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The Finnish Community of DeKalb, Illinois

Joan M. Metzger

DeKalb, like most cities, is composed of people from many different ethnic backgrounds: Swedish, English, German, Canadian, Polish, Russian, Norwegian, Scottish, Danish, Finnish, Austrian, Lithuanian, Greek, Mexican, Chinese, and more recently Vietnamese. Over the years, through education and marriage, the distinctions that once separated the various ethnic groups have become blurred, with only the most recent from Asia and Central America still retaining an easily identifiable cultural identity. This is true even of DeKalb's Finns. Today, the remnants of this once coherent group maintain a sense of there cultural identity through their affiliation with the Bethlehem Lutheran Church witch provides monthly services in the Finnish language, a thread witch ties them to their forefathers. In this paper I will describe DeKalb's Finnish community, its history, the contribution of its people, and the neighbourhood that they called home.

The Finns who settled in DeKalb in the 1890's followed a pattern that had been developing since the 1850's. Before that date emigration from Finland had been sporadic. In 1638 some Finns in the company of Swedes, had helped to settle Delaware. About 200 Finns travelled to Alaska to work during the period from 1830 to 1840 when both areas were under Russian rule.1 Finland had been a duchy of Sweden for several hundred years, but in 1808 Russia had made war on Sweden with the result that in 1809 Finland was transferred to Russia and became a semi-independent state. News of the Californian gold strikes prompted more adventurous Finnish men to travel to America. Finnish sailors employed aboard ships of various nations, sometimes stayed behind in American ports such as Boston or New York.

There are basically only two causes for the Finnish emigration witch had escalated in the second half of the nineteenth century. The primary reason was lack of jobs. Finland's population which was approximately 900,000 in 1800, had increased to about 1.6 million in 1850, and by 1900 was somewhere between 2.6 and 3 million.2 Since resources did not increase with the population there were obvious problems, especially in areas where so many people lived off the land as farmers. Finland had been a major exporter of tar, which came from the province of Vaasa, but the bottom had dropped out of this market. Young men and women had to look elsewhere if there was no work at home for them.

Another impetus to emigration came in1878 when Russia imposed compulsory military service which the Finnish people did not agree with. Rajanen stated that the Finnish thought "losing a Finnish son to America was preferable to losing him to the Cossacks."3 During the 1890's Russia seemed a threatening menace on Finland's eastern border. In 1899 Czar Nicholas II declared his "February Manifesto" taking away many of Finland's constitutional rights, and the resulting exile of political leaders and the suspicion directed at peaceful citizens drove out many who whished to escape this oppressive Russian rule.4

During the 1860's recruiters from the copper mine of Northern Michigan visited Finland to find workers. Quincy Copper Mine recruiters from Hancock, Michigan persuaded 35 Finns to come over in 1865, and 1000 more followed in the following ten years.5 The recruiters also sought young women for employment as servant girls, and word spread rapidly from one "pitaja" (parish) to another that wages were four time as high in America.6 Between1883 and 1892 it is estimated that 36,000 Finns came to the United States, over 47,000, between 1893 and 1900, and about 15,000 a year during the peak years between 1901 and 1915.7 Throughout the entire period of immigration the majority of applicants for passports were young, unmarried adults, and during the period 1901-1920 over two thirds were between the ages of 16 and 30.8 Friends and relatives who remained in Finland received letters encouraging them to come here, and others decided to make the journey after talking to Finns who had returned for a visit, or returned permanently from America.

Not all who travelled to America stayed. Thernstrom wrote that close 30 % of the Finns who came to the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century eventually returned to Finland.9 Mickel Niemi, great-grandfather of Court Michelson, twice journeyed to Rankin, Pennsylvania near Pittsburg where he lived in a boarding house owned by relatives before returning to Finland.10 Similarly, Elvi Humo, of DeKalb, stated that her Dad's sister and brother had also come ower, but returned to Finland.11

It seems that the immigrants sought out communities where Finns, often friends or relatives, had already settled. Rajanen notes that this happened frequently because one family member often would send home a ticket for the next in line.12 Maria Ketonen, age 19, arrived in DeKalb in 1905, financed by her brother who had already located here.13

It is estimated that as many as 50 % of the Finns who immigrated to this country had come from agricultural backgrounds.14 Once in this country, however, without funds to purchase farm land of their own, they turned to jobs in mines, mills and logging centers in the hopes of someday acquiring the funds to archive this dream. Some eventually did raise the capital to purchase their own farms, but many remained factory workers, while others became shop keepers.

The stories of DeKalb's Finns follow these patterns. There is no record of who first had the idea to visit DeKalb. It may well have been that Finns arrived in DeKalb while on their way to Minnesota or Michigan, and decided to remain on becoming aware of the job opportunities here. The invention of barbed wire 1874, and its manufacture in factories owned by Jacob Haish, Joseph Glidden, and Isaac Ellwood had brought prosperity to DeKalb, and this blooming job market brought immigrants from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Southern Europe as well as Finland, to work in the wire mills.15 The first Finnish men credited with coming to DeKalb, in1892, were the three Johans (Johns) - Keltamaki, Makela and Hakala, who were all from the same village of Seinajoki.16 Keltamaki and Makela came to DeKalb from Waukegan, and prior to that Pennsylvania. Toivo Hakala, son of Johan Hakala, stated that the other two Johns sent word to his father in Pennsylvania to come to DeKalb as it would be healthier.17 They worked in the Haish barbed wire mill, and wrote to their friends and relatives, calling other Finns to DeKalb.

The majority of the DeKalb's Finns came from the province of Vaasa, and an area known to the Finns as "Ostra Bothnia" which was located along the west coast of Finland on the gulf of Bothnia.18 [see Appendix A ] The three Johns were followed by Peter Brandt, Kalle Riippi, Antti and Samuel Riippi, from Teuva; Johan Samuelson (Ranta) from Lapvaartti (Lappfjard) ; Otto Hendrickson from Kristiina; Jacob and Tuomas Rytikoski, and Matt Myllari from Jeuva; Jaakko Spoff from Ylistaro; and William Koski from Kaustinen, but this list is by no means definitive.19

Although many of the Finns came directly to DeKalb, many others had settled in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan or Minnesota before arriving here. The 1900 census shows that of 184 Finns in DeKalb, only 38 were born in this country (most of them children), and only 36 of the 146 foreign born had emigration dates prior to 1892.20 The following stories are typical of the early immigrants of DeKalb. Samuel Riippi related in a tape interview that his father Charles had met John Hakala in Pennsylvania. Hakala wrote to Charles to come to DeKalb, and the Riippi family arrived in 1893 when Sam was a year old. His fathers wages in the wire mill here were double that from Pennsylvania, and in addition his family took in borders.21 Joseph Mickelson's (originally Josef Niemi) sister Amanda Niemi had come to DeKalb, ca. 1898, probably recruited as a maid, and as is natural wrote home about her life here. In 1902, when he was eighteen years old, Josef boarded a ship in Finland in the spring, and travelled to Hull, England where he took a train across to Liverpool where he obtained passage on the steamship Lucania and arrived in New York about June 18, 1902.22 From there he made his way to DeKalb. Urho J. Lehtola had come to America in 1912, settling first in Virginia, Minnesota, and then moving to DeKalb in 1914.23

Most of the Finnish emigrants to DeKalb were single men, and they lived in boarding houses, or with relatives. Yong girls came over to help with all the work in these boarding houses, and they also found employment as domestics, cooks, and seamstresses in the homes of some of DeKalb's more prosperous families - including C.W. Marsh, Isaac Ellwood, and Henry Gurler. Mayme Makela's mother, Hulda Saksa, was an exception to the norm in that she continued to work after her marriage. Among her places of employment were the Glidden House Hotel (on main and Second Street, where Lehan Drug is today), in the Ellwood home, a shoe factory, and for Miss Neptune at the "Normal School".24 Other young women worked in the glow factory.25 A check of the 1900 census and early city directories indicates that a majority of the Finnish men worked in the barb wire mills.

The Finns settled in the Third Ward area of DeKalb. In 1900 the Third Ward was bounded by Seventh Street on the west, Main Street (now Lincoln Highway, Rt. 38) on the south, Lewis Street on the North, and on the east by the Chicago and Northwestern tracks. They located there because upon coming to a strange area they wished to see some friendly faces, and hear familiar (Finnish speaking) voices. It was the industrial heart of town, with factories and foundries producing farm implements, fencing and wire products. The big employers were American Steel & Wire, Barb City Manufacturing, DeKalb Fence, A. Ellwood Implement, and DeKalb Brick and Tileworks.26 In those days most of the men walked to their jobs, and the jobs were in the Third Ward, so there the Finns put down their roots. Althogh predominantly Finnish, the ward also included a number of other ethnic groups - Swedish, German, Russian, Austrian, Danish, Norwegian, English, Irish, Scottish, and a small number of other European nationalities. Of the 184 Finns listed in the 1900 census, only 20 lived outside the Third Ward, and five of those were servant girls who lived with their employers.27 The Finns first settled on Locust Street in rental housing, as it was close to the American Steel & Wire buildings along both sides of the track, but the expanding community soon moved north.28 The Finnish community eventually included 9th thru14th streets, and Market, State, Pleasant, Lewis, and eventually Clark streets.29 [see Appendix B]

DeKalb's Finns brought their faith whith them, and it formed the foundation of their life here. In Finland the Lutheran Church is the national church. Wargelin estimated that in 1924 99 % of the Finns held this belief.30 The Finns had been converted to Christianity by the Swedes in 1157, and adopted Evangelical Lutheranism about 1527. The church had played a great role in the education of the people of Finland as the religious leaders felt that every individual should be able to read the Bible to understand the fundamental truths of the faith.31

Informal services had been held in homes, and in 1895 Pastor A.A. Koski from Chicago visited DeKalb and conducted the first formal worship service in the Henry Miller home.32 By 1896 the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church was born with Koski as pastor, travelling to DeKalb at least once a month for services. In 1897 J.J. Hoikka became pastor. He resided in Waukegan and visited DeKalb twice a month to conduct services. This type of arrangement lasted until 1941 when Walter Kukkonen became the first resident pastor. The lack of a full time pastor did not seem to hinder the work of the church. In 1897 a Sunday school was organised, in1898 a Ladies Aid Group, in 1899 the first meeting house was built at 418 N. 11th Street, and in 1902 the cornerstone was laid on an adjoining lot on the corner of 11th and State for a more substantial church which was completed in1903.33 This church was built by a Finnish contractor from Waukegan named Antti Sund.34

The church had establish its own library for use by the congregation, and, naturally, most of the materials were in the Finnish language. During the early years, all the church services and classes were conducted in Finnish. The leaders of the church thought it important to teach the children the heritage of the community, so Summer School was held which lasted six to eight weeks and included the customs, history, geography, language, music and poetry of Finland. Lauri Koski who attended this school in the 1930's stated that he didn't always like attending as he wanted to be more American.35 He was the root of a major problem in the church, the "language problem". During these early years of the 20th century the children had been attending school where they learned English and mingled with children of various national backgrounds. In 1929, in addition to the normal Sunday School classes conducted in Finnish, one child began receiving instructions in English. In 1930 English worship services began to be held once every three months, in 1933 English Sunday School classes started, and in 1936 an English department was added to the Summer School.

This change in language orientation seems to have occurred at the close of the immigration period to DeKalb. Rev. Lepisto estimates that between 600 and 800 Finns had come to DeKalb by1930.36 The task of easing English into use by the congregation fell to pastor Alvar Rautalahti who served from 1925 to 1941. By the time pastor Kukkonen arrived in 1941 English language services were accepted by most of the people. In September of that year the main 11 A.M. worship service was changed to English, with Finnish secondary, and thus began a change towards becoming a community Lutheran church, and not just a Finnish Lutheran church.37 In 1942 Finnish was discontinued entirely in Sunday School, and between 1942 and 1945 the name was changed from the Finnish Evangelical Church to Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Non-Finnish families entered the congregation in the 1940's. In the 1950's when plans were being developed for a new church building, the congregation made a bold decision to select a site outside the Third Ward in an area of New development at 1915 North First Street. Bethlehem Lutheran had truly become a community church. The church was completed in two stages, education building, club room, kitchen and chapel in 1962; and the church structure in 1969. However, even today in 1990, Bethlehem Lutheran has not forgotten its Finnish roots and Finnish language services are conducted once a month for the remaining older members of the congregation and the few recent immigrants. Together with Trinity Lutheran Church of Chicago, and St, Mark's Lutheran of Waukegan, members of the congregation still participate in Finnish Word and Song Festivals, twice a year, rotating the location between the three groups.38 Members of the Ladies Aid Society, about 15 to 20 altogether, meet about once a month, and these older members of the congregation continue to converse in Finnish, but as they pass away so will this tradition.

Pastor Antti Lepisto related how Kerttu and Erkki Haaga, who had emigrated from Finland in 1956, viewed the role the church played in helping them adjust to life in DeKalb. They told how the pastor had visited them, and how the church had Finnish language services which helped them become acquainted with other Finnish people. They stated: "this helped our transition, it was not so abrupt. There was an "aiti-kuoro (mothers's choir) which sang in Finnish". They did not have any previous friends in DeKalb, and only one cousin who helped sponsor them, so the church was really the social center that received them and gave them a foundation for their new life here.39

In addition to the church the Finns established many other organisations which served to give them support. This was very important in a place where so much was new. Most of the early immigrants were single men, and the lack of family support was not totally met by the church. Lonely, perhaps a bit homesick, and not able to understand the language, some men turned to the companionship they found in local taverns to easy their loneliness. Thus the temperance movement became an important part of the Finnish community. Arra states that although Finns in the homeland have used strong drink for hundreds of years, drunkenness has not developed into the curse it has among Finnish Americans in a few short years."40 Some of the early Finns in America joined groups of Swedes in the independent order of Good Templars, who promoted temperate living. In 1888 a group of Finns in Republic, Michigan decided to break from the Templars to form their own organization which they called the Finnish National Temperance Brotherhood.41

The Finnish community in DeKalb was still quite new, when on March 22, 1896, they formed the temperance society "Kylvo" (which means to sow) which affiliated whith the Finnish National Temperance Brotherhood, with John Hill as correspondent.42 A second temperance society, the "Majakka" was organized on December 30, 1901 at the home of J. Niva.43 Toivo Hakala stated that "Majakka" meant lighthouse, and thus the organization hoped to show light to the immigrants.44 The Majakka purchased the old church building at 418 N. 11th for a meeting hall. They met every other Saturday and Sunday so as not to conflict with the church activities. The Kylvo met at 1114 East State.

In August 1902 it was suggested that the two temperance groups join together, however, this did not happen because many of the Majakka members supported socialism while the Kylvo members did not.45 The Majakka joined the newly formed Illinois Finnish Temperance League in 1912. While they did not merge, the two groups did cooperate and jointly published a hand written "Nyrkkilehti" (fist-paper), the "Common Good" (Yhteishyva) which was read at all meetings.46 Both of DeKalb's temperance societies were concerned with more than just preaching against the vices of drinking. They provided many social activities for the men, women, and children of the community. The Majakka organized a band that was active for years. Speakers were a big part of temperance activities, as everyone was looking for interesting entertainment. In the early 1900's the Kylvo Society's speakers' club, the" Kyntaja" (the Plowman) received enthusiastic support, and the performing experience gained in the hall proved helpful at affairs such as the Summer Festivals. Mayme Makela rememberd that even after working hard in the mills all day, some of the men would memorize long poems which they would recite for various programs.47 The Kyntaja also had a sub group known as the "Coffee and Pops Club" where in addition to refreshments the members exchanged news and information. The Majakka also operated a cooperative dining room which catered to the single men of the community.

The two groups may be distinguished in that the Kylvo was more church oriented, whereas the Majakka was more "open-minded" and as Sam Riippi remembered had more dances, and more fun than the church connected group.48 During the mid-1910's the Majakka hall was becoming too small and so it was decided to sell it and build a new hall. At the same time internal problems caused a portion of the Kylvo membership to join Majakka. They purchased a lot at 1021 State Street, and a new, large meeting hall was completed in 1918. (This building, which still stands, is often mistaken for a church because of its size and design). Both the Kylvo and the Majakka, as well as the church, had collected books for use by their members. In 1918 the three libraries combined and the materials placed in the balcony of the newly completed Majakka Hall. When the hall was sold years later, the library was moved to the church basement where an accident which caused water to flow into the basement ruined much of the collection.

The temperance movement was, perhaps, at its height when the Illinois Temperance League was organized in 1911. The ITL promoted yearly Summer Festivals which were held in DeKalb, and were attended by Finns from the other large communities in Waukegan and Chicago. These festivals were usually held "in the spirit of St. John's day", (Mid-Summers Day) June 21. Activities included speakers, parades choirs, and bands which drew non-temperance members as well as people of non-Finnish descent. The Illinois Temperance League also promoted athletic events between the different temperance societies for purposes of "body development and physical culture".49 In1930 an athletic club and gymnastics group, the "DeKalbin Veikot" (DeKalb Brothers) was formed by the Majakka, and the group lasted until March 15, 1938.

The enactment of Prohibition on January 29, 1919 brought thoughts that further temperance work would be unnecessary. However, the illegal production and sale of liquor soon indicated that much work still needed to be done. In DeKalb, it became obvious that two temperance societies could not be supported by such a small number of Finns. In 1921 the Kylvo disbanded and donated its hall and lot to the Lutheran Church along with half of its finances, and the other half of its funds went to the Majakka.

Temperance societies in Illinois began to suffer from declining membership due to the death and aging of the original Finnish population, and the movement from the Finnish communities by members of the second and third generation. In 1949 Majakka Hall was sold, and in 1953 the Majakka finally ceased operations. Elvi Nori Humo, stated that her mother Hilma Nori was the last president of this temperance society.50

Another Finnish organization was the Worker's Society that was formed in about March of 1904 after Vilho Boman, a representative of the "Tyomies" (The Worker) newspaper from Milwaukee spoke to a group of about twenty Finns in the Juusola home.51 The Imatra League was already extremely active and the DeKalb Workers Society immediately joined it, becoming known as the Worker's Society Imatra. The Society wished to use the Majakka Hall as a meeting place, but the temperance people had doubts about the organizatin and refused. The Society consequently held their early meetings, twice a month, in theTilda Manninen home. The Workers Society also established its own library in May of 1904 so that members could became better acquainted with the ideology. In the fall of 1904 they formed their own band which they named "Kumina" (Rumble), and it made its first public appearance in the spring of 1905 in Opera Hall. That same spring The Worker's Society decided to affiliate with the Socialist Party, and from then on the group was called the Socialist Branch. This move caused some dissension among the members and a number resigned. Activity of the group virtually stopped for two years. In the fall of 1907 a new board of directors was elected, and new members recruited. They began presenting plays, as well as promoting athletic and gymnastic activities through its "Into" (enthusiasm) club. Their political interests were shown in their handwritten comic paper "Polistaja" (The Duster) which was published in 1908.

In 1908 The Majakka Temperance Society finally agreed to let the Socialists Branch rent their hall for 50 cents a meeting.52 The socialists decided to build their own meeting hall in 1909. By November that year their fund raising efforts had succeeded so well that they were able to purchase a lot at 637 N. 11th Street. In 1912 another band was organized, followed by a gymnastics club, Sunday School, and a sewing circle in 1913. The building fund had grown by this time so that they were able to hire a contractor to build the hall. The building was named the Finnish Auditorium and dedicated in March of 1914. To obtain additional funds, they rented the hall out to other groups for meetings. Again, conflict over policies led to a split of the membership following a breakdown of the Finnish Working class movement in America.53 The larger of the two fractions wished to remain loyal to the socialist party, while the other wanted to join the I.W.W. party line.54 When things finally settled down, the now smaller DeKalb Socialists continued on with their educational, cultural, and social activities, including a theatrical group and choir.

The Russian Revolution brought hopes of social reforms for their countrymen in Finland. By the end of World War I, the period of greatest enthusiasm for the Finnish Working Class Movement had passed. At its height, the DeKalb Socialist branch had only 150 members, but now the older members began to grow tired and the younger generation did not share these interests so the band and chorus disbanded in 1920. Membership continued to dwindle, and by 1941 when the hall was sold to Otto and Maria Seppanen, there were only 16 members left. The Seppanens rented the hall out for Finnish affairs for a very nominal rent for a number of years, then it was sold to the Odd Fellows, and later it was sold again to the Plumbers Union.55

An organization which enjoyed the support of DeKalb's Finns for a number of years was the Kaleva (the name "Kaleva" commemorates the Finnish National Epic "The Kalevala"). In January 1908, a number of Knights of Kaleva from Ely, Minnesota and Ishpeming, Michigan attended a temperance meeting in DeKalb, and as a side issue organized a "maja" (lodge) which was officially chartered as Vepsan Maja No.23 by January 16, 1908.56 The Knights of Kaleva had been established in 1898 as a fraternal "help-one-another" clubs to promote the preservation of Finnish culture and to encourage harmony within the immigrant community.57 Soon after the Vepsan Maja was formed a female counterpart, the Sinettaren Tupa No. 21 of DeKalb was established on April 14, 1908. There was nothing secret about the customs or activities of the Kalevas, and any member of the Finnish community could join. In the early days it was not easy to attract members since the temperance societies, and the Workers Society had been in existens for a number of years.

DeKalbs Vepsan Maja and Sinettaren Tupa sponsored individual and cooperative programs with a single purpose in mind: to preserve their Finnish heritage, and leave a spiritual heritage to the future Finnish American generations.58 The Sinettaren Tupa arranged Saturday evening social events. Beginning in 1915 the various Kaleva organizations in Illinois regularly began to celebrate Mother's Day each year. In addition they celebrated Mid-Summer's Day (June 21), Finnish Independence Day (December 6), and Kalevala Day (varies in date, but close to February 20). Receipts from the Kalevala and Independence Day programs were regularly sent to aid Finnish war veterans. The best possible speakers were obtained for Kalevala programs, and they promoted cooperation with the temperance and church groups.

The Vepsan Maja enjoyed its highest membership during the period 1933 to 1935. The members were primarily Finnish born, perhaps due to the language question, or because of the "generation gap" between the older group and American born Finns.59 Two members of the Vepsan Maja of DeKalb are worthy of special mention. Heikki Huttunen, was extremely skilful at reciting Finnish poetry from memory, and Toimi Makela's beautiful song presentations were featured in programs not only in DeKalb, but in all Illinois Finnish festival programs.60

At the height of their membership the DeKalb Kaleva's had a joint choir. In order to promote awareness of the Finnish culture these groups presented books to the schools and city library. The Sinettaren Tupa was very active. In 1938 the ladies and men planted a birch tree in Hopkins Park in honour of the Delaware Tricentennial which commemorated the arrival the Swede-Finns in America.

The Kalevas also had a Finnish language school for about two years, ca. 1936-1938, which consisted of classes held once a week, for an hour or an hour and a half, after school at Ellwood school. About 15 to 20 Finnish children attended the classes taught by Jack Hill and his wife Aino, and Toimi Makela and his wife Mayme. Toimi taught dances, and the others taught the songs, language, stories, and history of Finland.61

During the winter war, fought between November 30, 1939 and March 12, 1940 when Russia attacked Finland in an undeclared war, and its continuation in World War II, the Sinettaren Tupa sisters gathered all the Finns around them to help aid the distressed and needy in their homeland. Money, food, clothing, and blankets were gathered. This aid to Finland continued for ten years. By 1969 the Vepsan Maja was down to seven members, and the Sinettaren Tupa had just sixteen. Although the membership of the Kalevas had never been large, it was loyal. When the American Steel and Wire plant closed in 1938 forcing many members to leave the area in search of jobs, the Maja and Tupa remained active with members travelling as much as 53 miles to attend meetings.62 The Kalevas of DeKalb had never had a meeting place of their own.They met in rented halls, and in their later years in members homes.

On December 1, 1933 a group called the DeKalb National Society was formed to serve the needs of the younger second and third generation Finns. It was originally intended to be an auxiliary of the Majakka Temperance Society, but the Majakka had rejected the idea so it became an independent organization. It was a small group, with membership never exceeding thirty at any time, but it remained active for fifteen years. Meetings were held once a month in the basement of the Temperance Hall, and programs held more often during the winter months. The DeKalb National Society assisted with other programs directed at youths such as the folk dance group, and actively participated in the Illinois Finnish Summer Festivals. Members travelled to joint meetings with groups in Joliet, Waukegan, and Chicago. During its first three years members presented six difficult plays, two of them in Finnish, plus twenty other plays, and noted that several members later became involved with the production of the Stage Coach Players.63 The group held picnics in Hopkins Park, participated in the Christmas, Mid-Summer's Day, and Finnish Independence Day programs as well as provided financial support for the Finnish Olympic effort, and funds for Finnish Relief efforts during World War II.

Another youth oriented group was formed on November 18, 1937 by Toimi Makela when he called a meeting in his home to form a folk dance group, which was named appropriately the Finnish Folk Dancers. This organization promoted Finnish culture, and was active until the mid-1950's. Over the course of its existence over 40 youths participated, but only sixteen were active dancers at any one time, and of these, all but two were American born. In the early years they had two accordion players for accompaniment, and in the later years they had piano. Mayme Makela, wife of Toimi, recalled that whenever one person had to leave there was always a person ready to step in. Dressed in authentic Finnish national costumes, the group performed for many DeKalb events, benefits for St. Mary's Hospital, the DeKalb Garden Club and other "American" affairs, as well as Finnish celebrations of various kinds and Finnish War benefits.64 Perhaps the highlight of their career was a performance in Chicago's Orchestra Hall for the International Folk Dance Festival. Mayme Makela remembered how thrilling it was to be in the huge hall. They were the last group on the program and performed two intricate dances to accordion accompaniment.65

The Depression which followed the Stock Market Crash of 1929 affected DeKalb and its Finnish population just as it did people throughout America. On March 26, 1931 a group of compassionate Finnish men met at the home of Yrjo Remsujeff to consider aiding their countrymen in need, and thus the DeKalb Relief Committee was formed, one looked to see if it could locate Finns in the community who were in need, and another explored what aid the city could furnish the Finnish people. Four Finnish families in need were identified, and the city provided $5.00 worth of groceries to each.66 To obtain funds for its work the committee turned to the Finnish business men, and also arranged picnics and other social functions. Milk and butter were donated, and gift of potatoes and vegetables were distributed to needy families. In addition to food, in some cases financial assistance was given to pay rent and real estate taxes so that these families could retain their homes.67 The peak years of relief work were in were in 1932 and 1933, as action by the Federal Government was beginning to make itself felt in the area. The DeKalb Relief Committee ended its activities in 1938.

When the Winter War began in Finland in 1939 the various organizations in DeKalb's Finnish community immediately began relief efforts. On December 9, 1939 a group of Finnish women got together and put on a "soup affair", with proceeds going to relief. On December 18, the women formally organized a new group which was given the name of Martha Society, carrying on their Finnish relief efforts for ten years.

The Martha's in addition to collecting clothing, blankets and money, gathered together to knit, crochet, and sew clothing. The Red Cross donated yarn for the Martha's to work with, and additional materials were purchased by the society. The Meetings were officially held once a week, but in reality the women gathered together every evening to work.68

The Finnish men, started their own group called Men's Finnish Relief Committee, and held their first meeting on January 13, 1940 in Otto Seppanen's Hall (the old Worker's Society hall). They held public affairs, and collected for the relief effort for several months, but in April they decided to disband and instead work with the Martha's. The collection of clothing, merchandise, and money continued until 1941when the "Continuance War" in Finland broke contacts. Following the end of World War II, relief efforts resumed with a special emphasis given to aiding the war orphans. The Martha's worked to adopt two war orphans, a boy and a girl. Their relief efforts ceased in 1950. DeKalb's Finnish community consisted of only several hundred Finns during this period, yet it is estimated that their various organizations (National Finnish Society, Knights and Ladies of Kaleva, the temperance groups, the church and the Martha's) had raised around $10,000 which was sent to the Finnish consulate for relief purposes, a remarkable achievement.69

In 1936 a meeting of the various Finnish groups active in Illinois was held, and it was agreed that, despite their differing purposes and ideologies, joint festival would be arranged every year in one of these Finnish communities. These festivals became important meeting places where people from the different communities were able to exchange ideas and discuss matters of common interest, in addition to enjoying the various forms of entertainment. Usually held out doors, the festivals included speeches, songs and concerts, and drew spectators from outside the Finnish community. By common consent, all receipts from the 1940 and 1941 festivals were given to Finnish relief.70 Due to the war festivals were not held 1942 thru 1945. The festivals resumed in 1946 and again it was decided to send the profits to Finland. In 1955 a decision was made to leave the responsibilities for organizing future festivals to the Finnish Historical Society.

The Finnish -American Historial Society of Illinois had been founded September 3, 1953. In 1959 a chapter was started in DeKalb to work on the history of the community, which included the following members: Tenho Tamsi, Maria Wainio, Laura Korpi, Matti and Hulda Maki, Knut Makela, Ida Jarvi, Aini Lehtola, Maria Kahilus, Tilda Myllyniemi, Thomas E. Kuusisto, Gust Lahti, Josephine Lahti, Toimi and Mayme Makela and Fanny Klasing.71 In 1967 a contract was signed to compile a history of the Illinois Finns. This History in Finnish, by Esa Arra was published in the following year. With the book completed, the Society declared it's work completed and ended its existence in March 1972.

In addition in all the various church, temperance, worker, and social groups founded by the Finns over the years, DeKalb's Finnish community also established several business ventures. The Finns had developed the cooperative movment in their native land, and the concept was brought over here with them.72 According to Carl Reuben Riippi, a cooperative grocery was established in 1907 which closed after five years.73 This may be the Finnish Mercantile at 414 N. 11th St., which is listed in the 1910 and 1912 DeKalb City Directories. Sam Riippi, in a taped interview stated that he began working for the Finnish Mercantile when he was fourteen years old, ca. 1906, for $10.00 a month.74 Mayme Makela related that in those days (before most people in the area had phones) the grocers hired boys to go around to all their customers to see if they needed anything,and then the boys would come back later in the day and deliver it.75 A second Finnish Mercantile apparently operated from 1915 to 1925.

A more successful and better known enterprise was DeKalb Milk Consumers Association. Established by the Finns in1917, it remained in business for nearly 50 years. It was operated on a shareholders basis, and according to Carl Reuben Riippi, a $10 share gave you a one cent discount on a quarter of milk.76 The business began with a farmer bringing milk to the basement of the Panttila home where members could come and get the milk. Moved to the basement of the Finnish Mercantile, processing simply involved pouring the milk through screens to separate out the impurities.77

.After a month of operation it was decided to purchase a horse and wagon to deliver the milk. Adolph Niemi and his well trained delivery horse "Nellie" were popular figures throughout the community.78 As business grew, the facilities of the cooperative also grew. In 1926 a modern dairy was completed on Pleasant Street, and in 1930 it was enlarged and modernized. The product line grew to include butter, cottage cheese, cream, 2 % milk and skim milk. Customers included people all over DeKalb. During its last years of operation 400 members belonged to the cooperative, with over 2,000 regular customers.79 In 1956 the Association incorporated to protect itself against liabilities and about 1964 it became a delivery service only, purchasing its products from the Pure Milk Association of Wisconsin.80 It was during the 1960's that the Milk Consumers became less Finn dominated. In 1966 the diary was sold to the Muller Pinehurst Company as a result of difficulties with finances, personnel, competition and federal and state regulations.

Over the years many Finns were employed by the Milk Consumers Association, from management down to factory workers, and delivery men. Oscar Nori drove a milk truck for 17 years, and worked inside for another 13 years.81 Managers of the Association included Knut Makela, John Niemi, Jack Kahilus, Victor Hahto, Albert Hakala, Carl Riippi, Bruno Nevanpaa, Toivo Hakala, Raymond Panula, and Toimi Makela.82

From the early 1900's to perhaps the 1940's, downtown merchants often thought it important to have a Finnish employee to act as a translator since the Finnish language was so different, and many of the Finns who did know English did not speak it well enough to be understood.83

DeKalb's Finns as they acquired the capital, started a number of their own businesses. It is reported that one of the first Finnish entrepreneurs was Otto Hendrickson who operated a "strong drink emporium" before the turn of the century.84 There is, however no documentation citing Hendrickson as a contributing influence for the growth of the Finnish Temperance movement.

One business closely associated with the Finnish people is the sauna. The sauna has been a part of Finnish culture for over two thousand years.85 In addition to its cleansing properties, the sauna is felt to be a physically and emotionally soothing, health restoring ritual.86 The Finns brought this tradition with them to DeKalb. Although saunas were operated by four families, in limited space, in the early days, the main sauna that most everyone remembers was established in 1914 by Frank Luoma in1914.87 Located at 1105 Pleasant Street, Luoma operated it for ten years befor it was purchased by Jaakko (Jack) and Sigrid Makela. Daughter Genevive and her husband John Davis took over the sauna in the early 1970's. She recalled that when her parents purchased the sauna it was quite small and her parents enlarged it. The sauna was located on the first floor of the two story building. The six foot deep owen was the central room, with three separate sauna rooms adjoining the oven, one room for the men, one for the women, and the third for couples and families. Dressing rooms were located on the corners, separating the individual sauna rooms. The oven was heated for hours befor opening on Saturday morning. Mrs. Davis remembers that her father would begin burning railroad ties about 2 P.M. on Friday afternoons in order to maintain heat that would last all day Saturday. The Makela's operated the sauna on Saturdays only, but when the Davis' took it over they begun to open it on Tuesdays evenings also.88 Lauri Koski and his brothers used to visit the sauna regularly on Saturday mornings, and stated that it served as a gathering place for the community.89 This tradition continued until the sauna closed in 1984.

Among the Finnish owned businesses over the years were: Erik Nieminen's Grocery (1901-1948), Hugo Lassila's grocery, Johnson's bakery, Saarela's bakery, Henry Liimatainen's clothing and tailor shop, Kalle Rosenberg and his son Kalle Jr. and Alfred operated shoe repair shops, Victor Leppanen's shoe repair, Henry Maki's shoe repair, Wuoris radio store, Hakala-Sanderson insurance and real estate business, attorney Matti Lettola, and Fanny Klasing's Beauty shop among others. Carl R. Riippi, in partnership with Nansen Glidden, established a Cheese Factory in 1943. In addition, a number of doctors, nurses, and teachers were products of Finnish homes.90

Sam Riippi had worked for Anderson Brothers Clothing in DeKalb, before joining a partnership with Buckalew and Burrows in 1924. He later bought them out and operated Riippi's Mens Clothing store for twenty years prior to his election to the City Clerk's office. Sam held the office of City Clerk for another twenty years, retiring when he was 84 years old.

Other Finns who held positions of importance with the city include Hugo J. Hakala, who was Third Ward alderman from 1932-1937, and DeKalb Mayor from 1937-1949. Hakala had worked at American Steele and Wire for fifteen years before it closed. He then became a real estate broker, a profession he continued during his years as Mayor. Carl Reuben Riippi, a banker served as City Treasurer from 1957-1961, and in addition he served on the park board for thirteen years. John Remsey (family name originally Remsujeff) served two terms as Chief of DeKalb Police Department, from 1949-1953. and again 1956-1957. The city has had two Finnish Fire Chiefs, Sam Luoma 1958-1967, and Albert Riippi 1979-1986.

Other notable Finns include two athletes, both of whom were NIU graduates. Reino Nori was one of the first athletes inducted into the NIU Hall of fame. During his college years he accumulated 17 letters in 5 sports (4 each in football, basketball, baseball, and track, and one in wrestling). After graduation he went on to play professional football with the Detroit Lions in 1936, Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937, and Chicago Bears in 1938. Standing just 5'6" and 160 pounds when he played with the Bears, Nori stated in an 1974 interview that: " I just wasn't big enough for the NFL" and decided it was time to get out.91 Nori, Who was nicknamed "The Flying Finn", was called the "greatest athlete in the history of NIU athletics" in an article noting his death in 1988.92 Toimi Jarvi, a 1942 graduate of NIU, was also a quarterback like Nori. He played for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1944, and the Pittsburg Steelers in 1945.93

The Finns seemed to be quite fond of athletic events, and most of their organizations prompted these activities. In addition, during the early 1920's Art Johnson promoted bicycle races in the Third Ward. The race actually consisted of six consecutive nights of three hour long races around the streets of the Finnish neighbourhood, and was undoubtedly quite an experience.

Finnish people brought their respect for learning with them to this country. Finland has a very high degree of literacy, and Wargelin reported in 1924 that 98 % of the population could read and write.94 Although not all the Finnish immigrants learned to read, write or speak English, they were literate in their own language and were avid readers.95 Many men did pick up English on the job. Neilo Koski related that his father, Oscar, went to night school to learn English, as he very much wanted to become an American, and did so.96

The children learned Finnish at home, but when they went to school they learned English. It was difficult for the first child in the family who, as Ellen Hampa relates, arrived at school not knowing a word of English, and with parents who were unable to help with their homework.97 The children did learn the language, and then taught their younger brothers and sisters. The children of the Third Ward attended Ellwood school, on the corner of 11th and Lewis. This school had an indoor swimming pool on the west end of the building, and Sam Riippi recalled that the children felt fortunate to have such a fine pool in what was basically a poor neighbourhood.98

The women probably had the most difficult time with the language. The women "clung together", and as most of the things they needed could be found in the Finnish stores within the neighbourhood they did not feel the need to learn English, as their children or husbands would.99 Their church and social groups were also in Finnish in the early years. Maria Ketonen Koski, mother of Lauri and Neilo Koski, learned English from her children.100 On the other hand, Toivo Hakala's mother, although she did not learn much English, was quite fond of reading and would discuss Finnish books that were presented in serial form with her son.101

Despite the fact that the Finns belonged to so many organizations that sought to carry on the traditions of their homeland, they also whished to be Americans. Even as early as the late 1890's, when DeKalb's Finnish population was still quite small examples of this can be seen. The Sycamore True Republic of April 2, 1899 reported that a group of about fifty Finns had come from DeKalb to the Court House in Sycamore to take out naturalization papers on March 27th. About 36 received their final papers and became full fledged voters.102

When the League of Woman Voters was working to establish and build Hopkins park, people from the Finnish community participated enthusiastically. Finnish men who had stone cutting experience volunteered to cut and set the stones (gathered by the League Ladies) to form the entrance gates.103 Finnish men also constructed two log cabins in the traditional Finnish style, located near where the bandstand is today, which were removed when it was enlarged.104 When the park was officially opened on September 30, 1934 the Finns played a prominent role. Carl Riippi, chairman of the buildings committee of the Park Board introduced the men who had built the log cabins, Mrs. Aino Hill led a Finnish choir in a presentation of the "Suomi Song", and Finnish songs and dances were performed.105

It was quite a community. The Finnish people worked, worshiped, socialized, and helped one another for many years. However, nothing stays the same. During the 1940's the Finnish neighbourhood began to break apart. One obvious reason was the closure of the American Steel & Wire plants in DeKalb in May 1938. For some of the Finns it had been the only place they had ever worked. A number of these families moved to Joliet or Waukegan where American Steele & Wire had other plants. Some of the men chose to remain in DeKalb and commute to work. Joseph Mickelson and five or six other men travelled 45 miles to Joliet, five days a week, from 1939 until his retirement in 1951.106

Others found employment at the Wurlitzer Piano Company, Cyclone Fence, DeKalb Ag., or in one of the other businesses in town.

Another cause of the break-up of the Finnish community was the coming of age of second and third generations. The young people had gone to school with people of different nationalities all their lives. When the time came for them to marry, they did not always choose a person from the Finnish community, and they did not always choose to make their homes in the Third Ward. As the older generation passed away, the Finnish community began to grow smaller.

A final cause might have seen Word War II when many chose to serve in the armed forces. Some of the men simply did not come back. Tenho Makela, born in DeKalb in 1915, enlisted in the Army in January 1942. By November 1944 he was a first lieutenant, and a year later, in November 1944, he was awarded the Silver Star for heroic conduct. Four days later he vas killed while fighting with General Patton's armoured forces, and was awarded the Purple Heart posthumously. Makela Hall at the armoured tank school in Kentucky was named for him.107 Other soldiers, after seeing a bit of the world, wanted, perhaps, more than DeKalb could provide for them.

The Finnish people are now, no different than most of the other ethnic groups that make up the city of DeKalb. They came and made DeKalb their home, they worked hard, and they educated their children to become good Americans. They contributed their share of good, honest citizens to the community, DeKalb's Finnish people have a past to be proud of. May it never be forgotten.


1. Stephen Thernstrom, ed. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), s.v. "Finns", by A William Hoglund, 364.

2. J.N. Hook, "The Finns: From Above the Sixtieth Parallel", chap. in Family Names : How Our Surnames Came To America (New York: Macmillian, 1982), 156-7; Thernstrom, 364.

3. Aini Rajanen, Of Finnish Ways, (Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1981), 210.

4. John Wargelin, The Americanization of the Finns (Hancock, Mich.: The Finnish Lutheran Book Concern, 1924), 42.

5. Hook, 157

6. Hook, 157

7. John H. Wuorinen, A History of Finland (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), 197; Hook, 157.

8. Thernstrom, 365

9. Thernstrom, 365

10. Court Mickelson, Mickelson Family Archives: "350 Years in America" [photocopy of typed manuscript], [59], Earl W. Hayter Regional History Center, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb.

11. Elvi Nori Humo, interview with author, DeKalb, Illinois, 21 March 1990.

12. Rajanen, 210.

13. Neilo Koski, interview by Estella Metcalf, 6 Nov. 1989, tape recording, Earl W. Hayter Regional History Center, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb; Lauri Koski, interview with Author, DeKalb, Illinois, 19 March 1990.

14. Wargelin, 73.

15. League of Womens Voters of DeKalb, Illinois, This is Your Town DeKalb: The Community and Its Government. (DeKalb: League of Womens Voters of DeKalb, Illinois, 1967), 4.

16. Esa Arra, The Finns in Illinois, trans. Andrew I. Brask, The Finnish- American Historical Society of Illinois, (New York Mills, Minn.: Northwestern Publishing Co., 1971), 12; Ellen Peura Hampa, "Life in Early Finnish Homes," part of audiotape lecture Finnish Life in North America: A case Study DeKalb, Illinois, presented at DeKalb High School, 17 Nov. 1983.

17. Toivo Hakala, interview by James Jarvis, 26 March 1976, tape recording, Learning recourses Center, Kishwaukee Collage, Malta, Illinois.

18. Mayme Saksa Makela, interview with author, DeKalb, Illinois, 17 April 1990.

19. Arra, 12.

20. 1900 Census, DeKalb City 3rd Ward, DeKalb county, Il., [photocopy transcribed from microfilm by Florence Houghton Marshall, 1988].

21. Samuel Riippi, interview by James Jarvis, 9 June 1977, tape recording, Learning Resources Center, Kishwaukee Collage, Malta, Illinois.

22. Michelson, [58-9]; Viola Michelson Burnett, telephone interview with author, DeKalb, Illinois, 18 April 1990.

23. Arra, 256.

24. Makela, 17 April 1990.

25. Hampa, 17 November 1983.

26. 1900 Census, 3rd Ward, Il.

27. 1900 Census, 1st Ward, 1900 Census, 2nd Ward, 1900 Census, 4th Ward.

28. Carl Reuben Riippi, "Work and community Leadership", part of audiotape lecture Finnish Life in North America: A Case Study DeKalb, Illinois, presented at DeKalb High School, 17 Nov. 1983.

29. This is the consensus I gathered from talking to Mayme Makela, Elvi Humo, Lauri Koski, listening to the Neilo Koski tape, and checking addresses in DeKalb City Directories.

30. Wargelin, 128.

31. Wargelin, 94.

32. Lauri Koski, "93 Year History of Bethlehem Ev. Lutheran Church, DeKalb, Illinois, 1896-1989" [photocopy from Lauri Koski], 1; Antti Lepisto, "The Role of the church in DeKalb, Illinois Among the Immigrant Finns" [photocopy of typescript of lecture] Finnish Life in Northern America: A Case Study DeKalb, Illinois, presented at DeKalb High School, 17 Nov. 1983, 1.

33. Hakala, 26 March 1976; Lauri Koski, "93 Year History", 4.

34. Arra, 266-7.

35. Lauri Koski, 19 March 1990.

36. Antti Lepisto, "The Life and Contribution of Finnish People in DeKalb, Illinois" in DeKalb County Historical Society presents A Beginning History of Ethnic Contributions to the Development of DeKalb County, November 14-17, 1988, [photocopy of typed manuscript], 15; Lepisto, "The Role", 1; Hampa, 17 november 1983.

37. Lepisto, "The Role", 3; Lauri Koski, "93 Year History", 2.

38. Antti Lepisto, interview with author, DeKalb, Illinois, 20 March 1990.

39. Lepisto, "The Role", 3.

40. Arra, 17.

41. Arra, 19.

42. Mayme Saksa Makela, "Social and Cultural Life", part of audiotape lecture Finnish Life in North America: A Case Study DeKalb, Illinois, presented at DeKalb High School, 17 Nov.1983; Arra, 23.

43. Arra, 25.

44. Toivo Hakala, 26 March 1976.

45. Arra, 26.

46. Arra, 27.

47. Mayme Makela, 17 Nov. 1983.

48. Samuel Riippi, 9 June 1977; Mayme Makela, 17 April 1990.

49. Arra, 34.

50. Elvi Humo, 21 March 1990.

51. Arra, 100.

52. Arra, 102.

53. Arra, 104.

54. According to Arra, 106-7, the I.W.W.'s "were unable to get any wind under their sails among the Illinois Finns", in DeKalb, attempts were made in the early 1920's to hold meetings, but lack of interest resulted in meetings being held infrequently and activity limited to an occasional event and distribution of circulars for striker support.

55. Carl Reuben Riippi, 17 Nov. 1983.

56. Arra, 127.

57. Thernstrom, 366; Rajanen, 212.

58. Mayme Makela, 17 Nov. 1983; Arra, 132.

59. Arra, 134.

60. Arra, 133.

61. Mayme Makela, 17 April 1990.

62. Arra, 146.

63. Mayme Makela, 17 Nov. 1983.

64. Mayme Makela, 17 April 1990.

65. Mayme Makela, 17 April 1990.

66. Arra, 176.

67. Mayme Makela, 17 Nov. 1983.

68. Mayme Makela, 17 Nov. 1983; Arra, 211.

69. Lepisto, "The Life", 15; Arra, 212.

70. Arra, 216.

71. Arra, 245.

72. Wargelin, 87.

73. Carl Reuben Riippi, 17 Nov. 1983.

74. Samuel Riippi, 9 June 1977.

75. Mayme Makela, 17 April 1990.

76. Carl Reuben Riippi, 17 Nov. 1983.

77. "DeKalb Milk Consumers Records", Inventory File RC 15, held by Earl W. Hayter Regional History Center, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, 3; Arra, 164.

78. Carl Reuben Riippi, 17 Nov.1983.

79. Arra, 165.

80. "DeKalb Milk Consumers", 3.

81. Elvi Humo, 21 March 1990.

82. Arra, 165.

83. Lepisto, 20 March 1990.

84. Carl Reuben Riippi, 17 Nov. 1983.

85. Rajanen, 131.

86. Rajanen, 131.

87. Arra, 233.

88. Genevive Makela Davis, interview with author, DeKalb, Illinois, 21 March 1990.

89. Lauri Koski, 19 March 1990.

90. Arra, 233-4; Carl Reuben Riippi, 17 Nov. 1983.

91. "Nori Still holds Many NIU football records", Northern Star (Northern Illinois University, DeKalb), 7 Feb.1974, 23.

92. "Legendary athlete leaves memories", Northern Star (Northern Illinois University, DeKalb), 12 Oct. 1988, 16.

93. Michael J. Korcek, NIU Sports Information, telephone interview, 2 May 1990.

94. Wargelin, 95-6.

95. Hampa, 17 Nov. 1983.

98. Samuel Riippi, 9 June 1977.

99. Hampa, 17 Nov. 1983.

100. Lauri Koski, 19 March 1990.

101. Toivo Hakela, 26 March 1976.

102. Sycamore True Republic (Illinois), 2 April 1899.

103. Mrs.Elwyn Miller, Fifty Years at the Grassroots: A History ot the League of Womens Voters of DeKalb, Illinois. [photocopy of typed manuscript], 9, Earl W. Hayter Regional History Center, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb.

104. Mayme Makela, 17 April 1990.

105. Daily Chronicle (DeKalb, Ill.), 1 Oct.1934, 2; Miller, 9.

106. Burnett, 18 April 1990; Michelson, [61].

107. Arra, 239; Carl Reuben Riippi, 17 Nov. 1983.


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Northern Illinois University. A research paper for Principles of Historical Administration. Department of History. May 1990.

© Joan M. Metzger

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