Finns of the Trumansburg Area
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Written by Richard Koski, 2020
Sauna is the one Finnish word that made it into the American language, and the sauna is one of many Finnish traditions that made it into the local cultural landscape. At first the sauna seemed very strange to the non-Finns living around here. Eventually, some tried it, liked it, and even built their own. Trumansburg farmer Stan Koskinen recalled:
“Arvo Saari came here in the early 30s, and built a place up there in Hector, just off Vesa Road. The first thing Arvo built was a sauna, and he made it out of trees in the woods. He didn't have any money to buy a roof for it, so he put a sod roof on it. He put dirt and sod for a roof. Oh, that sauna used to get hot. I can remember when Ray Saari and I were kids, half of Trumansburg would go up there for sauna. You know, all the Yankees and everything. I remember that.”
Although Finns began settling in the Trumansburg area in 1919, they had already established themselves a few miles to the south in the Spencer, Van Etten, and Newfield areas beginning in 1910. The greatest period of emigration from Finland to the U.S. was from 1864 -1920. By 1900 the majority of Finnish immigrants were living in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin where they were working as loggers and iron and copper miners. Many wanted to get out of these dangerous and exploitative conditions and establish their own farms. In the southern Finger Lakes region around the early 1900s, many farmers were facing hard times and were leaving their farms for factory jobs or for better land to the west. As a consequence, many farms in this area were abandoned and for sale. In 1910 three Finns from Upper Michigan came to buy farms in the hills in the southern part of the Town of Newfield. They in turn encouraged other Finns to buy farms in the area. Old farms were cleared of brush, houses were fixed up, saunas built, and the farms were made productive again.
Starting in 1919, a Finnish community was beginning to establish itself in the northwestern part of Tompkins County, eastern Schuyler County, and southern Seneca County. The 1930s saw expansion of the Finnish community into the Interlaken and Ovid areas. By the 1940s and '50s, the area between Cayuga and Seneca Lakes was at its peak of Finnish activity. On a Saturday night, one could find a hot Finnish sauna from Cayutaville north to Mecklenburg, Perry City, Podunk, Trumansburg, Searsburg, Steamburg, Covert, Interlaken, Sheldrake, Lodi, and Ovid.
The first Finnish settlers in this area were Frank and Miina Maki who bought a farm in Perry City in 1919. Along with their nine children, they came from Rudyard in Upper Michigan. Their farm was the land with drumlins (oval-shaped hills created by glaciers) just to the southwest of the crossroads and the house is the big old house on the west side of route 228 about a quarter mile from the crossroads. There are many stories about the Maki family, and Stan Koskinen tells this version about the auction of the Perry City farm in 1919. Stan heard it from Don Cretser of Trumansburg who was there as a boy.
“The auction had already started, and this stranger comes there wearing rubber boots and carrying a little suitcase. They had already sold everything, and now the real estate was coming up for sale. This guy was the top bidder – something like $4000 for 400 acres. The auctioneer said, “Do you realize you have to have cash to buy this place?” The man just nodded. The closing was there in Perry City at the town clerk's office. Gossip traveled fast that a Finlander had bought this place. People came with their horses and buggies just to see what a Finlander looked like. When it came time to pay the money, he took off his hat, and counted out all the money from it.”
In 1920, John and Santtra Westerlund came from Ishpeming in Upper Michigan, and bought a farm in Podunk. Nearby on Durling Road, Jacob and Sanna Luoma came from Washington State to buy a farm in 1921. There were five girls in the family, and Ruth Luoma Makie told many stories about growing up in Podunk. Of music and dancing, Ruth recalls:
“We used to have dances at our house in Podunk. It had a double living room with sliding doors and we used to open them up and push the furniture aside to make room to dance. My father and my older sister Marie used to play the accordion and someone, maybe Wayne Makie would play the fiddle. They would play polkas, schottisches, and all that. I was young enough so my sister, Lempi, and I used to dance together in the corner. My mother and father used to love to dance. Oh, yes, they always had neighborhood dances around at different houses.”
Coffee and the cardamom flavored Finnish coffee bread, pulla, were always served at social gatherings. Even farmers working in the field would take their morning and afternoon coffee breaks. Ruth Luoma Mackie remembers from her childhood in Podunk during the 1920s:
“My sister and I always had to take coffee out to the field to the workers. They had to have their coffee and something to eat with it at 10 am and 3pm. That was our job to cart that out to them regardless of where they were working. My father used to rent land around Podunk so sometimes we had to walk half a mile or more with our coffee. Oh yeah, they had to have that.”
Sylvia Uitos Maatta remembers coffee while growing up in Searsburg in the thirties:
“My father was always up first thing in the morning and made coffee the old-fashioned way by cracking an egg in it to clear it. One thing that my mother did was that when we had company, us kids sat at the coffee table with the adults. We'd have coffee with them, and she would probably put a quarter cup of coffee and fill it up with milk, and make us feel like we were part of the group. After the flood in 1935 took our sauna away, we used to go to sauna on Saturday nights to Uittis or Rantamakis, and there again, we had coffee and pulla, and we sat at the table with the adults.”
More Finns were arriving in the Podunk area in the twenties and thirties. In 1921, Ernest and Lizzie Ahlson, with children Bill and Viola, came from Negaunee, in Upper Michigan, and bought a farm on Cold Springs Road. In 1923, John and Miina Niemi, arrived from Negaunee and purchased the Westerlund farm. Stan Koskinen came to Podunk in 1930 when he was three years old, arriving from Ishpeming, Upper Michigan. With him were his mother, Vieno, her parents, Charles and Amalia Jarvi, and Charles' brother Matt with his wife Martha. Stan's father had died, along with 51 others, in a mine cave-in shortly before Stan was born. From 1954 through the 1970s, Stanley and Laura Koskinen developed a thriving chick hatchery and egg business at their Podunk farm. Other Finnish family names in the Podunk area were Forsman, Koskela, Hill, Passi, Soyring and Kauppin
In 1968, Osmo Heila and family bought the Wilho and Aili Uitti place in Podunk where Osmo opened the Podunk Cross Country Ski Center. He introduced thousands of people to the cross country skiing that he grew up with in his native Finland. A barn was converted to a shop selling skis and equipment, the old chicken barn was converted to a rustic warming lodge, and the old sauna that Wilho Uitti built was often heated to complete the Podunk experience. During the 70s and 80s, the Podunk Ski Center hosted the annual Trumansburg Winter Carnival, with events such as ski races, ice skating races, sledding, and snow sculpture. With poles and help contributed by the Trumansburg Home Telephone Company and Keith Northrup, a ski jump was built across the road on “Tombstone Hill”, a popular old time sledding spot.
From Cayutaville to Mecklenburg and Perry City there were many Finnish families, especially along McIntyre Road. Some of the Finnish family names in this area were Harkonen, Kuparinen, Komula, Maki, Saari, Maatta, Kinon, Ailio, Hack, Luoma, Makela, Hannila, Kahkonen, Silmu, Nicander, Samanen, Nyberg, Lillienborg (Mrs. Lillienborg was a Petaja), Russell (Bertha Maki married George Russell), and Paige (Violet Maki married Jake Paige) The Paige name was originally Petaja but was changed to a more American sounding name. This was occasionally done. George Pine of Covert was originally Petaja but changed to Pine. Some in the Maki family added an e to the end to become Makie.
Between Trumansburg and Spencer, there are twelve roads named for Finns. Two of these, Vesa Road and Salo Drive are in Trumansburg. Jalmari and Katri Vesa came to their farm on Vesa Road in 1933. Their son, Oiva, still lives on the place, and he tells of what it was like in the early days there:
“When my parents bought the farm, it had been abandoned as a lot of places up here were. There were no doors or windows on the house. Most of the places up here were bought by the government, and the land became part of what is now the Finger Lakes National Forest. There is a barn across the road that was originally used probably for hay storage and horses. Dad converted the south end of that into a chicken barn. There's another barn across the road that Dad made from two abandoned houses that he dragged there and put together to make a chicken barn.”
In the Searsburg area from the 20s to the 50s were the Westerberg, Uitos, Rantamaki, and Carlson families. Near the end of Searsburg Road, John Ylimaki had a watch repair business. At the entrance to Salo Drive is a small building which was once Joe Wayrynen's shoe repair shop. As a kid, I had many soles of my flapping, “laughing” shoes repaired there.
The development in the Salo Drive area was begun by Arvo Salo and George Pine in the late 1940s. While Arvo and George got out of the project early on, much of the home building in that area was done by Archie Mielty and his father John. They also built many houses on Hector Street between Searsburg Road and Salo Drive. Archie has built many houses in Trumansburg, especially in the Sunrise Terrace area. Archie recalls building his first house on Salo Drive:
“ I built my first house in 1951 when I turned eighteen years old. It's so funny, my father was busy working elsewhere on other houses. He said, “Your mother will help you set up the batter boards.” My mother, she lived so far in the boondocks in Finland, she never went to school at all. Anyway, she could do math, and fractions, and division in her head like a human calculator. And it was so funny, she knew more about laying out batter boards for a new house than I did. We still laughed about it for many years afterwards. My father gave me a building lot, a bunch of new rough lumber, took me to Millspaugh's and told Art Millspaugh, “Whatever Archie needs for that new house, I'll back him up.” I got $5,500 for my first new house that I built. That was a lot of money in those days”
Further north in the Towns of Covert and Ovid in Seneca County, Frank and Hilma Tupala came from Detroit, Michigan in 1932. In 1933, four Finnish families bought farms in this area: Jacob and Hilma Aho, Vieno and Olga Oja, Vaino and Margaret Tapio, and John and Imbi Mielty. During the Depression years of the 1930s, many Finns were relocating from other parts of the state and country to farms in the entire area from Spencer to Ovid as a way of surviving this period of massive unemployment and poverty. Since Finns were regarded as hard working and honest, the women were in demand as domestic workers for wealthier families. Their work was an important factor in Finnish families being able to survive the Depression years on the farms.
In 1940 construction began on the Sampson Naval Training Center on the east side of Seneca Lake. Many of the local Finnish men were skilled carpenters and they found work there. The Johnston Contracting Corporation from New York City was the contractor, and many of the Finnish carpenters they employed in the city came here to work. Hans Heinonen, Aarne Hantu, Armas Piironen and Waino Makela were among those. After the base was completed, many of them stayed in the area to work as carpenters or start their own chicken farms.
Some of the other Finnish families in south Seneca County were Herrala, Mannila, Pine, Erickson, Ara, Maki, Gronberg, Helander, Tulla, Makie, Wilen, Lauman, Frusty, Tupala, Manner, Soininen, Jaakola, Aho, Riihinen, Maatta, Nicander, Kannelin, Levander, Hill, Ravila, Salo, Uitti, Aalto, Lindroos, Linnroth, Gottberg. Uimonen, Lehto, Nikula, Kunttu. Ramakka, and Kauppinen.
The 1940s into the 50s were good years for chicken farming, and many Finns had productive farms during this time. Chicken barns were built, and old dairy barns were adapted for chickens by building extra floors and adding dormers. Typical of some Finns who moved north from Spencer and Van Etten were my own parents, William and Laura Koski. In 1941 they bought an 85 acre farm overlooking Cayuga Lake on Garrett Road in the Town of Ulysses. Bill recalls building up the farm:
“When we bought the place from Bill Makarainen, there was just a house, a small dairy barn, and 85 acres. I made another floor on the barn, put some windows in, and some dormers on the third floor. I built an addition on the end so there was room for a couple of cows. We put about 1,000 chickens in that barn. Then maybe a couple of years after that, I cut some logs from our woods, had them sawed at Sheldon's sawmill, and built a bigger barn across the road that was three stories. Altogether, we had about 3,000 chickens, and you could make a living with that if prices were good and you didn't get diseases in them. The crops we raised were mostly for our own chickens and a couple of cows – wheat, corn, oats, barley, and hay.”
For the next 15 years they raised chickens there, and during the years after that, Bill built many houses along the road frontage. In 1948 Laura's brother Leslie Saikkonen from Van Etten and his wife, Sarah, bought a nearby farm on the corner of Krums Corners Road and Colegrove Road. Laura's sister Viola and husband Keith Seely also settled in the Willow Creek area.
In 1928 Finnish farmers in Spencer and Van Etten started the Spencer Co-operative Society. Soon they began distributing feed to the Trumansburg area Finns from the John Niemi farm in Podunk. By 1935 so many Finns in the area desired services that the Spencer Co-op opened a branch store on the corner of Main and Elm Streets in Trumansburg. Groceries were sold there as well as poultry feed, hardware, and coal. Eggs were picked up from the farms by Co-op trucks and shipped to New York City for sale. Besides the idea of controlling their own business and sharing in profits, many of the Finns liked doing business with the Co-op, because all business could be conducted in the Finnish language. The Trumansburg branch store closed around 1960.
The Finns never owned a social hall in this area, but the Covert Grange Hall was rented and served as a social meeting place. From the 1940s through the 70s, regular Finnish dances, dinners, and parties were held there. Archie Mielty remembers:
“They would put on a heck of a feed there. Nobody went home hungry, and there was good music. The dancing was mostly Finnish dancing, everything from hambos to tangos to schottisches, waltzes, polkas, and masurkkas. Some of the musicians who played for dancing were Helen Gronberg, accordion; Elma Thompson, accordion; Bill Ahlson, drums; Tom Nicander, violin; John Mielty, mandolin; Jack Frusty, trumpet; Einer Wilen, sax: Bill Koski, accordion; Bob Maatta, guitar; and Rudy Erickson, violin.”
Jon Aho remembers the Covert Hall dances from his childhood:
“My brother, Aarne, and I would be given candles and dull knives and asked to walk around the dance floor. While we walked - often trying to avoid energetic dancers - we would slowly shave the candles and allow wax pieces to fall to the floor, which we were told allowed the dancers' feet to more easily slide on the floor.”
Sometimes when a new barn was built, a dance was organized before the chickens were moved in. Dances were occasionally held in the upstairs of the Koskinen Hatchery building on Podunk Road. During the 1970s and 80s, dances were held in George and Inga Pine's back yard on Arden Road on a dance platform that George built.
The biggest Finnish celebration, which continues to this day, is the Midsummer celebration, sometimes called St. John's Day, or in Finnish, Juhannus. This is held around the first day of summer, and is an outside affair involving food, music, dancing, games, poetry readings, and finally a huge bonfire after dark. In 1926 a Juhannus celebration was held at John Hill's farm on Updike Road near Perry City. Ruth Luoma Makie was there and remembers:
“They had lots of food and the program. Lempi Niemi and I used to get hoodwinked into putting something on for the program. We used to get up there and sing and recite poetry or something. I remember at one place we stood on a stump and did our recitation. Some people would play accordions; Wayne Makie used to play the violin.”
There are still many Finnish-Americans in this area, although Finnish activity is not what it once was. There are many third, fourth, and fifth generation descendants still in the area who might not have a Finnish name, have only one Finnish great- grandparent and are totally blended in with the general population. There are not many left who still speak the Finnish language. Some traditions such as the sauna and skis have been adopted and enjoyed by many of the non-Finnish locals. Many houses have been built by Finnish carpenters. Coffee is popular, and the cooperative business model is used and appreciated by many. There is even a six-piece band called Toivo (toivo.honkingduck.com), consisting of all Trumansburg residents, that continues to play the Finnish dance music that has been played around here for the past 100 years. Finnish activities continue with the Finger Lakes Finns (fingerlakesfinns.org), an organization that arranges monthly meetings, scholarships, lectures, arts and crafts events, and concerts for everyone in the general public to enjoy.
(Author's note: This article originally appeared in the September 2014 Ulysses Historical Society Newsletter. I would like to hear from anyone who has information, documents, stories, or photos of the Trumansburg area Finns (Mecklenburg to Ovid) to add to my ongoing research. I can be reached at : Richard Koski, 6075 Brook Road, Trumansburg, NY 14886, or phone (607) 387-4854, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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