; "The Forty Year History of Ebenezer Baptist Church" (a typed) manuscript by John S. Schublom; and Fifty Years of Christian Service, by the Baptist Mission Union, 1951.

[8] This brief account of the Bethel Lutheran Church is based on Carl J. Silfversten. History of the Bethel Lutheran Church, West Duluth, 1928: and Mrs. Waldemar V. Johnson (Editor), Golden Harvest: 1898-1948; the Story of Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church, Duluth, 1948.

The Swedish Pioneer Historical Quarterly, Vol. XIV, January 1963, No. 1, p. 19-29.

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