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The Finland Community, Minnesota*

Darrell H. Davies

University of Minnesota

This is the story of a submarginal agricultural area in the "Arrowhead Country" of northeastern Minnesota. As conditions are typical of those in cutover lands with rapidly growing tax-delinquent acreages in this part of the state, it illustrates the problems of all such areas.

Settlement began in 1895 with a nucleus of Finnish families. Their numbers increased until today the occupants of the farms, most of which were taken up as homesteads before 1906, are practically all Finns. Members of other racial groups, constituting but a small fraction of the present population, arrived later, and few of them are dependent on agriculture.

Limits and Relationships of the Community

The Finland Community is a closely integrated economic as well as geographic unit, attenuated in form, with settlement confined to two major axes parallel to the main north-south and east-west highways. The early occupance pattern was determined neither by rail lines nor by the present highway system, for settlement preceded the construction of both. The first arrivals "packed in" over "trails" from the boat landings at and between Beaver Bay and Little Marais; but, as the more desirable agricultural land was generally located where topographic conditions favored road building at a later date, most of the early farms were either on or near the present highways. The occupance pattern has been further accentuated by the abandonment of clearings on secondary roads impassable much of the year. The establishment of definite limits for the community is possible, since transition zones are either largely or totally unoccupied. The boundary is most indefinite to the south, where the Beaver Bay and Finland communities join near Lax Lake in an area occupied by four families; elsewhere two to eight-mile breaks in settlement occur.

Two satellite communities are dependent on Finland: Cramer, fourteen miles to the north, a small group trading at Finland in part and sending children to the Finland school; and Isabella, about eighteen miles to the northwest, maintaining its own school but doing practically all trading at the Finland stores. Finland, in turn, is itself similarly related to Two Harbors and, to a lesser degree, to Duluth, these two cities serving as the chief contacts with the outside world by way of the Beaver Bay Road.


Two main highways serve the Finland Community today. One, the Beaver Bay-Cramer Road, is a part of the inland portion of the old main

Fig. 1 - Map of the "Arrowhead Country" of northeastern Minnesota. Scale 1:3,300,000.

highway from Duluth to the Canadian border, shorn of its former advantage by the opening of the present shore road in 1924. A second road runs from Little Marais to Ely. This will be supplemented shortly by the Ilgen City cutoff, which will displace the Little Marais Road as part of State Highway Number One (Fig. 1). Both roads are graveled, maintained in fair to good condition, and passable at all seasons of the year except for a short period in the spring when the frost goes out of the ground. This time when the roads "break up" regulates the occurrence of a movable vacation in the school year.

These two highways at present afford the only means of communication with other parts of the state; for boat lines no longer operate between the landings on the north shore of Lake Superior and no rail lines serve the area. In addition to the main highways, there are about ten miles of secondary roads, exclusive of private roads and roads constructed and kept in condition by the Forest Service, maintained in passable condition during the summer and more or less usable the rest of the year. Most of these roads do not serve more than two or three farms; several serve only one; and the cost of maintenance, considering the extent of their use, is absurdly high. Farms on such roads are being gradually abandoned because of their inaccessibility; on at least three roads abandonment has been complete.

For a short period rail service was afforded by the Duluth and Northern Minnesota Railroad, a logging road built from Knife River on Lake Superior to Cascade. Construction was begun in 1898; the road reached Finland in 1911 - it was then that the community acquired its name - and was completed to Cascade in 1915. When it was proposed to discontinue service in 1921, with the exhaustion of the commercially exploitable timber, the case was bitterly contested in the state courts, but the decision was favorable to the railroad company, and today all that remains to mark the location of the former rail line are piles of rotting tamarack ties, an occasional stretch of the old roadbed, and the former section house at Finland, now used as a dwelling place.

Fig. 2 - The John Haveri farm and farmstead on the Baptism River, one-half mile south of Finland (C on Fig. 4). Barns and ladder at left; bathhouse at extreme right. The cultivated fields border the stream; the cleared slope in the foreground is too stony to be used except for pasture; in the background the uncleared upland extends for miles without habitation. This and the following photographs were taken September, 1934.

During the few years of its operation the railroad served the transportation needs of the Finland Community effectively; further, it supplied a market for logs at fair prices and thus furnished the farmers with a supplementary source of income. The present rail line, the Cloquet Railroad, ten miles to the northwest of Finland, is a private road and furnishes neither an outlet for agricultural surpluses nor a market for logs.

Although the new Beaver Bay-Cramer Road is much better than the older highway that it displaced, particularly where it follows the route of the abandoned rail line, and although the completion of the Ilgen City cutoff will still further improve conditions, lack of rail communication works a serious hardship, since it necessitates trucking all produce to Two Harbors, thirty-nine miles from Finland, over a heavy grade from the Lake Superior lowland to the uplands, which rise nine hundred feet within a distance of less than two miles.

The Forest Resource and Lumbering Operations

Early lumbering operations north of Lake Superior were confined to a narrow strip along the shore; not until the construction of the Duluth and Northern Minnesota Railroad were logs cut in the Finland area. The logs were shipped by rail to Knife River; from here the white pine and cedar went to Duluth to be sawed into lumber, the balsam and spruce to Ashland, Wis., for the manufacture of pulp; the tamarack was used for railroad ties.

After these lumbering operations were completed much merchantable timber, as well as small growth, particularly on private holdings, was destroyed by uncontrolled fires resulting from the careless

Fig. 3 - The John Waxlax farmstead, six miles southwest of Finland, with Lax Lake in the istance (D on Fig. 4). The building at the right is a combined store and residence; the log house is the old family home, one of the first buildings in the community. Across the lake, to the east, the forested upland is unoccupied for miles.

burning of slash. The entire area was burned over in 1908, 1909, and 1910, and portions suffered from fires in 1923 and 1926. The ever present fire hazard is suggested by the ladders often attached to the roofs of the farmhouses and barns as an aid in fire fighting (see Figs. 2, 3, and 9).

The present stand of timber consists of mixed hardwoods and conifers of both upland and swamp varieties, including maple, white birch, aspen, cedar, spruce, balsam, white pine, and several types of brush, all in various stages of reproduction. Most of the merchantable timber has been either removed by cutting or destroyed by fire, but some still remains, particularly to the north of Finland. The establishment of the Finland State Forest, which at present includes only a portion of the Community, has been of much benefit in regulating unauthorized cutting on both public and private land and in the prevention and control of fires. It is hoped that its limits may be extended, eventually to absorb the entire area.

Number and Composition of the Population

The present population of the Community fluctuates somewhat but normally is about 160. During periods when the cities offer opportunity the younger members of the families leave; when unemployment occurs they return to the farms. The summer season affords employment at the numerous lake-shore resorts, particularly for the female element.

Peripherally, the population is Scandinavian, with Swedes in the majority, but near Finland and especially along the Little Marais-Isabella Road there are few on the farms except Finns. In Finland proper there are a number of more recent arrivals of other nationalities, some only temporary residents.

The population is characterized by an excessive percentage in the older age groups. Of the total population, 13 per cent are more than 65 years of age and an additional 12 per cent between 45 and 65; only 16 per cent are in the age group 15-24. This reflects the lack of opportunity in the area and is a material change in population composition from that of the comparatively recent past, as school enrollment

Fig. 4 - Land utilization.

indicates. Originally the Community was served by four schools with a total enrollment of about 75 children; today one school at Finland with an enrollment of 29 serves the entire Community. Of this number 10 come from Cramer; only 10 families from the Finland Community contribute children.

In such an isolated area, populated by a group of essentially homogeneous racial extraction, it is not surprising to find a high degree of interrelationship: in some cases a single family is related by blood or through marriage to 25 per cent or more of the total population. A striking characteristic of the composition of the population is the ratio of males to females - 130:100. Out of a total of 61 occupied houses 22 are occupied by men living alone or with other men. The Finland Community represents an eddy or backwater in which misfits from other areas have accumulated. Some are former workers in the

Fig. 5 - Land ownership and tax delinquency.

lumber camps; others have moved in from the larger cities. Life is very simple, a type of subsistence existence. As one individual, formerly from one of the large cities of the state, expressed it: "If all else fails, one can always make a living from the woods." In many respects the Community represents a preservation of a frontier. In reality the area embraced by the Community is a frontier region agriculturally, and such it will always remain.

Landholdings and Farm Land

The Finland Community is an area of 24,320 acres in 235 separate tracts owned by 179 individuals and corporations, including the state, the largest single owner, which has 2000 acres in 24 separate parcels - 8.2 per cent of the total area, or, including 640 acres of school land, 10.8 per cent (see Fig. 5). Three other large

Fig. 6 - The "Old Silver Road" just east of "Silver Hill", looking north (B on Fig. 4). A typical secondary road serving only one farm.

holdings total 3800 acres, or 15.6 per cent of the areal extent of the Community. These, together with several other large holdings of smaller size that constitute in all 33 per cent of the total area, generally represent land still owned by lumber companies, land taken in payment of debt, or land acquired as a basis for selling stock in companies organized ostensibly for the breeding of fur-bearing animals. Of the total area only 3966 acres are occupied, mostly included in 40 farms. The average farm is thus about 100 acres, of which about 20 acres are cleared. Clearings represent less than 3 per cent of the total area of the Community. They are seldom rectangular (Fig. 4); everywhere tongues of forest seem to invade the land in use: the significant landscape fact is the forest, not the clearing. Out of a total of 48 clearings in the Community, 8 were abandoned between 1905 and 1934; and only 1 new clearing has been made recently. On some of the farms still occupied the clearings are not used except for the wild hay that they supply. Agriculture is definitely on the downgrade.

Occupied farms and clearings are concentrated on or near the main roads, particularly the east-west highway. Of clearings more than a quarter of a mile off such roads, nearly half are now abandoned, and many others are tax delinquent for such extended periods of time that their continued occupation is improbable. These earlier clearings were made before good roads were in existence and automobiles in common use. Today parctically all the farmers own cars.

Fig. 7 - Boulders in the Baptism River where the stream cuts through excessively stony soil (E on Fig. 4). One quarter of a mile east of Finland, north of the Little Marais Road.

Upland soils are excessively stony and in many places are entirely lacking or so thin that agricultural use of the land is impossible. This has concentrated the clearings in the depressions. Wherever uplands are in use, and even on the lower land, many fields are so stony that no attempt is made to use them except for pasture (Fig. 2). The excessively stony upland farms, mostly at some distance from main highways, are in the process of gradual abandonment; everywhere agriculture is going downhill, both literally and figuratively.

The Agricultural Economy

This is an area with climatic as well as topographic limitations. In the fall of 1933 the first snow, which remained on the ground all winter, fell the middle of October; freezing temperatures occurred as late as June 10, 1934, and as early as the middle of August of the same year. This combination of temperature conditions caused a short potato crop and, coupled with drought, resulted in poor yields of hay. As the feeding season normally extends from the middle of October to the first of June, this was a major catastrophe, but one that occurs all too frequently, for most of the farms are located at the lower levels, where the frost hazard is greater.

Of the cleared land in production, 326 acres were in hay in 1934 and 165 acres in cultivated crops, the most important field crops being oats, 70 acres;

Fig. 8 - An abandoned house of typical Finnish log construction three miles southeast of Finland (A on Fig. 4). The former occupant moved to a more accessible location.

potatoes, 65 acres; and barley, to 10 acres. The hay cut is practically all wild grass, both on the uplands and on the marshes. None of the grains are threshed; all are fed in one form or another. The most promising crops are hay and potatoes: the latter crop under normal conditions yields 150 to 175 bushels of excellent quality to the acre. Berries do well, and some small fruits, principally strawberries, are raised; blackberries and blueberries grow wild.

The most important cash product of agriculture is cream. Farmers milk from one to six cows and sell cream, which is trucked to Two Harbors and Duluth, through the cooperative store. Weekly sales range from 30 gallons in the winter to 60 gallons in the summer; total sales for the year from 1750 to 2000 gallons. Other animal industries are of only slight importance. There are a few sheep and an even smaller number of goats, and most farmers keep a few hogs and some poultry to supply their own needs. Most of the farmers also have one horse or a team, though some hire their plowing done.

Farmsteads and Buildings

Some of the houses are of frame construction (Figs. 2, 3, and 9), but many are of logs (Figs. 3 and 8), squared on four sides, with the corners dovetailed and without

Fig. 9 - The Matt Salo farmhouse, one and one-half miles southeast of Finland (H on Fig. 4). An average frame house and typical well. Note the ladder for fighting fires.

projections. Barns and other outbuildings are also frequently of logs. Houses are without basements, storage being provided by root cellars (see Fig. 10). Although stone is abundant, it has not up to very recently been used in building construction, not even for chimneys.

Fig. 10 - The Isaac Koski farmstead two miles southeast of Finland on the Little Marais Road (F on Fig. 4). Note the large number of widely separated outbuildings, including the root cellar built into the hillside.

There is a multiplicity of sheds and other outbuildings, including the ubiquitous Finnish bathhouse, all widely separated (see Fig. 10). In the peripheral portions of the Community, where Scandinavian elements of the population predominate, the characteristic buildings of the Finnish farmsteads disappear, to be replaced by frame buildings or log houses of more conventional construction.

Modern conveniences are few. There are no telephones except in the stores; there are few lighting systems; and labor-saving household devices are also lacking to a large extent. Water for domestic use is obtained from shallow dug wells, the stony soil precluding the possibility of driving pipe to the water-bearing layer ordinarily only a short distance below the surface on the lower land where most of the farms are located. On the upland farms, and even on others, these shallow wells go dry during prolonged droughts.

With meager returns from agriculture, supplementary sources of income assume importance. The most important of these are work on the highways and fighting fires,

Fig. 11 - The Aimio Moisio farmstead, one and one-quarter miles south of Finland on the Beaver Bay-Cramer Road (G on Fig. 4). This is one of the best of the frame houses in the community.

seasonal employment at the lake-shore resorts, trapping and the raising of fur-bearing animals, and the woods, which supply game both in and out of season. Even with such additional sources of income some of the families are on relief.

Trade and Manufactures

Two stores divide the trade of the Finland Community. Both handle groceries and meat, and one, the co÷perative store, a varied line of general merchandise as well. These stores both draw trade not only from Finland but from Isabella, to a lesser extent from Cramer, and to a limited degree from Little Marais as well. A lunchroom and a "beer parlor" complete the list of business establishments at Finland. The co÷perative store, which profits from having the post office, did a total business of $30,000 for the fiscal year ending May 31, 1934, on a stock of merchandise that inventoried $1937.64 on the same date. Of this total trade 30 per cent represented cash sales to transients, county purchases, or trade originating in the CCC Camp. The rest came either from Finland or from the satellite communities. The total annual purchases by individuals or families range from a few dollars to more than $1200.00; the average is $250.00 - a small amount for some of the rather large families.

The two stores profit from the tourist trade, since both have filling stations. Both the co÷perative store and the state Forest Service maintain free campgrounds, and the nonco÷perative store has cabins on the Baptism River for rent. Cabins are also available at Lax Lake, six miles to the south, where a small store and filling station supply limited needs (see Fig. 3).

There are no manufactures in Finland nor in the Community except that some lumber is sawed by two small rigs, one at Finland, the other near Lax Lake. Both are poorly located, and the volume of production is small.

Social Conditions

This is a community in which efforts have been pooled to a degree rather unusual in American life, at least in the past. There is a community hall, a co÷perative store, and up to recently a communityowned threshing machine and small flour mill. These co÷perative enterprises are, however, confined almost exclusively to the Finnish element of the population.

One of the handicaps of the Community is the lack of amusements. The CCC Camp, with its weekly motion pictures and parties, has remedied this lack during the past year; before that time an occasional party at the Finn Hall or Beaver Bay and an infrequent motion picture at Two Harbors, thirty-nine miles distant, supplied the only recreation for the younger people. There is no church building, and there are no church services, so that the social features associated with these are also lacking.

The poverty of existence in the Finland Community is evident even in the only home of the dead, the cemetery on the Little Marais Road. Its unkempt condition suggests that life is much too hard to give much thought or time to the dead.

Tax Delinquency

Tax delinquency is a serious problem: every tax-delinquent acre narrows the tax base and adds to the burden of those who pay. Nearly 42 per cent of the total acreage is tax delinquent for five years or more and an additional 19 per cent for two to four years inclusive; on only 38 per cent of the total acreage are taxes fully paid to and including the 1932 assessment. Of the total levy of $3145.73 for 1932, 62 per cent was uncollected September 1, 1934 (Fig. 5). For Lake County, in which the Finland Community is located, tax delinquency for 1932 taxes was 28 per cent, as contrasted with the 62 per cent for the Finland Community. The growing area of tax-delinquent land, much of it not even worth the total of the unpaid taxes, threatens the economic stability of the Community. The most serious cases of tax delinquency occur in the unoccupied areas, mostly owned by nonresidents. For the landholdings larger than 1000 acres no taxes have been paid for five or more years on 80 per cent of the acreage; on only 22 per cent of the unoccupied land have taxes been fully paid to and including 1932. For the larger of such unoccupied landholdings it is generally true that the only portions for which taxes have been fully paid are those of highest assessed value where some timber, particularly white pine, makes it profitable to hold the land.

Of the occupied land, by contrast, 43 per cent is tax delinquent and only 14 per cent is delinquent for five years or more. The small percentage that the occupied land comprises of the total area, however, renders these percentages of but minor importance. To ensure any future for the Community it will be necessary to collect taxes from unoccupied as well as occupied land.

Summary and Conclusions

The Finland Community, located in an area of small and probably declining opportunity at present, maintains itself on an almost purely subsistence basis, with a minimum of dependence on other areas. This is a condition that must, even under the most favorable circumstances, persist in part, though alleviation of present conditions is possible as well as highly desirable.

There is little doubt that the present inhabitants are much better off on the average, even under the conditions that exist today, than they would be in one of the larger cities. In fact, it would be a serious mistake to move them to a ''better" area. They have established themselves here of their own choice, and they would, properly enough, resent any attempt at displacement. Furthermore, the presence of inhabitants is desirable to provide for road maintenance, the prevention and fighting of fires, and the harvesting of the forest crop as it matures. It is much better that this should be done with local rather than imported labor. This does not, however, argue for any further influx of population, since the Community, is not underpopulated at present.

Specifically, the following recommendations are made for the improvement of conditions in the Finland Community:

1. The State Forest should be expanded to include all the unoccupied, and particularly the tax-delinquent, land, which should be withdrawn permanently from agricultural use.
2. Forest industries, including the cutting and marketing of the mature forest crop on both state-owned and private land, should be initiated by the state with the use of local labor.
3. Attractive campgrounds and adequately furnished cabins should be provided for tourists. The numerous streams and lakes, the rocky landscape, the wild life, and the gorgeous coloring of the forest in the early fall make this an exceptionally attractive resort area.
4. Agriculture should be ercouraged as a supplementary source of income, and outlets for small surpluses should be developed. These arrangements could easily be handled through the existing co÷perative store; all that is necessary is the initiation of the program.
5. The attempt should be made to induce a few farmers, now living on inaccessible farms on secondary roads, to move to better locations; for this would not only benefit the farmers but would eliminate the necessity for maintaining unnecessary roads in passable condition.

Nothing has been suggested involving any, considerable outlay of money; the enterprises would, when under way, repay the initial costs and provide as well a satisfactory income for the present population. A laissez-faire policy dooms the people of the Community to present low standards of living indefinitely and to a continuance on public relief and probably threatens the extinction of many of the present activities, possibly even of the Community.

* This study of the Finland Community, based on field work during the summer of 1934, was undertaken primarily to demonstrate the value of intensive studies as the basis of plans for the utilization of the cutover lands of northeastern Minnesota. To be of practical value, definite programs for specific areas are essential.

Published in The Geographical Review 25(1935), p. 382-394.

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