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Finns in Astoria, Oregon

Liisa Penner

Sometime in the early 1850's Charles J. Newman left his home in Liminga, a city on the West Coast of Finland. He probably worked as a sailor for some years. Then in 1858 he arrived in the United States at New Orleans. The next year he arrived in Clatsop County, the first Finn to make his home there. We guess that he was probably a sailor, since his arms and torso were covered in a number of tatoos. The medical examiner noted these when Newman was being inducted into the military in Oregon during the Civil War days. There were only two or three Finns in the county until the year 1873 when a group of 30 Finns were brought to the area by B. A. Seaborg from Erie Pennsylvania. The arrival of these Finns coincided luckily with the early growth of the canneries along the Columbia River. In 1866 the Hume Brothers started their cannery on the north shore of the Columbia. At first they had difficulty convincing people their canned salmon was good to eat and that they could pack it safely. When they improved their canning practices, they were able to sell more salmon; the word spread, and the salmon packing industry suddenly took off. Canneries sprang up all along the columbia and workers were needed to bring the fish into the canneries.The Finnish fishermen were experienced at fishing in boats in the rivers and lakes in Finland and were very successful at this work. They sent word to their relatives about the opportunities waiting for them in fishing and soon a rush of immigrants from Finland came to join the Yugoslavs, the Greeks, Norwegians and others in the industry. The Finnish population was all male until 1877 when the first women arrived. The 1880 census lists 14 women and out of the 189 Finnish men on the 1880 Clatsop County census, 171 were fishermen. From the 1880's to about 1910, large numbers of Finns arrived. In 1907, one writer said that he had heard that half the population of Astoria was Finnish. That was a bit of an exaggeration. But Astoria has become famous as the Helsinki of the West, in other words, the Finnish capitol of the U.S. The people in Hancock dispute this and say that they deserve the title, not Astoria, but if that is true, we come in a close second.

The first Finns were usuaally single young men. Generally they lived in boarding houses, often provided by the cannery they fished for, in the early years. These Finns were able to make good wages at times and they might have just saved up their money and returned to their old homes in Finland except for one thing. That was that free land in the United States, up to 160 acres of it, was available to those who were willing to fulfill certain requirements. They were to live on the land for a certin length of time, make certain improvements, build a house, clear the land and go through the process of becoming citizens. Land in Finland was becoming an increasingly rare thing. Much of the land was concentrated in the hands of a few. And family farms carried down through the generations were very often whittled down until what was left could barely support a small family. 160 acres of free land was an attraction that few could pass up. In order to help fulfil the requirements, it helped to have a wife who would remain on the land, watch the animals, and care for the garden while he would spend the fishing seasons out on the Columbia. Hundreds of families chose this way of life. But this was a way of life that turned out to be very hard for the wives. The homesteads were often miles away from the nearest neighbors, wild animals preyed on the livestock and the work was hard. It usually took all the money the men could earn just to buy enough food to tide them over the winter. When the families proved up on the homestead, very often they sold out and moved to Astoria where the wives could work in the canneries and care for their neat homes up on the hillside.

The young fishermen put in long hours at work. For recreation they sometimes patronized the saloons and dance halls (or hurdy gurdy houses as they were then known). Astoria from the 1850's to the turn of the century had the reputation as one of the wickedest cities of the world. There was not much else to do then. By going to those places, they risked the loss of their money, being shanghaiied or murdered . Temperance grou ps sprang up to offer safe entertainments to the residents. The Finnish Temperance Society organized aobut 1887 and was very successful in attracting the Finns to take part in social and cultural activities, especially plays and musical programs.

Another popular Finnish organizaton was the Finnish Brotherhood, or the United Finnish Kaleva Brothers and Sisters, Lodge No. 2, which organized in 1886. This society also put on plays, musical entertainments, and dinners, etc. But their original purpose was to serve as a beneficial society, one which provided insurance to pay for the care of members who were sick and to pay for the burial expenses of those who died. The Temperance Society disappeared long ago, but the Finnish Brotherhood is still going strong. Helena Perttu, Sylvia Mattson and I are all members. The Brotherhood recently put on a clam chowder luncheon that sold meals to 90 people and was considered very successful. One thing that has helped our brotherhood to survive has been the influx of new members who arrived in the U.S. from Finland just after World War II.

The Finns in the 1880's began moving into occupations unrelated to fishing as more and Finns arrived and needed services of different kinds. Finnish boarding houses, restaurants, saloons, doctor and dentist offices, photographers, and many other businesses sprang up, particularly in the Uniontown area where most of the Finnish population lived, in the west part of Astoria. In fact in the early years of this century, the most successful shipbuilder, building contractor, druggist and saloon operators in the whole town of Astoria were Finnish, Probably the biggest Finnish enterprise in Astoria was the Union Fisherman's Cooperative Packing Company. This organization arose out of what seemed at the time to be a disaster for the Astoria Finns. It happened this way. In 1876 the fishermen in Astoria could not agree with the canneries on a price they were to be paid per fish. At that time they were paid per fish, not by the pound. The cannery operators noted that in the few short years that canneries had been in operation on the Columbia, that the average size of the fish they were getting from the fishermen were smaller and smaller. They said they were losing money on the fish. The fishermen complained and they went on strike, refusing to fish. This happened again in 1880 after they had formed the Columbia River Fishermen's Protective Union. The Finns then were the largest ethnic group in this organization. Disputes continued to rise, but in 1896, the most serious occurred. A couple strike-breakers were shot, more violence was threatened and the Astoria businessmen asked for help from the Oregon National Guard who arrived in Astoria, maintaining a presence there and breaking the strike. Gradually the fishermen found they had to go back to fishing in order to survive. But the striking fishermen got even with the canneries by organizing, pooling their resources and building a cannery of their own in 1897. Finns bought 172 out of the 200 original shares of the Union Fishermen's Cooperative Packing Company. In 1904 it was the largest cannery in Astoria. Paul Hummasti wrote that it was their involvement in the fishing unions that gave the Finns the experience of learning from non-Finns how to organize.

There were other organizations in Astoria involving Finns. There were the churches, the newspapers and the socialist club. The most unfortunate involved those members of the socialist club who had not found the totally classless society they had hoped to find in the new world. Members planned to set up a new community according to their own special design and decided that the most congenial place for this community would be a remote fishing village in northern Russia. It was anything but congenial. In the 1920's and 30s over fifty people left to fulfil their dream. It became a nightmare as they discovered the difficulties of working a beaurocracy that was not interested in their ideas of a new community. Disillusioned and defeated, some of the luckier ones returned to the U.S. Some simply disappeared in the night with Soviet soldiers never to be heard from again.

Those Finns who remained in the Astoria area have been major contributors to our comfortable way of life here. They have found success because they have been willing to work hard for it. Five or more generations have followed the earliest Finnish settlers and though immigration from Finland has come almost come to a halt, we still welcome each new Finnish immigrant because they remind us of the families our ancestors left in Finland.

Sources of information about the Finns in Clatsop County can be found in the following books:

The books of the Finnish American Historical Society of the West:
The Ilwaco Finns by Merle Reinikka
The Theater Finns
The Boarding House Finns
The Finnish Paul Bunyans
Joseph Riipa
and other books in the series

The History of the Astoria U.F.K.B. & S. Lodge No. 2, a translation from the Finnish 50-year history.
Clatsop County by Emma Gene Miller.
The Establishment of the Finnish Community in Astoria, Oregon, in the Finnish Americana Journal published in 1978 in New Brighton, Minnesota by John Paul Hummasti.
His book, Radical Finns in Astoria.
Michael Passi's "Scandahoovian" article in the Daily Astorian from July 4, 1976.
Also there are many articles in the Quarterly of the Clatsop County Historical Society about Finnish families and Finnish enterprises from canneries to cooperative stores, restaurants, and a gravestone manufacturer.

A speech by Liisa Penner.

© Liisa Penner

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