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A Finnish Settlement in Central Minnesota1

W. R. Mead

In North America the frontier of settlement is frequently near enough in space to be a reality: where the land is completely occupied the occupation is frequently near enough in time to be within the memory of man. In southern Minnesota, there is a tract of land across which the frontier of settlement passed a century ago: within it there exists a small colony of Finnish origin which shared in the final transformation of the natural landscape. The process in Meeker and Wright Counties has just passed beyond the memory of man.

Fig. 1. The distribution of Finnish-born-population as a percentage of foreign-born white population of Minnesota. The black area shows the location of the four townships.

The objects of this essay are simply (1.) to recreate the geography of the area into which a group of emigrant Finns came and (2.) to appraise the materials available for this task. The area is largely restricted to four townships: Dassel (formerly and perhaps more appropriately for Finns, known as Swan Lake), Kingston, Cokato, and French Lake. As shown in Figure 1, their persistent and distinct Finnish community is detached from other Finnish settlement in this "Nordic" State. It is removed from the "podsolic soils" with which Finnish colonies in the New World have been popularly associated and it has been so completely neglected in the general picture of Mid-Western Finns that it merits rescue from obscurity.

A century ago, the tract lay on the edge of the so-called "Big Woods", recently removed from Sioux ownership, just open to land claimants and still subject to predatory Indian raids. Meeker County became an organised unit in 1856 with the introduction of the township and range framework of administration. The primary documents for an appreciation of the territory as a settlement area are the Land Surveyor's records. Minnesota was opened up largely upon the basis of the rectangular survey by which the public lands of the U.S.A. were divided by a system of lines conforming to cardinal points. The principal lines in this system have been the meridian, the base, the township, the range and the section: the resulting land units are the township (6 miles square), the section (640 acres) and the lot (usually a quarter section). Range lines, running north-south, divide the townships. In the surveyors' notebooks for Meeker County,2 the tradition established by Thomas Hutching in Ohio in 1786 was continued. Trained woodesmen generally accompanied the surveyors and described the character of the dominant vegetation at the points of intersection of all meridians and parallels. Thus, for the townships of Meeker County it is possible to obtain a cross-section of the density and size of the predominant timber, together with its undergrowth for a considerable range of intervals. Where timber is absent, grassland or bogland conditions are noted. Coupled with these are the general topographical and sometimes pedological observations of the surveyors.

Fig. 2. Original vegetation of Dassel Township reconstructed from the Surveyor General's notes.
Fig. 3. Vegetation of Meeker County (after W. Andreas, Atlas, Chicago, 1873). The township of Dassel is inset.
Fig. 4. Distribution of Finnish-owned land holdings in the four townships in 1897. The outlines of the holdings appear as parallelograms.
Fig. 5. Distribution of Finnish-owned land holdings in the four townships c. l920. The outlines of all land holdings are defined.

Modest attempts to interpret the forester's notes were made a generation ago for Ohio by P. B. Sears3, while an ambitious project to reconstruct the picture of original vegetation for the State of Wisconsin was undertaken by J. Schafer.4 Figure 2 restores diagrammatically the picture of vegetation for one of the areas of Finnish settlement - Township 119, Range 29, by name Dassel. Here, traverse information is recorded down to the corners of the "interior section". The preliminary survey was by A. H. Runyon 34 years before the completed document was deposited in the surveyor general's office in October 1889. In the reconstructed picture an attempt is made to show the size and variety of trees prevailing in this "parkland" tract. Deciduous species were absolutely dominant. To-day, of course, they are largely cleared so that even the traditional wood lot is missing from most Finnish-American farmsteads in the area. There has, of course, been some planting of windbreaks and groves or avenues for ornamental purposes. The surveys do not concern themselves with the representation of relief so that no contouring is possible in Figure 2. The land in question, however, lies an average height of 1,000 ft. above sea level. The largest scale of available topographical maps is 1: 62,500, though these may be supplemented (in America) by air photographs commissioned by the local or central agricultural authorities.

A second source for the appreciation of primary vegetation is the map given in Meeker County Atlas (1873). County Atlases were becoming a popular feature of American rural bookshelves in the latter half of the nineteenth century and they have now become historical documents in their own right. Composite state atlases were also planned and Figure 3 is redrawn from W. Andreas's Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Minnesota (Chicago, 1873). It shows the broader vegetational distribution within the county and the location of Figure 2 is outlined on it.

The fundamental changes brought about in the natural scene of this country by immigrant settlers took place within less than two generations. Details of land occupation are obtainable from the plat books which are kept in the County Office. From the Abstract of Lots for Real Estate, kept since 1858, and in which instruments of land acquisition are recorded, it would be possible to work out the changing picture of land ownership for any community (e.g. Finnish immigrants). As an example of such an instrument, it may be quoted that on December 2, 1876, a deed was filed recording the acquisition by J. Salo of 40 acres of land in section 13, township 119 (Dassel), range 29. The nature of colonisation produced an area of owner-farmers. In order to give some idea of the expansion of land ownership by Finnish settlers, the material from two successive plat books of the four townships named above has been reconstructed. Figure 4 derives from the 1897 plat book of the townships and shows two features: - (1.) the location of the farmsteads - a fine example of dispersed settlement (2.) the distribution of Finnish settlers and their farm properties within the area. Figure 5 gives the detail of land ownership of a second plat from twenty years later and includes the area of farms owned by Finnish settlers. The extension of Finnish-owned farm land suggests acquisition by purchase between the two dates.

The arrival of Finns in central Minnesota paralleled that of the Scandinavians at large. They probably entered by way of the Mississippi river, travelling upstream and eventually striking cross-country by tributary routes. The settlement area in Meeker and Wright counties is only about eighty kilometres from the "mother of rivers". The earliest recorded arrivals seem to have been after 1870, for the Statistics of Minnesota prepared by Mr. Pusey in that year make no mention of Finns. There may well have been a concealed immigration in the 1860's, for one of the primary problems of accounting for Finnish nationals is the "race" under which they are entered. They were initially classed as Russians ("The Russian Finns have begun to come to America", wrote a reporter in a Chicago newspaper). They might have been defined as Scandinavians or Norwegians if they derived from that community which emigrated from Hammerfest or Vadsö in the famine years of the mid’sixties. By 1875, the instructions accompanying the State of Minnesota census forms instructed its recorders "to say that a man is a native of Denmark, Norway or Sweden rather than Scandinavia". Of the censuses which cover the peopling of Meeker and Wright counties and in particular its Finns, two are of outstanding importance. They are those of 1885 and 1895, for the 1875 census offers but a meagre harvest of Finnish names. In the 1885 census, Finns are recognised as a separate "racial" group for purposes of classification. By the 1895 census, an occupational classification was instituted and residence details were demanded. Birthplace details are not given in the census. The recorders listed the age of husband and wife and the number of children. The 1885 census for Dassel records seventeen Finnish settlements: that for 1895, 31. The age-range of adult male settlers in 1885 was from 27-60: that of females, from 22-61. Corresponding figures for 1895 were from 25-66 for men: 23-74 for women. Occupational statistics showed that with four exceptions (and they were farm labourers) all Finnish immigrants in Dassel were farmers in 1895. Ten years later, craftsmen such as a stone-mason and carpenter entered the list: together with a clergyman in adjacent Kingston township, who was ported by the Finnish community (Suomi synod still retains a pastor in this community). Of the names recorded, only one was distinctly Swedish in the 1885 census: eleven in the 1895 census. Of Finns resident in Dassel in 1895, eighteen had been resident there for less than ten years, none for more than fifteen years. At the same time, six of the eighteen had been resident in Minnesota for more than ten years: while two of the older inhabitants had been resident in the state for 24 and 29 years. The picture of settlement in 1895, so far as the Finns were concerned was therefore one of appreciable maturity. They represented an established agricultural element who were probably mobile in their earlier years as American immigrants. The birth certificates of the successive children in their modestly sized families might be a means of tracing this mobility. Once they acquired a satisfactory homestead, however, they stuck to it. They were retentive of their own names; though occasionally there is evidence of a change e.g. from Mäki to Hill or Lumi to Snow. They were frequently retentive of their own language and occasionally the censal officer noted "could not understand". By the time the main tide of Finnish migration was flowing to the States, the southern parklands of Minnesota had been fully claimed and settlement was directed northwards.5 Even by the time Finnish immigrants reached Meeker and Wright counties the more favourably located lots and the best agricultural lands had been claimed. In a limited way, it could even be said of the Finn in this area - Suomalaisen henkeä on myös erämaahenki. Since the original settlement, however, changes in fortune have occasioned shifts in ownership so that the Finns have often exchanged second rate for first rate holdings.

There is a more loquacious source which supplements the laconic comments of the primary surveyors. Meeker County News and Litchfield News Ledger both offer descriptive material. "Prior to 1855", the News Ledger was writing eighty years ago, the land was occupied by "those denizens of the forest known as Sioux indians"; but "few will be the encircling years before these countries will teem with the richest gifts of Ceres". The land in its natural state was half in grass, half in hardwoods - "a pleasing picture of prairie and woodland". "Charming groves" hid a generous scatter of lakes. Running his survey line through Dassel and Kingston in 1855, A. H. Runyon described "the surface of this line rolling. Soil first rate quality. Timber - elm, ash, oak, linden and a scattering of aspen. Undergrowth - ash and ironwood". "Natural meadows furnish an abundance of hay", wrote a News Ledger reporter, "and during summer cattle fatten on the rich juicy grass of the prairies". In the late fall, we read of "the woodman's axe sounding" to hew logs for "house-raising". Climatologically, the area presented contrasts. The so-called "Italianate character" of Meeker county - its air "the elixir of life" - was sometimes blasted by a succession of blizzards or contrasting "winter droughts" which occasioned prayers for snow. Mud made roads impassable at the equinoxes. Hailstorms were already being discounted by insurance agencies by the time the Finns moved in. Tornadoes, which "rocked houses like cradles" were an accepted phenomenon. It was a common report of the dry summer that "fires have been raging in the big woods" - engulfing crops, grass, livestock and property. Among other problems which disturbed the settler was the grasshopper. Deep-ploughing or springtime prairie-burning were advocated as remedies. In June, 1875, five dollars a bushell were offered by Meeker County Court for dead and delivered grasshoppers. Worms and mosquitoes were other afflications. Bears intruded from time to time, while deer provided excellent meat for stalking if their depredations upon sown (and rarely fenced) land could be tolerated. Wolf bounty records were still kept sixty years ago: musquash were still available for trapping. Labour, of course, was insufficient for the land: "Hands very scarce" was a regular report. The settler could not expect hired labour. He had to be a man of all trades: his wife a maid of all work. Local stability was also disturbed by "the Great Beyond". "Every day the prairie schooners pass through the town. The tide of emigration this year is very heavy", wrote the editor of the News Ledger in 1871. Gold fever in the Black Hills of Dakota also drained away adventurers. And the power of the trusts replaced the fear of the Indians. Dassel farmers were urged "to rise up in a mass" and "take a grip upon the railroads and wheat monopolies".

In 1870, Mr. Pennock Pusey, assistant secretary of state, had collected the agricultural statistics of Minnesota and the News Ledger reproduced a sample of these for Meeker county. The county, which had been organised on paper and turned its first sod in 1856, had 10,805 acres of cultivated land in 1870. Wheat, oats, and potatoes, in that order, were the chief crops. Cattle dominated the stock picture - with 1800 milk cows, 1500 working oxen and 2800 others. The "market prices" of the News listed the following commodities: - wheat, flour, oats, corn, feed, rye meal, oat meal, bran, millings, eggs, butter, potatoes, onions, honey, beans, cheese, hay, wool and meats. Harvesters and binders were already widely advertised in the 1870's; together with fire engines and anti-freezing pumps (both of which were important in the farm picture). "Strayed or stolen" cattle notices recall the days before barbed wire control (and Stray Notice Books are included in Meeker County archives). Page after page of tax delinquent lands are recorded. Taxes were required by the local authorities for a variety of purposes. Thus, drainage was part and parcel of land reclamation. Ditch plat books were prepared from 1876 onwards and ditch taxes eventually demanded.6 Finnish names rarely appeared in the tax delinquent lists and of Kingston township, it was possible to say in addition, "most farms are without the ornament of a mortgage".

Such a farm is illustrated in Figure 6 - a Finnish-owned farm in Dassel township which is the end-product of nearly a century of effort. It was staked out as a holding of 160 acres in 1857 and was purchased by its present proprietor in 1910. Within the unitary boundaries are embraced a portion of rolling moraine country with sandy loam soils subject to ready erosion on sloping land, a limited area of black humus soil, some clay and soggy hollows through which runs a creek which dries up in summer. There is no tile drainage. Indeed, most of the farm is water deficient. "It rains one day and dust blows the next", commented the owner. The system of rotation on a field basis is illustrated in the plan: there are three miles of post and wire fence. Nearly one third of the holding is maintained as "wild pasture", while one elongated field is contour-ploughed in accordance with local conservation practice. There are about four acres under small hardwood timber. The principal production is fodder. Planting corn when the oak leaves are as big as squirrel's ears comes as second nature to a second generation Finnish midwesterner and the soy bean is already a key crop in his rotation. Fodder crops support a typical Minnesotan dairy herd of twenty Holsteins. Eight beef cattle represent the reverse of the coin - with meat and milk prices calling forth farm adjustments. Pigs are not kept, but there are 4-500 chickens.

Figure 7 is an attempt to add a dynamic touch to the farm scene from Dassel township. It derives from farm diaries kept by two farmers of Finnish origin. Diary A shows the pattern of seasonal activity related to the farm in Figure 6: diary B derives from a neighbouring farm. Only on one score is there affinity with the average Finnish holding - the accent on animal husbandry. It will be noted that dairy herds of 20 and 25 respectively make a continuous demand throughout the year, calling for a maximum of effort in winter. In the year under investigation, dairy cows were turned into the alfalfa/brome pasture during the first week of May and kept in overnight as from the first week in October. Beef cattle continued out of doors for several weeks afterwards - pastured on corn stalks. Fodder conservation, bulking largest in its demand on time in September, was succeeded by fodder preparation, oat sacking, corn shelling, grain milling during the period of indoor stabling.

Fig. 6. A Finnish-owned farm from Dassel Township, showing crop rotation on a field basis.

Field husbandry was oriented to fodder crops. The diaries indicate that harrowing and disking of the seed bed began in April. May was the general month of sowing; though oats and alfalfa were sown in mid April. Already by mid June, alfalfa was being cut for silage and hay for baling. Oat combining was completed by mid August: corn ensiling reached a peak in mid September: corn picking was still being actively pursued in mid October. In mid November, ploughing until 6.00 p.m. recalled the latitude (45° N); while the distribution of chemical fertilisers continued until the end of the month. Field husbandry, in fact, was only excluded from the work programme during four months. There was no complementary forestry; for farm woodlots were insignificant.

The diaries indicated the relative mobility of the farmers. In each instance, journeys included regular daily transport of milk to the creamery. Other items included the movement of silage or grain to the mill, of fuel from town (generally coal), of hogs for shipment to the stockyards and of baled hay for export to drought areas. Mobility is an aspect of mechanisation and mechanisation made the principal contribution to the category headed "Maintenance". Building repair and fence maintenance claimed little time in comparison with tractor, combine, hay baler, corn picker, grain drill, electric batteries and such refinements as heat lamps for farrowing pens and electric clippers for trimming the cattle.

"Leisure" reflects both locality and ethnography. By night, sauna and Suometar are in competition with television. There are regular gatherings at the church of Suomi synod and monthly meetings of the Soil Conservation Service. Wild life is a winter attraction - with pheasant shooting followed by deer stalking and intermittent fishing for northern pike in "fish houses" erected over ice holes. The reduced pressure of work in November makes it a natural holiday month for the Minnesotan farmer for whom Californian sun is only several days away by car. To classify data is sometimes difficult. The day snatched at Minnesota State Fair is business as well as pleasure: so are the two hours spent in entertaining each month the milk tester.

In brief, the habitat which announces itself is Middle Western: the economy, distinctly American: the society, still partly Finnish - and the methodology of the diary is a means of drawing out a single tissue from the living fabric of the area.

Fig. 7. Two work graphs compiled from diary material kept by Mr. Root and Mr. Pousi of Dassel township. Diaries were kept on a daily basis, one day per week. The slight variations in the weekly pattern result from a shift in the day of record keeping on one farm.

As with most of North America, the landscape of townships like the four under review has gone through much change in a very little time. The relics of pre-colonial days are fragmentary - occasionally a rough morainic hillock or patch of swampland has escaped the modifying hand of man or blade of machine. Occasionally, a churchyard, having been protected from plough or grazing beast, preserves something of the original flora beside the burial mounds of the original colonists. It is a landscape which today displays evidence of intensive utilisation and appreciable prosperity. And among the many minority groups which have shared in its transformation, the Finns have been in the vanguard. The 1950 Population Census of Minnesota (Bureau of the Census, 1951) lists those of Finnish origin and their distribution is outlined in Figure 1. Recruitment from the "old country" is not lively partly because occupation of the farmland in this area is complete. In some parts of the Middle West, the Finn has gone to join the pool of unskilled labour in the towns. In central Minnesota, he has gone against the agricultural grain of his homeland and transformed himself into a skilled mid-western farmer.


1 In the preparation of this paper, I am grateful to members of the County Surveyor's Office, Litchfield, Minnesota, for making available to me the materials of the original survey, to the Historical Society of Minnesota, St. Paul, for the loan of the primary census material of the state and for copies of the press from Meeker County for the middle of the last century, and to a number of farmers of Finnish origin in the area who extended their hospitality to me. Mr. John Bryant of University College, London, has kindly drawn the maps.

2 During the 1930's, the Works Project Association sponsored inventories of the county archives of many American states - among them of the counties of Minnesota. Base material for the appreciation of Meeker county is recorded in this inventory.

3 The Natural Vegetation of Ohio, Ohio Journal of Science, 25, 1925, 139-149: 26, 1926, 128-146: 213-231.

4 Four Wisconsin Counties, Prairie and Forest. Madison, 1927.

5 cf. D. H. Davis, The Finland Community, Minnesota, Geographical Review, 25 (1935), 382-394.

6 Papers which refer directly to the drainage of the wet prairie in an adjacent state are L. Hewes, The northern wet prairie of the U.S. "Annals of Association of American Geographers", 4 (1950) 40-57 and L. Hewes and P. E. Fransdon, Occupying the wet prairie, ibid, 42 (1952), 24-50.

Published in Acta Geographica, Vol. 13, N:o 3, 1954.

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