Monday, December 21, 2009

Review of Finns in Michigan from the Michigan Historical Review

This review was done this September by Guntis Smidchens, a member of the Scandinavian Studies Department at the University of Washington. The review was published in the Fall 2009 issue of the Michigan Historical Review.

The review:

Gary Kaunonen. Finns in Michigan; Book review

Smidchens, Guntis

Gary Kaunonen. Finns in Michigan. "Discovering the Peoples of Michigan" series. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2009. Pp. 123. Appendices. For further reference. Index. Notes. Photographs. Paper, $12.95.

The Finns of Michigan gained a prominent place in American ethnic scholarship when Michigan State University historian Richard M. Dorson wrote a chapter about them in his classic, Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers: Folk Traditions of the Upper Peninsula (1952). More than a half-century later, the tradition of Finnish ethnic studies is ably carried on by Gary Kaunonen, archivist at Finlandia University's Finnish American Historical Archives in Hancock, Michigan. Kaunonen avoids the stereotypical account of immigrant accomplishments and contributions to America, offering instead a work "inclusive of the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of the Finnish experience in Michigan" (p. 1)."Ugly" refers to the ideological rift that ran deep, splitting the immigrants from one relatively small European country into violently opposed camps. Kaunonen gives an unbiased account of all political factions (p. 59), succeeding where others such as Armas Holmio fall short (p. 35).

The research behind this book is exceptionally rich and well done.Kaunonen consulted published secondary sources and newspapers in both English and Finnish, and he also makes use of oral histories. The latter sources are essential because so few written documents describe, for example, the logging operations where many Finns worked (p. 32). Women's experiences, too, are not easy to reconstruct (pp. 40-41, 44-45, 69-71, 73-75).

Finnish immigration to Michigan concentrated heavily in the Upper Peninsula; workers were drawn by opportunities offered by copper mines and the timber industry. Finns first came to Hancock around 1864, arriving from Norway's spent mines. Large-scale immigration from Finland proper began in the mid-1880s and peaked around the turn of the twentieth century. Although they arrived as industrial workers, many Finns purchased land and established subsistence farms. Even today in several Upper Peninsula localities, up to one-half of the population can claim Finnish ancestry (p. 8). Among the first Finnish organizations were religious congregations. Finns constructed churches and then split into warring denominations. Secular temperance societies built Finn Halls to host nonreligious activities such as lectures, concerts, dances, and sports; they often housed libraries as well. These social and recreational societies gradually gave way to organized labor groups. The Michigan Copper Strike of 19131914 was one of the events that helped fragment Finns into deeply divided ideological factions.

Strange sociocultural practices such as sauna and the "Finglish" language, along with rumors of drunken knife fights and a preference for communist ideas often marked Finns as stereotypical outsiders and savages. "We do not want Finlanders," the manager of a copper mine once wrote to the commissioner of immigration at Ellis Island (p. 18). But Finns also left a positive mark on American culture when they organized Michigan's first successful consumers' cooperatives, which grew to include large numbers of non-Finns. These cooperatives began to disappear only recently, replaced by supermarkets (pp. 80-83).

In summary, Kaunonen's Finns in Michigan adds a valuable case study of one very diverse ethnic group to the history of American ethnic communities and their cultures. This brief review cannot do justice to his colorful, rigorously researched book.

Guntis Smidchens
Department of Scandinavian Studies
University of Washington, Seattle
December 17, 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Update on Projects and Challenge Accepted

Busy, busy, with most folks this time of year, things are hectic. I'll detail two of the projects that I am involved with below, but first an update on Challenge Accepted: it has appeared on the Michigan State Press author pages and this is a link to that site: The book is also available from (among other sellers) at: The book will come out sooner from Michigan State University Press, but the release date on amazon is May 1, "Vapaus" very fitting for a book about the cultural and labor history of a working class group.

Now, to two projects I have been lucky enough to become associated with:

1) Writing the forward to a Journal of Finnish Studies edition regarding Finnish American labor history and folklore. This edition of the Journal of Finnish Studies promises to be a really interesting (as the all are), inter-disciplinary look at Finnish Americans and working class culture in the labor movement. The article authors for this edition are experts in this field, and I'm really excited to be associated with the work. Articles are being contributed by Dr. James P. Leary, a professor of folklore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has a number of classic (and really humorous) books about folklore in the Upper Midwest. Also, two PhD students in the Madison folklore program are contributing articles, Hilary Virtanen and Tim Frandy. Both, really good folklorists who have roots in the UP and northern Wisconsin.

Last, but not least, a friend and labor historian from Aberdeen, Washington, Aaron Goings, is contributing an article. Aaron just finished his PhD dissertation on the social and labor history of the Grays Harbor, Washington, area, all 500 pages of it! Finns factor greatly in his research and writing, so hopefully his dissertation gets published soon, and his article for this edition of the Journal examines aspects of the Finnish American labor movement in this region.

I already kind of have the hook for the forward, which is that the articles in the edition all center on the creation of working class literacy...beyond something like teaching immigrants the basics of reading and writing, to an expanded literacy of what it meant to be class conscious. This is what the Industrial Workers of the World or "Wobbly" songs and culture were in essence doing, and something that the authors of the articles really bring forth in their research and writing. I think the issue promises to be an outstanding edition of the Journal of Finnish Studies, which is edited by Dr. Beth Virtanen, who is a visiting scholar at Finlandia University.

2) This project is an article for a book of articles relating to ethnicity in the Upper Peninsula and is being edited by Hilary Virtanen (see above). I am writing an article on the importance of Finn Halls in the Upper Peninsula, and have decided to concentrate on labor halls in Marquette, Negaunee, Rock (or Maple Ridge), and Hancock. Through this process I have had the chance to visit the archives at Northern Michigan University in Marquette and have found that they have a great collection of materials regarding the Rock Workers' and Co-op Hall. Equally exciting, the archivist there, Marcus Robbins, knows that it is a great collection and is looking into ways to make the material more accessible to the public. This truly unique collection from Rock has a great home at Northern!