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The Finns in Fitchburg

John Daniels

Fitchburg has a population of about 41,000, of which about a third is of foreign birth. Besides the Finns, the immigrant element includes Italians, French-Canadians, Jews, Armenians, Germans, Lithuanians, Swedes, Norwegians, Spanish, Turks, and doubtless others, but the Finns are the largest single group. They began coming about 1890, and to-day number approximately 5,000. Most of them are workers in the principal industries of the city-paper mills, textile factories, and machine shops.

The Finns are not segregated in one district, but all except a small minority live in one major colony and several outlying colonies within easy reach. Both in area covered and in numbers the Finnish settlement as a whole is too large to be regarded as a single neighborhood. Here, as in most of their settlemets, there are several subdivisions among the Finns, each of which forms a distinct neighborhood in itself.

Racially, there is a division between the Finns proper and the Swedish Finns. The latter are descended from the Swedes who migrated into Finland when it was a part of Sweden. Although many of them speak Finnish, just as many Finns speak Swedish, and although there is considerable social intercourse between the two elements, in the main the Swedish Finns keep to themselves and affiliate more with Swedes, if any are at hand, than with finns. They form a minor percentage of the total immigration from Finland.

Among the Finns proper there are three divisions - the church, the temperance, and the Socialist groups. The church contingent, consisting of Protestants of several denominations, is the most conservative. The temperance element occupies a middle position between the pronounced conservatives and Socialists.

In Fitchburg there are four Finnish churches - Lutheran, National, Gongregational, and Baptist. Two of these were without pastors when this study was made. One of the other pastors stated that his congregation was decreasing and that it was hard to hold the young people. For the latter he had two church societies, a choir, and a confirmation class. This church and another had together conducted summer classes to teach the Finnish language, history, and literature.

The temperance group maintains a small center in the same building used by the National church. This contains a hall for meetings and plays, a library of Finnish books, a kitchen where light refreshments are prepared, and a smoking room. Twice a month there are programs of lectures, music, and dramatics. As the building is rather run down, the members wished to buy and old residence which they could remodel; but this happened to be in an American district, and some of the residents circumvented the Finns by buying the house themselves, saying that its use by the Finns would disturb the neighborhood.

The Socialist Group

The third and most active group, which is a little larger than the other two combined, is composed mainly of Socialists. The Socialists, both in Fitchburg and elsewhere, have accomplished most along lines of group action and in working out the remarkable scheme of organization to which the remainder of this chapter will be devoted. Though there is a small ultraradical element among the Finns, especially in some of the Western states, the great majority of Finnish Socialists belong to the moderate or evolutionary group, which adheres to orderly political procedure and discountenances resort to violent revolutionary tactics. The Finnish Socialists remained with the moderate Socialist party when it was split in 1919 by the secession of the revolutionary Communist and Communist Labor factions. The Finnish Socialists of Fitchburg, some of whose activities will now be described, are of the main evolutionary group ─ the Socialist party proper. The writer wishes to have is understood at outset that he is not dealing with the political beliefs of the Socialists, nor arguing for or against their theories. He is simply reporting certain facts which are significant from the point of view of Americanization throught neighborhood activity.

Workers' Educational Association

The neighborhood center of these Finnish Socialist is the Finnish Workers' Educational Association. This organization is made up of men and women on an equal footing and is entirely supported by the members. Its owns a goodsized building which houses most of its varied activities, the majory of which combine recreation and education. Chief among them is dramatics, of which the Finns as a race are extremely fond. The building contains a large theater hall with a well-equipped stage. A dramatic director is employed on full time. Plays are presented every week, all the actors being members of association. The quality and appeal of these performances are such that they are attended by many of the younger generation of the temperance group and even by some of the church followers.

Music is another interest, and a musical director also is employed on full time. There are several choruses, an orchestra, and a band. Dances are held nearly every week, and every other week there are general entertainments, which often include educational motion pictures. A regular lecture course is conducted, and a "Sunday school" where young people especially are instructed in the principles of Socialism. The building contains a library, and various rooms where subsidiary groups, as, for instance, a ladies' sewing circle, hold their meetings.

The association conducted classes in English and citizenship before these were started by the public schools. Now the schools have assumed this responsibility, and the association encourages its members to attend the classes thus supplied. Assistance in naturalization, however, is still provided.

Two other activities are carried on outside the association building. One is gymnastics. Several classes, for men, women, and children, use the gymnasium in a much larger building, which was erected jointly by all the Finnish associations of the Eastern states. The other outside activity is a farm-park, situated within easy reach of the city by street car, which is owned and operated by the association. It contains a running track, an outdoor theater, a swimming pool, and a dancing pavilion. All this equipment was installed voluntarily by the members themselves, who gave their spare time without payment till the work was completed. The park is used chiefly in the summer, and often as many as a thousand people gather there for Sunday picnics. The dances are open to the public, and according to the Finns these are sometimes attended by "Americans".

The Finnish Workers' Educational Association was established [one of its oldest members stated] for the purpose of helping the Finnish people of Fitchburg to become good American citizens. Its members have done things in a social and democratic way. As a result of continued education, every member is now an intelligent unit who can think and act for himself. Furthermore, our members are an orderly element in the community, and not for many years has there been even a single arrest among them.

The building erected and owned by all the Finnish Workers' Educational Associations of the East is a handsome four-story brick edifice, the location of which is significant. Standing in a central square of the city, close to the post office, the courthouse, the library, and an armory, it seems silently but strikingly to proclaim that the Finns are not an alien group, but an integral part of community. This proclamation is borne out by the fact that this building is the meeting place of all the labor unions in the city, including the Central Labor Federation, in which the Finns form only a minor element. The Finnish Socialists are strong supporters of unions, and in general are opposed to separate Finnish unions, looking upon membership in American unions as one of the best means of connecting themselves with American life and promoting closer relations with native Americans.

In this building also is conducted a training course for Finnish community workers, who come there from other parts of the East to equip themselves to carry on in the Finnish neighborhoods of their own communities such activities as those here described. Most of the space of the building is occupied by the Finnish Socialist Publication Society, which publishes two papers of national circulation, on in Finnish and the other in English, prints translations of standard literature, and carries on an active campaign of educational propaganda throughout the Eastern part of the country.

The Co-Operatives

Next in the Finnish scheme of group action are the co-operatives - that is, certain primarily economic undertakings conducted on the basis of what is known technically as "co-operation". Though these co-operatives are not nominally identified with the Socialist party, nor their membership composed wholly of Socialists, as a matter of fact Socialists as individuals have had most to do with their successful development and the Socialist group has given them moral support and constant assistance in the way of educational propaganda.

The In-to Co-operative Association has a there-story brick building on the main street of the city. On the first floor and in the basement it conducts a meat and grocery store, a furnishing store, a bakery, and a dairy. The second floor is occupied by a co-operative boarding house, separately organized, and the third floor consists of apartments which are rented to Finnish families. Located in outlying sections are four branch groceries.

Though the purely business aspect of this enterprise is not important in the present connection, the democratic form of organization is directly pertinent. Shares at five dollars each may be bought by anyone up to the limit of five shares for one person, but only one vote goes to each shareholder, irrespective of the number of shares he holds. Goods are sold to members and non-members at the prices generally current, but the members receive interest on their shares, and dividends (that is, a division of profits) prorated according to the purchases made by each individual. Dividends of lesser amount are rebated to all customers, as an extension of the benefits of the co-operative plan. A good many women are members. The clerks in the various stores are all members, though this is not required and they join through their own interest. The whole body of shareholders elects a board of directors and a treasurer, and this board then elects a president and a manager. Besides the regular shareholders' meetings, social meetings are held every few months, at which educational discussion of the principles of co-operation often takes place.

In neatness and attractiveness of display the central Finnish store can stand comparison with any in the city. A third or more of the trade of this store and its four branches is with the general public other than Finns. All the clerks, most of whom are American-born Finns, speak English as well as Finnish.

Four or five years ago [said the manager] only one or two of our clerks were able to talk English, but now ability to speak English is made one of the conditions of employment.

The co-operative boarding house, which occupies part of the store building, is similarly organized. Some sixty Finnish mill hands, who did not like the poor and sloppy food of the available cheap restaurants, got together and started this boarding house in a two-room flat. The number of boarders increased so rapidly that soon it became necessary to have more room. When the co-operative store building was erected its second floor was rented for this purpose. Anyone may join the boarding house by depositing five dollars, which is returned to him if he moves away. They prices charged are sufficient to cover the actual cost of food, service, and rent. As far as possible, supplies are bought from the co-operative store. The tables are usually crowded. The boarders include many women and some whole families. Fathers and mothers meet there after the day's work in the mills, bringing the children with them. Part of the floor space is set aside as a reading and smoking room. Besides Finns, a considerable number of other mill hands take advantage of the good food, low prices, and wholesome sociability thus provided. The prices and regulations as to membership and orderliness are posted in both Finnish and English.

The third, and financially the most ambitious of the Finnish co-operative undertakings is a credit union. This is practically a bank, but there is one important difference between its organization and that of the ordinary bank. Every depositor must become a shareholder, and just as in the case of the stores, these depositor-shareholders, having one vote each, irrespective of the number of their shares or the amount of their deposits, elect and control the board of directors. The capital supplied by deposits at present amounts to something over $100,000. In its loans the bank especially favors the development of co-operative undertakings, either locally or elsewhere. Its operations have, in fact, extended as far as New York City.

Neighborhood Significance

The several co-operatives which have been outlined, including the Workers' Educational Association as co-operative in substance though not in form, may now be considered together from the viewpoint of their neighborhood significance.

They bind a large part of the local Finnish community in a close economic bond. So practical is their appeal that, although individual members of the Socialist group have been most active in their promotion, the number of non-Socialists associated with them has gradually increased till now it amounts to something like a third of the total. On the other hand, some Socialists who opposed these undertakings in the beginning, as not being sufficiently radical, have yielded to their practical value and success. The co-operatives now have the approval of all except a few ultraradicals, who contend that by improving the worker's lot they make him less revolutionary, whereas conditions should be allowed to become so intolerable that complete revolution will be the way out.

Thus the co-operatives have struck deeper than the lines dividing the Finnish community into three differing groups, and have provided a common basis of neighborhood interest and action among them. The spirit which animates the co-operatives, and which they have more or less instilled into the Finnish community, is suggested by the first word in the name of their store society - the In-to Co-operative Association. Asked what this word meant, the manager of the store replied that there was no exact equivalent in English, but that it was a sort of combination of "enthusiasm" and "loyalty".

The co-operatives have also worked toward closer relations with the American community. Membership is open to Americans, and a few have joined. An obvious deterrent is the fact that Finnish is spoken at the meetings, but the Finns say they would welcome Americans, and they hope, as the generation of English-speaking Finns increases in proportion, to get more Americans in. Most of the co-operators are members of English-speaking labor unions, and so have an opportunity to interest their fellow members in the co-operative idea. As previously noted, about a third of the customers of the stores and many of the patrons of the boarding house are non-Finns, including other immigrants and native Americans.

Little Help From Americans

The attitude of the American community toward the Finns appears to be one of ignorance and indifference in the main, with more or less out-right hostility toward the Socialist element. The chairman of the Americanization committee of the leading women's club said that people had assumed that the Finns wanted to stay by themselves and that nobody had taken the trouble to approach them.

The present secretary of the Y. M. C. A. said that before he came no attempt whatever had been made to reach them. He himself formed some English classes for them two years ago. These classes opened auspiciously in the council chamber in the city hall, but within a few weeks the attendance fell to zero. According to a Socialist informant, the trouble was that the instructor, doubtless not knowing that most of his pupils were Socialists, made some remarks criticizing Socialist principles and the Workers' Educational Association. The Finns in the class did not speak English well enough to defend themselves, but naturally they were offended and dropped out. Better success attended a naturalization class which the same Y. M. C. A. secretary started on a different tack, in one of the buildings belonging to the Finns. About a hundred and twenty-five Finns belong to the Y. M. C. A., forming a tenth of its total membership of twelve hundred. Most of these Finnish members, however, are American-born young men of the church and temperance groups. The Socialists regard the Y. M. C. A. as "patronizing".

The librarian of the public library seemed more interested in arranging his books than in reaching the Finns. He said he had about a hundred Finnish books. He did not know that the Finns had two good-sized libraries of their own. The women's club included no "foreign" women, but a less formal women's league had taken a few Finnish women into membership. The labor unions have welcomed the Finns more heartily than any other American organization, and, as previously mentioned, accept the hospitality of one of the Finnish buildings for their meetings. Finnish union members say that it is chiefly at union meetings that they learn to speak English. But except for the friendliness of the unions, it looks as though the Finns are doing more for Fitchburg than the rest of Fitchburg is doing for the Finns.

Growing Into The Community

Gradually the Finns are relating themselves to the various activities of the community. They serve as clerks in stores and banks, and a few are in the professions. In political affairs they are just beginning to figure. One alderman is the only representative they have had in the city government in the past. A year or so ago the Finnish Socialists persuaded the English-speaking and Lithuanian Socialists to unite with them on one candidate who, however, was not elected. Recently a Finnish women ran for the school board, but also failed of election.

Great hope is placed in the rising American-born generation. The children attend the public schools, speak English as well as any, and mingle with the other children in school affairs. Among the Socialists, the children are organized as a Young people's League.

They are a wonderful group [said a young Finn]. They have been drilled in the fundamentals of co-operation. In a few years they will become the leaders in our activities. All of them speak English, and gradually English will be substituted for Finnish.

There are two forms of co-operative activity on the part of the Finns which are not yet developed in Fitchburg, but some description of which is necessary to round out the general scheme.

Domestics Create Own Neighborhood

On an avenue in New York City stands a four-story stone building called the Finnish Women's Co-operative Home. Briefly, this is its story:

About ten years ago a little group of Finnish servant girls, who met somewhere every week or so for sociability, began to talk of how good it would be to have a place of their own. By way of experiment, they raised about one hundred and fifty dollars among themselves, enough to furnish several rooms and to pay their rent for a month. The idea "took" so well that the enterprise was put on a regular co-operative basis. Shares at five dollars each were sold to a larger body of girls, and an entire house was rented and equipped. Not long thereafter the adjoining house was added, and a few years ago they moved to their present four-story building.

The original plan of a sociable meeting place has greatly expanded. The Home to-day is primarily a place where Finnish servant girls may live between jobs, or, in the case of green immigrant girls, while they are getting their bearings. They may also stay there overnight after attending late parties. Formerly, when on their "day out" girls stayed in town at dances or entertainments, which lasted after midnight, they did not like to go back at such an hour to the households where they worked, and, if these were in the suburbs, often they could not make train connections; so, having no other safe place to go, they used to spend the night riding back and forth on the subway with their escorts. When not working, they had to live in rooming houses of the usual type.

The building they now have can accommodate about forty girls. Besides dormitory space and a few private rooms, it has a general living room, where the girls may receive men friends, and which contains a small library (mostly light fiction in English), newspapers, and a graphophone. For recreation and education these girls, most of whom are Socialists, depend on the local Workers' Educational Association, which has a large building not far away. At the Home itself there is a sewing club which meets one evening a week, for which music and lectures are provided by outside friends, and every little while special parties are held. The dining room is open to the public as a restaurant, especially at the mid-aftenoon coffee hour. There is an employment bureau which is kept busy by housewives in search of domestic workers.

Without exception, all the co-operators who conduct this Home are servant girls, mainly specialized workers, such as cooks and waitresses, who now get good wages. Altogether there are some four hundred shareholders. The majority of these are scattered over the country. Those who are near enough to attend the general shareholders' meetings elect from among themselves a board of directors, which in turn elects a president, a housekeeper, and a clerk for the employment bureau. Everything is done by these Finnish servant girls themselves. They are not satisfied with their present quarters, which they rent, but plan to build or buy a still better building. Besides paying all running expenses, with no philanthropic or outside assistance whatever, they have already set aside over a thousand dollars toward a building fund. The seed from which all this has grown was a handful of girls, a hundred and fifty dollars, and the simple principle of co-operation.

The neighborhood aspect of this particular enterprice is suggestive in connection with the present domestic-service situation in the United States. These girls are scattered in their work over a wide area. They have little real neighborhood life in the localities where they are employed. Usually they are not accepted as part of the family by their employers, and they have opportunity for only the most casual association with other domestics - to whom, as a rule, these Finnish workers are superior. But instead of drifting about aimlessly and more or less deviously, as many domestics do, they have set to and built up through their co-operative Home a centripetal neighborhood of their own. Through it they have established morale and a self-respecting status. The writer, in visiting the Home, saw many of the girls moving about. They looked neat and intelligent, and had an air, not of the "independence" which is supposed to characterize the typical domestic, but of substantial self-dependence. Most of the girls have had a grammar-school cource. They have learned more or less English from working for English-speaking people, and have quickly adapted themselves to American dress and customs. One special contribution they have made has been to translate into Finnish recipes which they have found to be favorites in American homes. These are published in Finnish for the assistance of domestics who cannot read English and are not yet so well initiated. Many of the girls, it was said, bought Liberty Bonds and subscribed to the Red Cross.

Solving the Housing Problem

In another part of New York - a Brooklyn district - are two Finnish co-operative apartment houses which have established a remarkable neighborhood nucleus of family life. The first of these apartments was built some four years ago. Discussion of the proposal started in the Socialist hall - that is, the local Workers' Educational Association. Members of that organization had found it increasingly difficult to rent, at figures within their means, apartments or houses which were well built and not too small. They could not afford to buy homes individually; so sixteen families got together, formed a committee, engaged a Finnish architect to draft plans, bought land, and put up an apartment house costing $45,000. Each of the sixteen families paid in $500, thus providing $8,000. A first mortgage of $25,000 was placed with an American bank, a second mortgage of $5,000 with the Finnish Credit Union of Fitchburg, previously mentioned, and the balance of $7,000 was lent by the shareholders in various amounts, from their savings. The second building was erected a year and a half later, at a cost, owing to rise of prices, of $55,000, of which $25,000 was supplied on first mortgage by the Credit Union, and the balance, over and above capital from sale of shares, lent entirely by the shareholders themselves.

The initial payment of $500 from each family figures as purchase capital, and each family thereby becomes the virtual owner of its particular apartment, but the property as a whole is held jointly. The individual shareholders may sell or sublease their own apartments, subject to approval of their successors by the governing committee. Every month each family pays an equal allotment sufficient to cover upkeep, taxes, insurance, sinking fund on mortgages, and service. The only paid worker is the janitor, who is himself a shareholder. This monthly payment now stands at approximately $28 for a thoroughly modern five-room apartment with bath and hot-water heat. No where else in the vicinity is there an apartment house which compares with this one in quality of construction, and inferior apartments of the same size rent for about twice the amount which the co-operators pay.

The general supervision of each apartment house is vested in a committee, the president of which serves as manager, without salary, collecting the monthly payments and attending to general repairs. Small repairs are made by members of the committee free of charge, but larger ones are paid for or let out. Repairs in single apartments are taken care of by the respective owners, who are also left free to decorate their rooms as they wish, the result being an interesting variety. Any shareholder can bring up questions at any time, and besides the regular shareholders' meetings special meetings are frequently called, either in one of the apartments or in the near-by Socialist hall. Four times a year the apartment houses hold a joint meeting at this hall, to which others, including non-Finns, are invited, and where the principles of co-operation are discussed.

The families who came together in this way, though all Finns and all Socialists, had not known one another intimately before. Skeptics prophesied that it was impossible for sixteen "landlords" to live together in harmony. A speculator in the vicinity counted on buying the house cheap within a year. On the contrary, a strong neighborhood life has developed. Instead of feeling like a comparatively irresponsible tenant, each family has a sense of ownership and responsibility, not alone for its own apartment, but for the whole property with which its own is inextricably tied up. This common responsibility has furthered voluntary co-operation in matters of upkeep, and has led to much normal sociability.

It is so different from where I used to live [said one of the women]. There I did not know even my next-door neighbor. But here we visit back and forth all the time, and scarcely a week goes by without a coffee party taking place in one of the apartments.

Other races and Americans would be welcomed if they cared to come in as shareholders or subtenants, but as yet none have done so. There is one subtenant family of the Finnish church group.

We Socialists do not object to the church people [said one of the co-operators], but most of them will not have much to do with us.

Nevertheless, a group of Swedish Finns of the church contingent, impressed by this practical demonstration, are going in for a similar apartment of their own not far away.

In many sections of New York City so-called tenants' strikes have broken out. Landlords profiteer and expel tenants. Tenants execrate, vandalize, and well-nigh assassinate landlords. Both are haled into court and summoned to "hearings". As yet nothing much has come of all the fuss. But in the midst of all this furor these Finnish co-operators have provided a concrete, constructive, and successful demonstration of one way in which the harassing housing problem may be solved.

Democratic Achievement

Most of the undertakings which have been described are not the only ones of their kind. With the exception of the credit unions, the co-operative home, and the apartments, which represent the most recent developments, they are paralleled in many parts of the country.

Wherever Finns are settled in considerable numbers they have their Workers' Educational Association. Over two hundred buildings, ranging from those of modest proportions up to a four-story marble and granite structure on upper Fifth Avenue in New York City, are maintained by these individual associations, which function also as the local party organizations of the Finnish Socialists. The different associations are combined in three regional divisions, including, respectively, the Eastern, Central and Western states. The regional headquarters, in conjunction with the national headquarters of the Socialist party in Chicago, conduct an unremitting campaign of education, publication, and practical organization.

The Finnish Socialists have particularly fostered co-operatives and are usually the most active element in them. There are several hundred Finnish co-operatives of many kinds, including stores, dairies, and boarding houses, distributed over the country. These co-operatives are combined in a number of regional organizations for concerted self-help. Systematic education in the underlying principles of co-operation is carried on as a necessary prerequisite to its success in practice, and a part of the annual earnings of each local society is set aside for the educational fund. The Finnish co-operatives are an integral part of the general co-operative movement in America, and are usually held up by that movement as models.

The most remarkable fact about all these extensive and effective activities [writes a Finnish editor] is that they have been developed by the workers themselves almost without any use of so-called trained intellectual elements, which is a splendid proof of the great natural constructive abilities of the average Finnish workingman. Out of the 15,000 members of the Finnish Socialist Federation there are, by actual count, only six men who ever had any college education or other academic training. The hundreds of functionaries in the co-operative stores and in the publishing companies, the music leaders, the writers, the editors, the lecturers, the actors are almost without exception plain workingmen and women who during their childhood had no or very little school education, but who through persistent self-study and co-operation with their fellow workers acquire admirable abilities in all branches of social activity.

Contribution to America

In the light of the evidence which has been presented, what answer shall be made to the question whether the solidarity of the Finns as an immigrant group, or more particularly that of the Socialist element within this group, tends to keep them out of the common life of America or to bring them in to it? Here again, as in the case of the separate immigrant communities considered in the previous chapter, there is a paradox. The inner substance of what is taking place proves to be different from its outward appearance.

That these Finns are "clannish", in the sense that they have organized closely among themselves, is obvious. But that either the purpose or the result of such intensive organization is to exclude American influence and keep the Finns an alien group is plainly contradicted by the facts. The Finns have organized among themselves for the simple reason that common race and language are the most natural and practicable bases of organization. But in so doing their purpose is positively to adjust themselves to American conditions. Their "clannishness" is of a sort which works out constructively, not alone for themselves, but for America. Not only are they educating themselves, not only are they meeting their own needs and developing those qualities of self-dependence and enterprice which are fundamental in American life; they are participating in the common life of America by making positive and constructive contributions. They are providing a remarkable demonstration of what can be accomplished by people working democratically together. In the midst of the clash and confusion of economic and social struggle, they are showing America how the principle of co-operation may be brought to bear on the solution of some of her most vital problems.

Cohering to Coalesce

The Finnish group has been selected in order to test the outworkings in terms of Americanization of immigrant group solidarity. This group represents such solidarity in an extreme degree. In view of the results which have been reported here, it is reasonable to assume that similar solidarity on the part of other immigrant groups has similar results; and that, like the Finns other immigrant groups also cohore among themselves the better to coalesce with the life of America.

Published in America Via the Neighbourhood, London 1920, p. 65-88.

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