Sunday, May 5, 2013

And then Elo begat Toivola: History of the Finns in Michigan

Back when I was in grad school, my professors would rant about "History is more than just one damn thing after another!" Pastor Armas K. E. Holmio never got that message. Either that, or his training in the seminary meant his writing style was influenced way too much by the Old Testament and its long lists of begats. History of the Finns in Michigan has some fascinating tidbits buried in it, but it can be a hard slog finding them.

Every chapter reads like something out of the Bible, except instead of Adam begetting Cain it's the Hancock Co-operative begetting the Bruce Crossing and the Mass and the Trout Creek co-ops or the South Range temperance society begetting Negaunee and Rock and Trenary. The founding of Suomi College calls for what reads like a summary of the personnel records, i.e., "Faculty were . . . " starting with John Nikander in 1896 and wrapping up with who the archivist is at the time of publication (Holmio in 1967). When did the first Finns arrive in Michigan? Who knows, but in 1880 certain Finns lived in Calumet, and we're treated to another long list of names. No doubt people doing genealogy love the name index at the back of this book, although it is incomplete -- not every person mentioned in the text got indexed, which leads me to believe the copy editor got as burnt out on the list of names as I did.

History of the Finns in Michigan was first published in 1967. It was printed in Finnish; if I'm reading the information in the book correctly, an English translation did not appear until 2001.Why is an intriguing question, particularly when one of the interesting themes in the book is the rift developing between the older Finns -- folks who had emigrated from Finland or who were the first generation born in this country and could speak and read Finnish -- and younger generations. The intense nativism in the United States following World War I meant that children were discouraged from learning Finnish, either spoken or written, so by the time History of the Finns in Michigan was published, the number of potential readers under the age of 60 had to be fairly small. Holmio mentions this rift in a number of chapters: its effect on church going (English speaking young people had no interest in sitting through sermons preached in Finn), fraternal orders (membership in the Knights and Ladies of Kaleva began dropping as older Finns died and younger people had minimal interest in an organization that insisted on conducting all business in Finnish), and cooperatives. In the latter case, larger economic forces played a role, but the insistence on the part of older co-op members on conducting business meetings in Finnish may have hastened the end for some stores.

Another interesting portion of the book discusses the reasons for immigration: emigrants left Finland for multiple reasons, but there were two that were key: economics and avoiding the Russian draft. In the last half of the 19th century, immigrants went to the United States and Canada almost purely for economic reasons. For example, the first Finns arriving in the Copper Country in the 1860s came because they were experienced miners and were recruited by one of the mining companies. As the mining industry grew, so did the stream of immigrants looking for work in Michigan. That first wave of immigration tapered off in the late 1880s. Then the Russians changed the rules in the Duchy of Finland. Russian military service had been voluntary; the Russians made it compulsory in the early 1900s, and, not surprisingly, young men began leaving. That was the second big wave of immigration. With the first wave of immigration, quite a few men stayed in the United States only long enough to save the money they needed to buy land or establish a business back home in Finland; they didn't see themselves as permanent immigrants. The second wave came to stay. This is a section that could have benefited from an editor telling Holmio, "Hey, you've listed almost every parish in Finland in the tables; you don't need to mention each one in the text, too."  

History of the Finns in Michigan is one of those books you may find worth reading if you have Finnish ancestors, live in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, are interested in social movements like temperance or cooperatives, or have a burning desire to know the difference between Evangelical and Apostolic (aka Laestadian) Lutherans. Pastor Holmio was a Suomi Synod Evangelical minister; his take on the Apostolics is almost worth suffering through the begats. The Laestadians begat a lot: apparently it was impossible to form an Apostolic congregation without it splintering into two or three separate congregations in fairly short order,  kind of like Pentecostal and other fundamentalist congregrations in the South.

As I read the chapter on churches, I couldn't help thinking about the old adage that "history is the stories the winners tell about the losers." At the time Holmio wrote the book, the Evangelicals thought they were the winners; the Laestadians were the crazy people who didn't allow dancing or frivolity in their homes but did shout and dance in the aisles at church, the Finnish equivalent of Holy Rollers. Too bad Holmio is dead or he'd know it doesn't pay to gloat. The Apostolics may not have emphasized higher education and advanced degrees for the ministry, but they definitely knew how to begat: they were practicing quiver-full Christianity long before other fundamentalists coined the term: the family car for many Apostolic families is a 15-passenger van. They may not have won the doctrinal war, but they've triumphed in the demographic one.

History of the Finns in Michigan does have some distinct flaws. One is that it was obviously updated before its publication in 2001, but there is no mention of who did that updating. Pastor Holmio died in 1977; the person credited with the English translation, Ellen Ryynanen, passed away in 2000. Did she do the translation as one of her final activities before dying, or did she translate the book at the time it was first published? Was she also the person who updated the manuscript by adding recent dates to some sections, but not others? And if there had been a decision made to update the manuscript, why not go all out and give complete histories for organizations like the Copper Country Dairy (a farmers' cooperative that shut down in 1986)? As it is, the random pieces of more recent data are jarring. They feel anachronistic or like typographical errors. How could the author know that a certain event took place in 1999 when at that point he'd been dead for 22 years?

Another flaw is the selection of photographs. I've seen the Finnish language edition. It has numerous photographs salted throughout the book, and the photos cover a wide variety of subjects. The English language edition seems to be a lot thinner when it comes to photos, and they're all clustered in one section in the middle of the book.

As for my overall assessment of History of the Finns in Michigan? I'm glad I read it, I learned some interesting and useful information, but I'm also really happy it's a library book and not something I spent actual money to obtain.

Note: Elo and Toivola are actual town names; Elo means "life" and Toivola is "land of hope." 


  1. Helen's parents were born in Czechoslovakia and came to America as young adults. She was born in Montana and they moved here when she was 14. Because other Czechoslovakians here encouraged them to move here where they would have a better life than in Montana at the time.

    Just a little history about that.

  2. I thought everyone up there was a "rhinelander"?


  3. We had a few Finns settle in Saskatchewan.
    Here is one who became sort of famous.

  4. Love your book reviews - I learn something without having to read the book!

  5. "Too bad Holmio is dead or he'd know it doesn't pay to gloat." Starting to approach the line of poor taste. Let's try and show a little more respect for the deceased.


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.