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At a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is building in this country, Americans of European descent sometimes forget how poor their own immigrant ancestors were; how foreign and threatening they once seemed to the rest of America. A glance at the history books shows how hard this country's immigrants had to fight to get into the mainstream.
Minnesota Public Radio's Mary Losure and Dan Olson produced this feature about the Finns who came to northern Minnesota at the turn of the century. The voices of early immigrants are from taped interviews preserved in historical archives. The story is called "Finland Was A Poor Country."
EVERY YEAR ON THE first weekend of February, hundreds of people come to Palo, a remote northeast Minnesota community so tiny it's nothing but a former school building in a clearing in the forest. Kids ride plastic sleds down a hill and out onto the frozen lake. Others ride a traditional Finnish wooden sled whipped round and round at the end of a long pole.
This is the Finnish sliding festival or Laskienen. Inside the old gymnasium, a crowd listens to the Finnish national anthem. People put their hands on their hearts. The oldest ones know the words.
These are typical middle-class Minnesotans, with cars and pickups and snowmobiles waiting outside in the parking lot. Their Finnish immigrant ancestors were landless peasants, unskilled laborers, or impoverished tenant farmers - people like Andy Johnson's family, who left Finland in 1906 when he was not quite 7 years old. He remembered the trip in an interview tape recorded when he was in his 80s.
Finland was a poor country, and Grandpa was a tenant farmer and there was no future for father and the rest of us. We came across in a wooden ship from Finland then took the Lucannia Liner across the Atlantic.The Johnson family left Finland at a time when the population had grown dramatically, and there was not enough farmland to go around. There had been famines in the late 1800s. Then, in 1899, the Czar of Russia decreed that Finnish men could be drafted into the Russian army, and tens of thousands of Finns left for America.
Many of them came to northeastern Minnesota. Like the Johnson family, they were seeking jobs in the newly opened iron mines or hoping for the chance to homestead a farm of their own, to be rich and free in America.
And mother picked me up when we entered the harbor of New York because everybody crowded to the railing to see the Statue of Liberty and I couldn't see it, I was that much short. She picked me up and held me.But the Johnsons came at a time when the best land had already been homesteaded. As they went west, they passed through country that had been settled by immigrants who got there generations before the Finns.
We took the train from New York, and we were on that train day and night. I don't know how many days and how many nights, and it didn't seem to be an end to it, and I remember I was looking out the window. I was watching the scenery you know. There was a beautiful place, a beautiful farm you know, and I told Ma, 'Ma,' I said, 'why don't we stop here, there is a nice place there.' But no, we kept on coming.The family got off the train at Aurora, a raw new town of tarpaper shacks where the air was filled with red dust blowing off the waste piles from the mines. Whatever they may have expected, it was not a land of boundless opportunity. They arrived with little money and speaking no English. Andy Johnson's father joined the immigrant work force - people from Finland, Serbia, Croatia, Italy, and many other countries - in the Iron Range mines.
The main shaft at the Tower Soudan mine north of Aurora drops down half a mile through solid rock. The mine is a state park now, and visitors can still ride the old elevator cars that lowered the miners into the darkness. The air is damp. Water drips from the ceiling of the car, and runs down the window in tiny rivers of dissolved red dust. Finally, the car slows and stops. Tunnels lead off into the blackness. Wilfred Leinonen is a guide at the mine. His great grandfather worked here.
My grandfather came in 1900. And he wrote back to his wife in Finland that in America there's gold under every rock. Cause he got paid by the ton and every time he picked up a rock and put it in the car, that's money. The more of them he put in, the more money he made. And he's making more money than he ever made in his life.But the promise that drew landless peasants like Leinonen's grandfather across the ocean often dimmed over time.
The miners worked 10 hour shifts, six days a week, moving the heavy ore almost entirely by hand, in a darkness broken only by the flickering lights of the candles on their helmets. There were frequent accidents. Miners had to pay for their own equipment and supplies, and sometimes, after all their backbreaking labor, ended up owing the company money. In 1907, the immigrant workforce in the Iron Range mines went on strike. Many of their leaders were Finns. "We are striking for wages, but principally for an eight-hour day," a young Finnish immigrant testified before the governor of Minnesota. "If we lose this strike, Minnesota will no longer be a place where it will be possible for Finns to live." The miners did lose the strike.
The mining company hired strikebreakers and armed guards to defend them. Workers who had struck were blacklisted. The number of Finns in the mines dropped by more than half. Andy Johnson's father was among the workers who kept their jobs, but he and other Finns had won a reputation with company officials. Andy Johnson remembered it years later.
This friend of my father's came from the old country, and he wanted me to go to one of the mines to ask for a job. So I went with him to Hudson Mine out of Aurora. I went into the office and asked the guy, I told him that this man was looking for a job. So the clerk at the office says what nationality is he. Well that surprised me. I was about 10 years old. I said he is a Finn. We don't hire any Finlanders. He said they are no good. That was all he said. I didn't know what to say. It really hit me. So I turned around and walked out. John, the guy that I was with, he was asking me in Finn (speaks in Finnish) 'What did he say? What did he say?' I couldn't get the words out of me. Until I got outside, down the road a ways. Then I told him.Mining company officials described Finns as "a surly, troublesome lot" and complained about their socialist tendencies.
Many Finns were indeed socialists, a movement that had made its way into Finland from neighboring Russia. When the Czar cracked down on leftists all across the Russian empire, many Finnish socialist leaders had to flee Finland. They came to America, many of them to Finnish mining communities. Appalled at the conditions they found there, they helped lead the strikes.
I must have been about 9 years old when there was that great strike. The whole range was on strike.In 1916, mineworkers on the Iron Range went on strike a second time. Lilli Marie Maki Isaccson, whose father was a miner, remembers.
The Workers of the World Unite. And I remember singing Marseilles. And I remember my father saying I had to go march in the parade. And it was a big parade in Biwabik. Going down the street. It was a summer day. Then our neighbor had a pop factory, and he'd gone down to the mines to sell pop to the miners, and they shot him, the guards, they killed him.The mining companies soon put down the strike, and again, workers who had struck were blacklisted. Many Finnish miners moved to northern Minnesota lumber camps, where conditions weren't much better than they were in the mines. That winter, timber workers went on strike, and lost. Blacklisted from the mines and the lumber camps, the Finns had one other opportunity - the chance to homestead a hundred and sixty acres of some of the worst farmland in America. Out of a job and out of money, Andy Johnson's family moved to a homestead.
So we came out here in the wilderness. Came out here on a logging train, my father and I. We came and planted a few potatoes and later on that fall, September, that fall we came out here. We had to carry everything on our backs the last seven miles because you couldn't drive a horse through in the summer time. The swamps were too soft. Father carried a gun in one hand and an ax in the other. He had a packsack full of grub and one kid on top of the packsack. And the rest of us followed. We carried what we could.
I still think it was the neighbors who helped them. They were all Finnish people and they looked out for each other. I think that's how they got through that first winter.The growing season was too short for almost any crop but potatoes. Families like the Norhus and the Johnsons hunted and fished and worked odd jobs. Many men worked seasonal jobs for mines or lumber camps when they could, while the women and children took care of the livestock.
Struggling to make their way in a new country, they survived by sticking together in tight knit immigrant communities.
From the earliest times I can remember, I remember going to the dance. I learned to dance with my motherFinnish immigrants held dances and put on plays in what were called "Finn Halls." There were Finn Halls all across northeastern Minnesota. Al Reko grew up in the tiny town of Crosby, in a house right next door to the Finn Hall.
Everyone danced, everyone was on the floor as soon as the music started it was elbow-to-elbow people, all ages, the kids would dance too.
CREDITS: "Finland was a Poor Country" was written and produced by Minnesota Public Radio's Mary Losure and Dan Olson, edited by Euan Kerr, mixed by Alan Stricklin.
Photos provided by the Iron Range Research Center, Chisholm, MN.
Special thanks to the Minnesota Historical Society, the University of Minnesota's Immigration History Research Center and the Iron Range Research Center.
Major support for the MPR Documentary Fund is provided by Phyllis Poehler, in memory of Walter Stremel.