A group of about 20 people is about to embark on a journey to Finnish history in Minnesota. Our bus leaves Minneapolis promptly in the morning for a small town named Cokato some 50 miles to the west. Most of the passengers are Finnish-American retirees. We traverse trough rolling hills, fields and small woods. Then the bus pulls in front of the Cokato Museum. Inside, there are exhibits depicting life in the olden days, when Finnish settlers arrived 150 years ago. Next door at Gust Akerlund Photo Studio there are some old photographic equipment, a backdrop for studio portraits and black and white photos in which serious looking people look straight at the camera. A four-year-old boy in a coffin is also memorialized in a photograph before his final voyage to the beyond.
Our trip continues to the Temperance Corner – no boozing here! There is an old school house, a church and a smoke sauna there. We enjoy a box lunch of pasties and (non-alcoholic) refreshments.
Many of the Finns who arrived 150 years ago came from the Tornio River Valley in Northern Finland and the prominent religion there was the Lestadian brand of Christianity. But Finns are Finns and notoriously we require our own little groups where ever we go. Thus there are not one but two Lestadian churches in town – The Lestadian Church and the Apostolic Lutheran Church. Both look exactly alike and I never got a clear explanation as to what dogma or feud divided the congregation into two – something vague about the role of the clergy. Then it’s off to the cemetery, where many of the headstones bear Finnish names – some misspelled.
What brought Finnish immigrants here starting 1864 was the Homestead Act that gave free land to settlers who were willing to clear the forest and start a farm. The area was a remote wilderness then that had no railroad access. In that sense the past has returned, since there is no public transportation whatsoever in Cokato. So, if you don’t have a car, you are out of luck getting around.
Cokato is advertised as the oldest continuous Finnish settlement aside from Delaware that was settled by Swedes and Finns in the 1600’s. In all reality, there is no longer Finnish being spoken here and no Finns that I could see, unless you count the descendants of the early Finnish settlers 150 years ago. I call them Americans. Traditions however, are alive. There is a quaint atmosphere here. You never get a short ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to any question, but a long-winded explanation. People speak the same way they do in the Coen Brothers black comedy Fargo. And they call us Finns ‘Finlanders’ here. To me the old-fashioned word evokes images of Aleksis Kivi’s novel The Seven Brothers set in 1800’s rural Finland.
Back in Minneapolis I look in on the preparations of FinnFest and attend the opening gala patronized by the Finnish Ambassador Ritva Koukku-Ronde, her husband, Dr. Hidde Ronde and the Consul General of New York Jukka Pietikäinen.
It’s a fun program of little bit of everything that was to come in the festival itself. I won’t bore you with details but just pick out one outstanding act – the Roman Hilja Grönfors Trio, which performed traditional gypsy songs.
Minneapolis on the Mississippi River has been called the Helsinki of The United States. There are similarities. Both cities are clean and progressive with excellent public transportation systems and a pedestrian friendly downtown.
Things missing from Minneapolis compared to Helsinki are old historical buildings and the sea. But there is a new convenient tram that takes me from downtown to my hotel in Midway in a half an hour.
In my brand new rental car Dodge Avenger I head up north in search of Findians – descendants of Finns and American Indians. I have managed to locate two but they have not responded to my interview requests, so I decide to pay them a visit. The first one is an Ojibwe physician Dr. Arne Vainio, who practices medicine at the Fond du Lac Reservation near Cloquet.
I arrive at the Indian clinic on a Friday afternoon. There are about 20 patients in the waiting room. After stating my business, Dr. Vainio’s assistant comes out. No, the doctor will not see me even to shake hands. No use waiting until his shift ends either, the assistant says. I get a hand-written email address but when I write the good doctor a note, my email comes back undeliverable! Later on I hear Dr. Vainio had delivered a lecture next day at the FinnFest. Why he refused to see me, I suppose I’ll never now.
Undeterred, I move on to my next victim…eh, potential interviewee. He is a Findian artist Carl Gawboy, who lives in a breathtakingly beautiful spot by Lake Superior. It’s a rural area but I manage to find it with a help of the navigator. Gawboy’s compound consists of six red cottages that are scattered on a lush green garden. I knock on every door but the only answer I get is from a tan colored cat meowing at me from behind a glass door. There are chicken and quails in the chicken house – but no Carl Gawboy. His neighbors tell me they normally see a car parked on the yard but it is absent now. I stick around for an hour, leave a note on the door and leave. I never hear back from either Dr. Arne Vainio or Carl Gawboy, but here’s a watercolor Mr. Gawboy painted. He specializes in nature and indigenous peoples scenes.
Duluth on Lake Superior is a spectacular looking town with many historical buildings on a hill. The town was the center of the timber industry and many timber barons built their mansions in town. Winters here are especially harsh because of the lake effect that generates snow storms. I take a short cruise on the lake.
The young guide tells us Lake Superior is the third largest lake in the world and holds 10 percent of world’s fresh water. We could use some of that in California, I think to myself. But there are also 350 ships at the bottom of the lake – victims of brutal and deadly storms. Duluthians have gathered to the shores to enjoy this beautiful summer day. Some are entertained by a blues festival on the waterfront.
As the sun is setting I head north and drive through some beautiful forests with lakes glistening with the last rays of the sun. A deer and her fawn look at me and then run away to the safety of the woods.
As I arrive in Ely it is already dark. Jim Bettcher is the proprietor of Shagawa Inn, my home for the next three days. He hands me the key to my cabin. The resort is by Lake Shagawa. Some late night fishermen return from their fishing trip on a boat equipped with lights.
The next day one of the fishermen is filleting a Walleye fish in the fish room. I have a date with David Kess, a local Finnish-American. Dave is a retired schoolteacher, who is active in a myriad of Finnish organizations.
We go to the Vermilion Community College, where Ely Winton Historical Society has a museum. It is compact and nicely organized in different sections that show how people here lived some hundred years ago. Finns came to Ely to work in iron mines. There were five of them in their heyday. All of them are closed now.
Some people would like to start mining anew, since it was discovered that this land holds the world’s largest copper deposits. I see signs on people’s lawns that proclaim “I support mining”. I wonder if they would still support it if they saw what happened in Sudbury, Canada some 700 miles west. There mining destroyed the nature and the area suffered near total loss of vegetation, permanently charcoal black stained ground and acid rain. Ely on the other hand, is a paradise perched next to Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – a million acre (4400 square kilometers) area in Superior National Forest. So my plea to Elyans: Don’t let mining destroy your pristine wonderland!
David Kess takes me to his vacation house aptly named Camp David. His brother Paul takes us on a boat ride on beautiful Burntside Lake.
Later that day I meet Sally Koski Fauchald, a nursing professor based in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. She commutes to Duluth 75 miles away several times a week. Sally plans to one day retire in Ely, where she and her brother own a cabin. In the winter there are days when the weather gets so bad that classes are cancelled. That’s when Sally turns her car around and returns home.
But not tonight. On this beautiful summer night Sally, Dave and I dine at a marvelous Grand Ely Lodge’s restaurant overlooking a lake. It is my best meal on the whole trip – a green salad with blue cheese dressing, chicken soup with local wild rice and prime rib with potatoes au gratin – hold the dessert! A beautiful woman in a designer gown and with an air of a socialite walks up to our table and makes our acquaintance. She had heard us talk and that I was an out-of-towner. After a little chat she glides away with her entourage. Later on Dave tells me she is the wife of a supermarket chain tycoon. Well, that’s never happened to me in LA!
On my last day I visit the towns of Aurora and Embarrass. The latter too has a Finnish heritage museum – this one run by the Sisu Society. On my way back to Ely I see a sign “North American Bear Center” and pull into the parking lot. They have four live bears there. They live on a 2.5 acre spread that has a woodsy area, caves, a pond and a waterfall.
This is Lucky, a seven-year-old male bear. Lucky gave us quite a show, after which he disappeared into the woods. That last night, as I have retired to my cabin it starts to rain. I hear loons make a commotion on the lake.
I take my last swim in the crystal clear waters of Lake Shagawa and head back to Minneapolis. As interesting as the whole trip to Minnesota was, I must say I lost my heart to Ely and its lovely people and nature. I will be back – some day.