The Finns in Ohio
Skrivet av E. van Cleef   
2007-06-17 11:24


The United States has been developed by motley
groups of peoples from numerous divergent lands, prin-
cipally from European countries. Among the represen-
tatives from these foreign nations are stalwart migrants
from fascinating Finland. In the course of a century or
more the Finns have settled largely in our northern tier
of states. Their numbers today, including those born in
this country, but of foreign or mixed parentage, total
320,536. Slightly less than half of them are classified
by the United States census as living in rural districts.

This proportion, however, does not really present a true
picture of their reaction to rural life for great numbers
of those living in small to moderate sized cities own a bit
of land in the surrounding rural territory or in coopera-
tive groups share a small acreage in the city outskirts.

The Finns have very strong inclinations toward an out-
door existence and, for many of those who have been
caught in the swirl of urban complexities, the major
ambition is to own a piece of rural mother earth.

In recent years some of the notable achievements of
the Finnish people have been made known to America
through the masterful contributions of the great com-
poser, Sibelius, and of the brilliant architect, Saarinen,
to mention but two outstanding figures. Symphony or-
chestras everywhere include in their outstanding pro-
grams "Finlandia," "Valse Triste" or other unique
numbers yielded by the fertile imagination of the great
Sibelius. Architect Saarinen, builder of imposing public
and private structures abroad, and recently creator of
artistic Cranbrook in the environs of Detroit, has left
his impress upon American building design through his
concept of straight line architecture.

In the field of literature the Finns have evolved a
thrilling epic, the Kalevala, which takes its place along
side of the Iliad of Homeric times and the German tale
of the Niebelungen Lied among the world's great epics.
Like the other stories, the Kalevala is a tale of the strug-
gle for existence among the peasantry who have fought
against tremendous odds set by nature in a far northern
forested land. Finnish contributions to the field of art
and science are slowly but surely receiving international
recognition. The Finns have blazed trails in vocational
education, politics, and in national prohibition. They
were the first among European countries to establish
universal suffrage. In fact, the women legislators of
Finland represent a highly influential force in national
affairs. As business experts they hold their own in the
presence of the keenest competition.

Investigations of the distribution of Finns in the
Lake Superior District and in New England have re-
vealed conspicuous numbers located permanently upon
farm lands or planning to develop farms. Many living
in urban centers of these localities are associated with
agricultural industries, particularly with dairying. Mis-
cellaneous industries occupy others. Finns who are in
the process of acquiring land usually work in factories
of nearby cities, in mines, sawmills, or during the winter
season at logging.

The natural habitat for the mass of these immigrants
seems to be farm land located in a cool area where lakes
and rivers abound and where a generous distribution of
glacial boulders apparently makes them feel contented
as though in the presence of many friends. The Finns
live in those regions which are physically similar to the
home land. Their distribution in the United States, on
the whole represents a clear-cut response to geographic

In Ohio, Finnish settlement has been concentrated in
the northeastern sections in close proximity to Lake
Erie. Many Finns have come to these parts directly
from Finland, and some from other parts of the United
States, more especially from western Pennsylvania.
Considerable numbers were born in Ohio. Their his-
tory of settlement here reveals the fact that they came to
Lake Erie ports as early as 1880, gained employment
upon the ore docks and lake vessels in the summers and
hired out as lumberjacks in the woods of northeastern
Ohio during the winters. In this way they accumulated
some ready cash and shortly entered upon the acquisition
of nearby farm lands. A scattered few practiced an
intercontinental trans-humance, that is they came from
Finland in the spring in time for the opening of naviga-
tion and returned to the home land at the end of the
shipping season.

In view of the characteristics of their native land it
is somewhat surprising to find in Ohio 12,809 Finns of
whom 5633 are foreign born. In the landscape of north-
eastern Ohio there is an almost total absence of lakes,
and little or no boulder-strewn area. Can it be possible
that the absence of these features, usually constituting a
strong attraction for the Finns, has here led to a loss of
interest in farming and in rural life generally?

As industries developed in the towns of Ohio and the
business of the railroads increased, immigrant Finns
found numerous opportunities for permanent employ-
ment. Their ready adaptability to heavy labor and their
high order of efficiency caused employers to favor them
among the many nationalities which have settled in these
localities. While all Finns are not large of stature nor
of unusual muscular build yet enough possess such phy-
sical stamina that they have established a reputation for
these qualities among manufacturers. Steel companies
utilize Finns in the "hot-mill" where endurance and re-
sistance to high temperatures are desirable attributes.
They are often employed on the docks or in railroad
yards where ability to lift great weights and exceptional
muscular exertion in other operations are essential

The assurance of permanent employment at good
salaries, it seems, temporarily banished the Ohio Finn's
thoughts of farming. After working in industry for a
number of years the Finn purchased a home and then as
his children became adapted to an urban environment
separation from an industrial life became increasingly
difficult, if not wholly impossible. In fact, choice no
longer played a part in shaping his destiny. To farm
meant to invest practically all his savings, to assume a
considerable debt and to gamble upon potential returns,
whereas, immediate occupation in industry assured him
of a fixed income and guaranteed to his children an
education and some physical comforts such as they
might not enjoy upon a pioneer farm. The permanence
of settlement thus assumed a purely economic aspect.

Accordingly, those Finns in Ohio engaged in agricul-
tural pursuits today represent a very small minority,
likely to become even smaller within the next few years.
Examination of the distribution of Finns within the
urban centers points to a location close to the shores of
Lake Erie. In Cleveland there are 1881 Finns. Three
miles north of Painesville is Fairport Harbor, a part of
the metropolitan district of Painesville. It fronts upon
the lake shore and here are concentrated about 2,500
Finns. Eastward from Painesville is Ashtabula with a
subdivision known as Ashtabula Harbor. Most of the
3,165 Finns live in the section known as "The Harbor"
located at the mouth of the Ashtabula River. Farther
east, in Erie, Pennsylvania, we find a continuation of
the Ohio Finnish district, and there most of the five
hundred Finns live in the northern part of the city near
the lake shore. This distribution raises the query as to
whether Lake Erie has attracted the Finns more strongly
than has the back country, which is devoid of lakes and
rivers of consequence. While some Finns are inclined
to doubt the lake influence, others are of the belief that
not only do the lake waters attract them because of op-
portunities for swimming but that the chill winds off the
lake satisfy the Finnish desire for a cold atmosphere.

Reference has been made to the selection of Finns by
manufacturers for duties which require an ability to
withstand extreme heat or to engage in work necessi-
tating unusual muscular strain. That they can work
effectively under low temperatures as well as high tem-
peratures has been amply demonstrated in their own
country as well as in the Lake Superior region where
winters in some respects are even more rigorous than in

Subjection from childhood to the rigors of the steam
bath and the habitation of dwellings kept at extremely
high temperatures during the long cold winters may
have served as a weeding-out process, leaving to survive
only those persons of exceptional stamina. The Finn
swears by his steam bath. To him it is a vitalizing
health-giving institution unsurpassed by any other de-
vice. In the Ohio Historical Museum located upon the
Ohio State University campus may be seen an exact
model of a private rural bath-house. This was con-
structed by four Finns living in Fairport Harbor and,
so far as known, is the only model of its kind in the
United States.

The bath-house usually covers an area of about ten
by ten feet. Along one wall is a sort of fireplace con-
structed of glacial boulders picked up in the vicinity of
the bath-house. They are cemented together in the old-
fashioned beehive shape so that a fire may be built under
an arch of stones. Along two other walls of the bath-
house, platforms are constructed at three levels. There
may or may not be a window. The doorway, of course,
is built into the fourth side.

Saturday night is the great bath night, although in
the summer season the bath may be taken several nights
each week. On the morning of the day of the bath, or
perhaps as late as noon, a fire is kindled under the stones
and maintained until bath time, that is, about six o'clock.
Then the hot coals are pulled out, buckets of water are
thrown upon the stones until the clouds of resultant
steam fill the room. Now the bathers, perhaps an entire
family, having shed their clothing in their living quar-
ters, enter the steam-filled room and distribute them-
selves upon the platforms or shelves. Here they lie for
a time beating themselves with bunches of birch, willow
or other flexible young branches and leaves until they
are "done to a turn." The upper shelves are at the
hottest levels. The bathers may begin their bath here
and come down to the lower platforms toward the end
of the bath or they may reverse the process, starting on
the lower levels and ending on the top shelf. Having
developed a beautiful red glow they throw pails of cold
water upon themselves, or if the bath-house is located
next to a stream or lake, as is frequently the case, the
bathers may plunge into those waters or, if it be winter
and snow is on the ground, they may roll in the snow
and then return to their living quarters to dress.

The steam bath is not exclusively a Finnish institu-
tion. One finds it throughout eastern Europe and even
in Asia. In the United States, aside from the commer-
cialized so-called Turkish bath, the steam bath generally
is found only in Finnish communities. If on a Saturday
evening one tours through the rural districts and sees
smoke or steam issuing from small shacks scattered off
in the distance, one should not be alarmed; the shacks
are not on fire. The scene merely announces to the pass-
ing world that the Finns are enjoying their sacred bath.

Lest we gain the impression that the Finns are merely
towers of strength, I would emphasize here that
they constitute substantial law-abiding citizens of this
State. They willingly subscribe to progressive ideas;

their children are among the best scholars in the public
schools. Their love for literature is unbounded and
their skill in handicraft and design compares favorably
with that of any other peoples.

A remarkable spirit of cooperation developed in the
home country has been transferred to Ohio as the Finns
have settled in this State. Wherever their numbers are
sufficient to muster an organization we may be certain
to find a cooperative organization of some kind. For
example, in Fairport Harbor a large general store sell-
ing dry goods, groceries, meats and operating a dairy, is
run as a cooperative with two thousand members. Here,
too, we find a commercial steam bath-house, a worker's
boarding house and still other forms of cooperative en-
terprises. A similar story may be told of cooperation in
Ashtabula, Warren, and wherever else that Finns con-
gregate. True cooperation is most successful where the
efforts of an individual to get along alone are likely to
meet with reverses. The cooperative movement is emi-
nently successful in Finland where it assumes national
proportions because the struggle for existence is severe
in a region where natural resources are few and agricul-
ture must be carried on against great odds. Finnish
cooperatives are not monopolistic. They do not seek to
dominate a market, but rather invite competition. Since
the spirit of cooperation has become essentially a part of
the Finnish temperament, it travels with them and wher-
ever they establish themselves cooperative institutions
seem just naturally to arise as a part of their organiza-
tion. We in Ohio can learn much about successful co-
operation if we will study the attainments of our Finnish

Unfortunately, the modesty and general reticence of
the Finns have prevented their fine qualities from be-
coming widely known and fully appreciated. To culti-
vate friendship among these sturdy Finnish peoples is to
make a contribution to the cultural level of the State.

Senast uppdaterad 2007-06-17 11:45
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