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Highlights of the Story of Finns in Fitchburg

Savele Syrjala

Though there is evidence that a Finnish family lived here in the 1840's the main dream of Finnish immigrants, however, did not settle in Fitchburg until late in the last century and the first of this.

They were young men and women who left Finland when she was under foreign rule and conditions did not look promising so they came here seeking a brighter future.

They took their place at the bottom rung of the ladder. Their lot was not easy. At times they wished they had never left their homeland. Some succumbed; most, however, adjusted to the ways and customs of the strange, new land although at times the going was rough.

Lacking knowledge of English, they could not participate in the life of the community. As their numbers increased, they established their own Finnish organizations.

First came the Finnish Lutheran Church, founded in 1893. It is in its 88th year and has a beautiful new church a stone's throw away from here. It still holds Finnish services but most of its activities and services are in English. The change of name to the Messiah Lutheran Church reflects its Americanization.

The second church was founded in 1895 - The Finnish Congregational Church. It too is still active. It observed its 85th anniversary last fall. It functions mostly in English but it still has Finnish services for the older people. It is now known as the Elm Street Congregational Church

As you well know, the turn of the century saw the birth of the labor movement in Finland, to elevate the status of the workingmen in society. So it was also in America. The Finnish Labor Society Saima was founded in 1894. It has a long, interesting history. For years Saima maintained an extensive and rich cultural program including dramatics, choruses, bands, orchestras, talks, lectures and courses on social, economic and political questions and athletics. Its hall was a veritable beehive of activity for years. It still carries on though in a smaller way. Out of it has developed an active Golden Age group and the Finnish American Club of Saima, Inc. which is composed of the American born. Saima, through the years, has given active support to American labor movements in achieving a long list of social reforms which have been enacted into law during this century.

Saima Park is one of its accomplishments. Turning a broken down farm into this beautiful park required endless hours of voluntary labor. Here through the years many large outdoor events and festivals have been and still are held.

The Finnish American Club of Saima has just built a new clubhouse in which it can carry out its activities, to replace the one that was destroyed by fire.

Also, there is the Knights and Ladies of Kaleva, dedicated to preserving interest in Finnish culture. In recent years they have been conducting a course in Finnish.

As the Finnish colonies and organizations grew, the need for a newspaper became imperative. The first Finnish newspaper in Fitchburg, Totuus, made its appearance in 1896. It had a short life. Then came Pohjan Tähti in 1902, whose life span was a little better than 20 years. In 1905 Raivaaja appeared, which developed into one of the leading Finnish language newspapers in America and which has the distinction of having been the only Finnish newspaper to be a daily for 50 years. It has just completed 75 years of publication.

Organizations founded by Finnish people in Fitchburg 



Finnish Lutheran Church



The Finnish Labor Society Saima



Finnish Congregational Church



Raivaaja Publishing Co.



United Co-op. Society



Workers' Credit Union



The Knights and Ladies of Kaleva



United Co-op. Farmers



The Finnish American Club of Saima, Inc.



The Finnish Golden Agers



The Finnish Cultural Center of Fitchburg State Col.

The great American Benjamin Franklin once said that a good newspaper is the workingman's university. That Raivaaja has tried to be to the Finnish immigrants who came here with little schooling.

In 1963 with the death of two outstanding figures of the Finnish Community, Henry Puranen and Oskari Tokoi, gave impetus to founding of the Finnish Cultural Center by representatives of all the Finnish organizations of Fitchburg. The purpose being, with combined forces to carry on the rich cultural heritage of the Finnish people.

During the years it has sponsored visiting artists, choruses and theatrical groups.

Cooperatives have played an important role in Finland. The Finnish immigrants brought with them a knowledge of cooperatives and they organized three outstanding coops in this city.

First, in 1910, The United Co-operative Society of Fitchburg was established and grew to a thriving retail business with numerous retail services. It served the consumers of the community well for 67 years but regrettably closed its doors in 1977.

Second, in 1914, the Workers' Credit Union was founded - a co-operative bank. During 65 years its accomplishments are outstanding. It has assets over $43 million, $20.5 million in real estate and $20 million in personal loans.

A new chapter in the history of Workers' Credit Union was of Workers' Credit Union was written last year by celebrating the 65th year of its founding by opening its new, modern bank building at the corner of Main and Academy Streets, with ample room for expansion and a large parking lot for its patrons. At last WCU was on Main Street.

Third, is United Co-operative Farmers, founded in 1927 by Finns who took over old, wornout, Yankee farms and harnessed co-operative principles to their marketing and purchasing. It is a thriving business with an annual volume in excess of $20 million, and a fine, modern feed mill.

These are a few examples of what the Finnish people have achieved in this community. These give you some idea of the constructive work we have done. They are a credit to the Finnish people.

In the Fitchburg Historical Society's "Around the World in Fitchburg" by Doris Kirkpatrick there is a very interesting and informative chapter on the Finnish people of the community and their contribution to the city.

It is self-evident that the diverse, active, and richness of the Finnish community is rapidly passing. Society with their halls, churches of wide activities associated with them, are either coming to an end or being infused in American life. Newcomers from Finland have been introduced to a trickle by our new migration quotas. But Finnish heritage as passed to the American born generation is now finding a new outlet, and is serving to end the fabric of Americanism.

From an address welcoming President Urho Kekkonen to Fitchburg, July 25, 1970.

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