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Eben: A Finnish Community in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

Leonard S. Wilson

The village and umland of Eben, which is located in Alger County about twenty miles west-southwest of Munising in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (Map 8), constitute a Finnish community. The pioneer settler of the district places the date of founding as the spring of 1902. At that time the mines around Calumet had closed, and the Finns who had been induced to move from the home land on the assumption that wages paid in the United States were higher than the income which could be derived from farming in Finland were forced to return to the agricultural practices which they had abandoned upon emigrating. The similarity of climate, land surface, and vegetation to those of Finland caused them to be readily persuaded by land speculators to purchase tracts which would not be considered suitable agricultural land by immigrants from other countries. It is said, locally, that if a Finn is given his choice between a well-drained, cleared, first-quality farm, and a piece of poorly drained, rocky, cut-over land, he will choose the latter. It is on this poor marginal type of land that the Finnish community of Eben is located.

Map 8. Location of the community of Eben.

Old and New Finland

The climate of Eben is not conducive to the practice of agriculture except by a people who have had long experience in a similar environment. The short growing season averages only seventy seven days, and in some years it is considerably less. This limits agricultural production to hay, the more hardy grains, and root crops. These are essentially cattle feed, and as a result domestic animals play a most important part in the economy of the region.

Both Eben and the city of Helsingfors in southern Finland are located in Köppen's Dfb climatic division. The accompanying tables show some striking similarities between Chatham, Michigan, the nearest station to Eben, and the capital city of Finland.

CHATHAM, MICHIGAN (average from 1900 to 1930)1








































Average for the year at Chatham: Temp. 39.2; Rf. 34.20

HELSINGFORS, FINLAND (average from 1886 to 1915)2








































Average for the year at Helsingfors: Temp. 40.0; Rf. 24.8

These data show a broad similarity between the two stations. The differences are primarily due to the marine influence of the Baltic Sea on Helsingfors. The average date of the last killing frost in the Eben district is June 10, that of the first frost severe enough to kill is September 15. The average rainfall during the growing season is usually about 12 inches. The average temperature during the same period is between 56 and 58 degrees F.; the minimum is 46 degrees and the maximum is 70 degrees. The average hours of sunshine during the growing season as based on the nearest station, which is Sault Ste. Marie, shows the following distribution:














Professor J. O. Veatch has placed the Eben district in the "Trenary Hardwood Plains" division.4 By definition this would mean that the surface soil is of a brown loamy variety and is underlain by clayey subsoils. It is in large part stony and rests on a limestone bedrock. In relief, the highland is rolling to level, with low ridges and a large portion of swamp land. The area has been completely glaciated.

A large part of the surface of Finland is occupied by rivers, lakes, and marshes.5 The name "Finland" means "swamp land". It, too, has been glaciated. Except for a few outcroppings of the bedrock, the surface is composed entirely of drift material, with a considerable number of boulders included. The vegetation of Finland and of the Eben area is similar. Pine, spruce, birch, and aspen are indigenous to both, as is tamarack in the swamps.

Between 80 and 90 per cent of the people of Finland are engaged in agriculture; the principal crops are hay, oats, and barley.6 The number of important industries in Finland, as might be expected, is small. Wood and wood products are the only ones of importance. Eben community differs only in the fact that the timber resources have been exploited until so little remains that it is of no commercial significance. The Finns have introduced into the area many peculiarities of agricultural practice, cultural heritage, and economic development.

The Lineaments of the Area

The boundaries of the Eben community were determined entirely on an economic basis (Map 9). Post-office lists, inquiries about the trading limits of the three stores in the village, and personal interviews were the methods employed to secure data for this part of the study. The road-turning method proved to be satisfactory in determining the limits in a reconnaissance study and was substantiated by the methods previously mentioned.7 The north-western limit of the area was found to correspond with the Algonquin Lake level. Beyond this boundary the land falls off rapidly and becomes swampy. It is entirely unsuited to farming. The northern and western limits also coincided with features of the natural landscape, as well as with the slash cover which remained after the logging operations had been concluded. No natural limits were found to determine the boundary on the remaining borders. Within these limits lies the community of Eben, similar throughout in landscape, cultural heritage, and development.

The Cover Map and Regional Economy

The outstanding features of the cover map (Map 9) are the confused field boundaries along the roads and the predominance of fodder crops almost to the exclusion of all others. The former condition is in part caused by the frontier-like nature of the community. When the Finn settled on the land he had to remove not only the second-growth vegetation but also the large stumps which remained after logging (Pl. LXIX, Fig. 2). The practice has been to clear a small plot the first year in order to plant it in the following spring. At a later date, when more land has been cleared, this may become a barnyard pasture. The stumps from the cleared land are stacked at the margins of the field and are used as fences. This method of clearing a small area when needed has resulted in an irregular and complex pattern of fields bordering the roads. The centers of the areas bounded by the right-angled road pattern have not been entirely cleared, and they serve the owners as wood lots.

Map 9

The second condition, the predominance of crops essentially for cattle consumption, is largely caused by the preference of the Finns for a diet almost entirely of meat. Another conditioning element is the climate of the district, which favors crops which are best suited for forage.

Settlement Forms

The practice of the Finnish settler has been to erect a one- or two-room dwelling near one boundary of his land and to clear a roughly semicircular plot of land of about an acre. During the winter he earns money with which to purchase seed for planting by working in the woods as a lumberjack. The following spring crops are planted, and more land is cleared. The old axiom, "Where there is a Finn there is a cow", holds true. At the earliest possible date a cow and a cow barn are added to the meager equipment of the farm. This one cow is the beginning of the relatively large number of cattle and chickens which are kept. The process is slow, but time and effort are of no importance. Slowly the Finn converts a seemingly worthless tract into a paying farm.

The average farm of the community (Map 10 and Pl. LXIX, Fig. 1) contains approximately eighty acres. Of this perhaps forty acres are cleared and put in condition suitable for the production of crops. This small area is again divided into twenty-six acres in hay, six in oats, three in potatoes, with the remaining five acres utilized for miscellaneous crops such as sunflower and millets.8

The crop rotation is, usually, oats, hay, and potatoes. Few fields lie fallow because of the restricted area of cultivable land.

Probably the most striking feature of the Finnish farm is the great number of buildings. These may range from the original small shack which was the first dwelling of the farmer, through several types of hay barns, tool sheds, and cattle barns, to the more modern dwelling and latest type of combined animal and hay barn with all modern appliances. Two structures which are always present are the bathhouse and the hay barn. The former is generally located at some distance from the others in order to decrease the danger of fire rather than because of a desire for privacy, since it is the custom for all members of the family to bathe together, regardless of sex (Pl. LXIX, Fig. 3). Often neighboring families may call at bathing time. The hay barn may be distinguished by the large spaces between the logs and the slight inward slope of the walls. The former feature tends to insure the proper curing of the hay while in storage; the latter protects the logs of the walls from wet rot (Pl. LXX, Figs. 1-2).

The dwelling of the farmer presents an interesting picture. Set well apart from the buildings of the barnyard because of the danger of fire, it contrasts with the closely grouped habitations of areas near by. The long experience of the Finn in the use of the ax has made him an excellent woodsman. This one implement and his inexhaustible patience have combined to make the town of Eben. It has aided him to develop submarginal land; to earn money through the winter, and thus increase the earnings of his little farm; and to construct the buildings on the farm without resort to the more expensive milled lumber. Owing to the absence of chinking, the squared logs, and neatly finished corners, the numerous log buildings contrast sharply with the log structures found in other parts of the state. Over the house is a roof of typical Finnish origin, called walmdach or "hipped root". This consists of a long sloping back roof, which may be broken slightly to increase the head room in the kitchen, which is usually a wing added to the rectangular house.

The front portion of the roof is more steeply pitched. The unequal pitching of the roof may be the result of a desire to keep an insulating blanket of snow over as large a portion of the dwelling as possible.

Field Practices

The many peculiarities in agricultural, economic, and cultural practices which the Finn has brought with him are generally based on some sound reason developed after long experience in a similarly unfavorable environment.

Chief among the agricultural practices is the predominance of crops primarily utilized for cattle consumption, as is shown by the maps. This is in turn a result of the Finnish preference for a meat diet as well as of the climatic conditions of the area. The percentages of crops given earlier in this paper are borne out by the maps.

With such an emphasis upon hay and grain crops it is essential that they be preserved for winter use. In an area with so restricted a growing season it has been found advisable to allow the grain to ripen in the fields prior to the storage in barns. The method employed for curing small grains has been directly transferred from the home land to the Eben district. A light staff is driven into the soil, and a cross piece is fastened to it a short distance above the ground. On this the partly ripened grain is placed. The increased angle of repose of the grain which is stacked in this fashion insures a rapid run-off of precipitation; the cross piece elevates the base of the stack and allows adequate aeration (Pl. LXX, Fig. 3).

Corn is stored on an adaptation of the former rack and, since this crop is not native to Finland, it is logical to suppose that the innovation occurs in this district. The increased weight of the crop has necessitated a heavier frame. This is constructed in the form of a large sawhorse, against the cross piece of which the corn is stacked. This crop is not used as silage, as is the custom elsewhere in northernmost United States, but instead the ears are husked and stored in cribs. Since the stalk and the leaves of the plant are not utilized, it is possible to allow the base of the plant to rest on the ground (Pl. LXX, Fig. 4).

Some Social Aspects

Cooperative tendencies traceable to the home land are manifested in the Eben community by the presence of the "Rock River Co-operative Agency". This establishment serves not only as an investment but also as a collective buying and selling organization which enables the members to dispose of their crops at more favorable prices and to purchase articles at greatly reduced cost. This store has been considerably weakened by the tendency of the Finns to join the Communist party.

Communist activities have induced a number of the younger men of the community to return to southeastern Finland, near the Russian border. These individuals not only have gone but have taken with them money and equipment such as tractors and other farm machinery. The situation has not as yet become serious. If continued it may lead to the forced abandonment of a portion of the land which is now under cultivation, because of a depletion of the finances of the district as well as a dearth of individuals able to work the soil.


The Finnish farmer is an industrious, pioneer settler working in an environment similar to that of his native land. His adaptation of agricultural, economic, and cultural methods to the environment of the Eben district has enabled him to build a small but efficient community in an area which has been unattractive to immigrants of other nationalities. The experience and working habits of the individual as well as of the group recommend the Finn as the type of immigrant most desired to settle the cut-over, submarginal land of the Great Lakes district.


1. Material supplied by D. A. Seeley, state meteorologist, East Lansing.

2. Birkeland, B. J., and Föyn, N. J., Klima von Nordwesteuropa... , Handbuch der Klimatologie (Berlin, 1932), Vol. 3, Part 50, p. 79.

3. Putnam, G. W., Successful Farm Practices in the Upper Peninsula, Special Bulletin No. 215, Michigan State College (East Lansing, 1931), pp. 1-69.

4. Veatch, Jethro O., "Natural Geographic Divisions of Land", Pap. Mich. Acad. Sci., Arts and Letters, 14 (1930):417-432. 1931.

5. Van Cleef, Eugene, "The Finn in America", Geog. Rev., 6:184-214. 1918.

6. Ibid., pp. 184-214.

7. For a discussion of road turnings see Stanley D. Dodge, "Bureau and the Princeton Community", Ann. Assn. Am. Geog., 22: 158-209. 1932.

8. Putnam, George W., "The Financial and Social Factors Affecting the Development of Successful Farms and Prosperous Farm Communities in Alger County;" a paper read at the Land Utilization Conference, Munising, Michigan, September, 1932. Pp. 1-4 of mimeographed copy.


Fig. 1. A representative Finnish farm. Note the irregular pattern of fence lines and the large number of buildings.
Fig. 2. A typical stump pasture. The first step in the preparation of the land for crop use.
Fig. 3. A representative Finnish bathhouse, with neatly worked corners and close-fitting squared logs.


Fig. 1. A large hay barn.
Fig. 2. Another type of hay barn, with noticeable spacing of logs and a slight inward slant of walls.
Fig. 3. Haystacks in a field. The end of an upright support may be seen emerging from the top of the steeply pitched pile.
Fig. 4. The method of stacking corn in the fields. This appears to be an adaptation of the method shown in Figure 3.


Click at the picture to see it larger.

Published in Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science Arts and Letters, 19(1934), p. 367-375. Ann Arbor, Michigan 1934.

© Joan M. Metzger

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