History of the Finger Lakes Finns 1968 – 2018

Written by Richard Koski, revised September 2020

The Finger Lakes Finns organization was established in 1968, but the Finnish community in this area goes back to 1910 when the first Finnish families, the Lehtonens, Manninens, and Makelas, moved from Upper Michigan to farms in the hills of the southern part of the Town of Newfield. Responding to ads in Finnish-American newspapers and word of mouth, other Finns began moving to farms in the areas of Spencer, Van Etten, Newfield, Danby, Ithaca, and eventually spreading north up into the Trumansburg and Interlaken areas. They established many social, religious, political, and economic organizations where they could gather together and conduct their affairs in the Finnish language. There were churches, halls, the Co-op, dances, plays, concerts, athletic activities, work bees, and celebrations such as Juhannus (Midsummer or St. John's Day) that all served to bind the community together. Although there is an interesting history connected with this era, this article will focus on the period from 1968 to 2018.

By 1968 the local Finns realized that they were not getting together as they used to, as the second and third generations were getting assimilated into the general American culture through work, education, social activities, entertainment, and language. In 1968 a group consisting of Lempi and Don Sincebaugh, Patty and Hemmo Huttunen, George and Inga Pine, Jennie and Bob Conlon, and Barbara and Paul Leskinen decided to hold a Finnish picnic at Stewart Park in Ithaca on July 7, 1968. A newspaper announcement said to bring a dish to pass, records for dancing, and sports equipment for the children. Seventy people attended this picnic. The notes taken after that meeting stated, “Everyone had a grand time, and we were urged to continue meeting.”

An executive committee was formed consisting of the above-mentioned people, and another picnic was scheduled for August 31, 1968 again at Stewart Park. There were about 61 people at this picnic, and about an hour of dancing was enjoyed. At this time, the group was just called the Finnish Club, but at this picnic a questionnaire was circulated asking for suggestions of a club name and ideas for future activities.

On September 9, 1968 the Executive Committee met at the Huttunen's farm in South Danby. Suggestions for club names were considered, and the name Finger Lakes Finns was chosen as proposed by Carl Washburn. It was also decided that their events would be alcohol free, and free of religious and political discussions. Everyone was mindful of some of the divisions and conflicts these had caused in the past, and it was desired that everyone could get together and enjoy good fellowship. This has served them very well right up to the present.

The organization was rolling right along now, because on October 12, 1968, they held a dance on Saturday evening at the old Newfield Fire Hall. People were asked to bring records and something for the coffee table.

The momentum continued with a Finnish Independence Day celebration on Dec. 7, 1968 at the Newfield Fire Hall. There were films from the Finnish Consulate, Ritva Mielty sang Finnish songs, and Raili Washburn showed home movies from Finland. It had been decided by the Executive Committee that their meetings would begin with a dish to pass supper at 6:30pm. Traditional dishes were served, a raffle of handmade articles was held, and dancing was done around the Christmas tree.

Meetings continued into 1969 and throughout the seventies at the old Newfield Fire Hall with dinners, dancing, music, and various other entertainments. Summer picnics were held at Stewart Park into the eighties. These events were organized by the Executive Committee, but in the 1980s a Board of Directors was chosen with Raili Washburn elected as Chairperson. Occasional newsletters were written and sent out by Raili.

On March 3, 1981 a large Finnish Festival was held in Ithaca at the Womens' Community Building. Attendance was so great that people had to be turned away for lack of room. Some of the performers were vocalist Ritva Mielty, pianist Kent Washburn, and young folk dancers Katrina Washburn and Timo Huttunen. Dancing was to the music of Bill and Richard Koski and Friends. After the success of this Spring Festival, a Fall Festival was held at the Newfield High School with a traditional coffee table, dancing, and a program featuring among others, vocalist Ritva Mielty, harmonica artist Wilfred Pakkala, and folk musician from Finland, Seppo Sillanpää. According to the Newfield News, this festival entertained hundreds of people. Regular Fall Festivals were held at the Newfield School throughout the eighties.

In addition to the Fall Festivals, concerts, lectures, and dances were held, and all these events were open to the general public to enjoy. There was a Finger Lakes Finns folk dance group that performed in costume at many festivals and events throughout the region. Oliver Lindblad was the accordionist for this group. Richard Koski and Loretta Pompilio developed a puppet show with fiddle and accordion music that depicted the history of the Finns in the area and performed it at many schools and museums throughout the region. Dances were held for the general public with music by the Crumtown Ramblers, and often with Finnish dance instruction by Hemmo and Patty Huttunen, and square dance calling by Jean Alve. In 1985 some members of the Finger Lakes Finns built a sauna float for the Spencer Picnic parade. This was a real sauna with two young ladies taking a sauna and throwing water on the hot stones. Walking beside the float and in costume were Raili and Katrina Washburn, Helvi Vaananen, and Osmo Heila. Oliver Lindblad and Matti Hopiavuori were on the float playing their accordions. Judges awarded the float first prize.

People were really becoming aware of the Finns in this area with folklorists studying them, and even helping to arrange some programs. In 1981 the Dewitt Historical Society opened an exhibit entitled “Finnish-Americans in the Finger Lakes”, and in 1985 they opened a yearlong exhibit on the saunas in the area. Also, in 1985, Spencer residents created an exhibit of photographs and interviews on saunas in the Spencer and Van Etten areas. Folklore and arts organizations helped to sponsor public lectures by Aili Flint from Columbia University and Finnish-American historian Dr. A.William Hoglund. In 1986 folklorist Melissa Ladenheim wrote and published a booklet about the saunas in our area entitled, “The Sauna in Central New York”. This is still available for purchase from the History Center in Tompkins County.

The period from 1968 through the 1980s was a very active time for the Finger Lakes Finns, but activity started to slow down in the 1990s. However, in true Finnish spirit, they weren't about to give up, so in 1997 a group got together to breathe new life into the Finger Lakes Finns.

In May of 1997 the Middle Atlantic Folklife Association held their annual meeting in Ithaca with a focus on the Finns in the area. Forty five folklorists filled three vans and toured the Newfield, Spencer, and Van Etten areas to explore the saunas, farms, the North Van Etten Church, the sites of the Finn Hall and Spencer Co-op, and to meet with the local Finns. In the evening a Finnish dance and dinner was held for all at the Newfield Fire Hall. Two months later on July 18, a group of about 20 people met at the home of Hemmo and Patty Huttunen for the purpose of reorganizing and rejuvenating the Finger Lakes Finns. Appreciation was expressed for Raili Washburn for all her years of energetic and enthusiastic leadership of the group. After a review of the origins and goals of the group, a discussion followed about the best ways to move forward as a strong and active organization. Officers elected were Jean Lindblad, president; Virpi Loomis, vice president; Deborah Clover, secretary; and Patty Huttunen, treasurer. Program and publicity committees were formed, and a newsletter was to be put out.

The group hit the ground running with a dish to pass dinner and dance planned for the following month on Saturday evening, August 23. This was held at the Spencer Grange Hall with Finnish dance music by the Crumtown Ramblers and square dance calling by Jean Alve. About 70 people attended, and it was enjoyed by Finns and non-Finns alike. On Sept. 21 a Fall Festival was held at the Newfield School with refreshments, entertainment, and dancing to the music of Oliver Lindblad.

In 1998 the Finger Lakes Finns received two grants from the New York Folklore Society for mentoring projects. With the first, Don and Judy Uitti from the Cape Cod Finnish Group and former Trumansburg residents, were brought here in February to meet with the Finger Lakes Finns at the Newfield Town Hall and share some of their experiences organizing and running the Cape Cod Club. Issues such as planning activities and drawing up a constitution and by-laws were discussed. Using the Cape Cod constitution and by-laws as a model, the Finger Lakes Finns were able to write their own. The second grant brought in Barry and Katy Heineluoma from the Fitchburg, Massachusetts area Finnish club to speak about organizational issues. These were both extremely helpful in giving the group a solid foundation and direction for the future.

Many meetings and activities were held in 1998 including a Finnish public dance in Ithaca with instruction by Richard and Helvi Impola and music by Oiva’s Daughters from Boston. To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Finger Lakes Finns, a Fall Festival was organized to be held at the Newfield High School featuring young accordion virtuoso Brent Buswell in concert, historical displays, refreshments, and dancing. Regular monthly meetings were held in the Newfield Town Hall. Also in 1998, the Finger Lakes Finns took part in the New York State Documentary Heritage Project whose purpose was to collect and document the Finnish heritage in the Southern Finger Lakes through interviews, research with primary documents and items in people’s homes, and research in existing archives. Preserving the local Finns' history seemed to be an important topic in 1998 as the topic of the October meeting was “Compiling a Family History” by Jean Alve, and at the November meeting, Matt Braun of the Dewitt Historical Society spoke on the topic of “Caring for Family Documents”. In August of 1998 a Finnish Heritage Day was celebrated in Ithaca at the Dewitt Historical Society with displays, lectures, music, and a coffee table. In 2002 the Ulysses Historical Society in Trumansburg presented an exhibit on the Trumansburg area Finns.

Juhannus celebrations in June have been happening in this area since the first Finns came in 1910. According to Lydia Ahola Mackie’s “History of the Spencer Finns”, in 1910 a Juhannus picnic was held on the lawn of the Herman Manninen farm in North Van Etten with six families in attendance. In 1922 a Juhannus celebration was held in Crumtown with 200 attending. From 1997 to 2014, Juhannus celebrations with their picnics, entertainments, and kokkos (bonfires) were held at Hemmo and Patty Huttunen’s Southview Farm in South Danby. In 2002, over 130 people attended. From 2015 to the present, Juhannus has been held at Keturi’s campground in Van Etten.

With the national FinnFests beginning in 1983, and the Northeast Regional FinnFunn Weekends, the local Finns began to attend these events, sometimes organizing bus tours to them. For three years, 1999, 2004, and 2009, the Finger Lakes Finns organized and hosted FinnFunn Weekends in Ithaca at the Clarion Hotel with lectures, concerts, dinners, and dances that attracted Finns from all over the Northeast.

In 1999 the Finger Lakes Finns began to have regular monthly meetings at the West Danby Fire Hall, later moved to the Newfield Fire Hall, with the format much the same as it is today - a dish to pass luncheon, followed by a business meeting, and a program. Also, in 1999 a newsletter began to be published quarterly, and is sent out to over 100 addresses. Since education has always been important to the Finns, the Finger Lakes Finns established a scholarship fund so that each year a monetary award could be given to qualified area college bound high school seniors. The first scholarship of $500 was awarded in 2001. Later the amount was increased to $800, and to the present time, one to four scholarships have been awarded annually.

The Finger Lakes Finns began organizing Finnish themed concerts, lectures, and events for the general public. Beginning with the Helsinki War Veterans concert in 1999, there were many more to follow including among others, the Sillanpää family musicians from Finland, the Myllarit folk music ensemble from Russian Karelia, the Handbell Ensemble from Finland, and the Kardemimmit Kantele ensemble from Finland. Local musicians such as Kent Washburn and the Toivo band also presented concerts and dances. In 2003 the Kymi Wind Band from Kouvola, Finland came here to present concerts, and this was followed in 2004 by the Spencer-Van Etten high school band traveling to Kouvola, Finland for a series of concerts.

In 2006 the Finger Lakes Finns became a chapter member of Finlandia Foundation National, an organization that united Finnish-American clubs from all over the country with the goal of preserving and encouraging Finnish-American history, culture, and activities. Grants and scholarships were awarded by Finlandia Foundation, and the Lecturer of the Year and Performer of the Year programs were established so that the most outstanding Finnish-American lecturers and performers in the nation were selected to perform for chapters all over the country. The Finger Lakes Finns hosted many of these performers at venues where they could be enjoyed by the public.

In 2018 the Finger Lakes Finns celebrated their 50th anniversary on September 16 at the Newfield Fire Hall with an invitation to the whole community to come and enjoy an afternoon of music, dancing, historical displays, refreshments, and of course, coffee. With everyone enjoying the activities and helping, the Finger Lakes Finns hope to continue for many years into the future.

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