Finnish immigrants revolutionized cutover land

MTU Archives The August Karvonen was a typical example of Finnish homestead, which utilized natural resources from the land in the construction of the home and outbuildings. Typically, a sauna, of great cultural significance to the Finns, was the first building erected on a homestead. The family then lived in the sauna while the house until the house was constructed.

Logging and lumber companies had laid waste to many areas of the Copper Country, clear cutting forests and leaving behind thousands of acres of stumps, along with endless mountainous piles of boughs and branches. Like the mining companies of the era, logging companies destroyed vast tracts of land before abandoning them. There were no existing laws compelling companies to clean up the properties they destroyed. Once a resource was depleted, a company simply moved on, liquidated its assets, and dissolved. Most companies, owned and officered by out-of-state investors, cared nothing for the devastation created by their operations.

Finnish immigrants, however, did not concern themselves with agendas like the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company or the Diamond Match Company. Many Finnish immigrants had an agenda of their own, developed years before they ever set foot on American soil. Many had come from regions where the principle living came from fishing, but many others came from farming regions, and had come to America with the ultimate goal of owning a farm. Abandoned cutover land provided those who wanted it the opportunity to realize their goal.

Most of the cutover land would have caused the average 19th and early 20th century American farmer to balk. Almost always sandy, devoid of topsoil, often hilly, cursed with gullies or a combination of all these conditions, cutover land was viewed as worthless by most people. The Finns, though, took such lands in stride. Rather than refuse land which could not be conformed to their methods, they would simply conform to the available land.

After the 1880s, many farming communities arose throughout the Copper Country, almost exclusively populated by Finns and bearing Finnish names. Nisula, Pelkie, Aura, Tapiola, Liminga, Toivola, Wainola, are just a few examples of such communities.

Many Finns who became farmers had known the mining trade. Proficient in the use of explosives stumps, field stones and boulders presented no insurmountable challenges. Out of sandy, hilly land were created picturesque dairy farms, potato and strawberry farms, and other crops that could grow and flourish in such poor ground.

Farming communities were important to sustainable agriculture from a Finnish perspective, because member of a community often joined together in organizing cooperatives. Each member joined by purchasing a share in the venture.  The revenue generated was then used to purchase such machinery as portable sawmills, threshers, hay balers, and similar equipment.  When resources such as money, physical labor and farming machinery were pooled, it was for the benefit of the entire community. If the farms in the community were successful, the community as a whole thrived.

The farming community of Oskar, in northern Stanton Township, by 1896, enjoyed a cooperative store, a brick yard, a tannery, a schoolhouse that also served as a church, and for a short time, a short-line railroad which terminated at Cowl’s Creek where it connected with the Copper Range Railroad at the Michigan Smelting Works.

While odd to Americans and other immigrants, communal life was not difficult for Finnish immigrants for several reasons. Close-knit communities allowed for trust among neighbors for things like cooperatives and social functions. Often religious, community members met and socialized at church, and the community children attended school together. Such community structure also allowed Finnish immigrants to retain many of their native customs, culture, religion, and language in a new world thousands of miles from a homeland most would never again see.

But Finnish culture and customs were not European, and nor was the Finnish language. Non-Finnish Copper Country residents simply could not understand the Finns. To many, they were considered clannish, resistant to new American ways, and often accused extremes – either politically socialist or religious fanatics. Non-Finns (and perhaps some of the Finns themselves) did not grasp that religion was more than just a means of spirituality. It was the core of an agrarian, communal culture that unified people with a common bond as a single community.

However the Finnish farmers and their communities were viewed by non-Finns, in the late 19th century, and well into the 20th century, Finnish farming communities provided much of the milk, creams, butter, meats, and vegetables to local stores, at much cheaper prices that if the foods had been shipped in from distant markets. Whether or not others realized it, the Finnish immigrants were like every other ethnicity, contributing to their surrounding society beyond their individual communities.