To Karelia and Back
To Karelia and Back
by Lisa Herrala da Cunha-Koski. 2004.
Art Kahkonen, whose original Finnish name was Unto Ahti
Kähkönen, was named after a character in the Kalevala, as were
his brothers and sister. He was born April 11, 1913, in Plummer,
Minnesota. His parents, who had come here from Finland, moved there in 1912.
Unfortunately, his mother died in 1917, of tuberculosis. According
to Art, his father was no farmer and left in 1919, after he sold the farm. The family moved to Van Etten, New York, and boarded with
Wilho and Hilja Keckman, at their farm. They stayed about a year and then moved to Harbor Creek, Pennsylvania, staying with his father's sister.
Art's father went to work for Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore, in 1921. He remarried and the children lived with their father and stepmother until his father died in 1924. At this time, the stepmother sent the children to live with other relatives. His mother's sister, living in Braddock, Pennsylvania, received him when he was 12 years old.
Art's older brother, Walter, had bought a farm near Van Etten, in Erin, New York. When Art was 15 years old, he came to live on this farm with his brother and sister, Helen. The main problem with that farm, according to Art, was that it had a great amount of stone, which made for much hard work. He and his brother carted it away on a wagon and sold it to road crews at $1.00 per cubic yard. Two horses pulled the wagon and they made three trips a day; two in the morning and one in the afternoon, followed by loading up, ready for the next day.
Art tells of a time in 1930, a time of great unemployment in the USA and Europe and a year after the stock market crash. "A guy from a left-wing hall, who was an unpaid orator, told thousands of people that everything in Karelia was good. Later, this same guy came back from Karelia disillusioned, and started a Finnish settlement in Florida, named Astoria, which was named after his original home, Astoria, Oregon."
Art, and many other Finnish-Americans who had heard of the grand promises of a new and better life in Karelia, decided to move there. Soon he had a passport issued by the Labor Department, on November 25, 1931, stamped Washington, D.C., in it. He left for Tallin, Estonia, in wintertime, with his final destination Petrozavodsk, Karelia. A paper fastened in his passport stated that he was legally in Russia.
Art's work in Karelia was as a mechanic, working on pumps and other machines on construction jobs. However, there were few machines there at this time, so he found work in a ski factory. Since Karelia was a densely forested area, Art and many other Finnish-Americans living there also did logging work. The logs were floated from where they were cut all the way to Petrozavodsk. Enroute with the logs, they stayed in village homes. Many homes had big stone ovens. The kids slept on top of these ovens. In one of these houses, Art saw a picture of Jesus Christ with a picture of Lenin next to it.
An interesting Russian, Art met in Karelia, was Andropov, who had been the head of the secret police. Andropov had started this immigration of Finnish-Americans to Karelia, an undeveloped area with many natural resources. Art explained much about America to Andropov. Many years later, Andropov became premier of the USSR.
Regarding conditions for workers at the camp in Petrozavodsk, they were primitive and food supplies were sporadic. According to Art, for a while they had ham, but the first bakery produced terrible bread. The next baker was a real baker and they enjoyed good bread. Other foods were cabbage, but not many other vegetables, and cereal, especially barley. Workers who developed scurvy were given milk. Coffee and canned milk came with new arriving workers who shared it with a few immediate bunkhouse mates. Art remembers, "It wouldn't last very long."
The housing was a log house with beds on both walls. The mattresses were made by the workers who were given bags, which they filled with straw. There was a big stove in the middle of the bunkhouse for heating. A major discomfort was lice, frequently reoccurring after the sauna to cure the problem!
Many workers soon became disillusioned. Nothing arrived if mailed from Petrozavodsk and few letters arrived. Art stayed a little over a year. It was early enough so one could still get out. Many who stayed later were executed by Stalin or sent to Siberian labor camps. Art had no money until he sold his "gold" cornet. He was unable to collect his pay of 2,000 paper Russian rubles there.
A co-worker, named Walter Taipola, went with him to Hamburg, Germany, via Leningrad. In Hamburg, they went to an American consulate and told their story to an interested consul worker who contacted Art's brother for money for their return passage to the USA. "Back in America", Art states, "it was tough being unemployed, but one was a lot better off."
Over the years, Art has had a variety of jobs, including mechanic, truck driver, bulldozer operator, carpenter, sawmill operator, chicken farmer, and owner of a transmission shop in Ithaca, with his son, Carl.
Now, at age 91 years, Art lives at home in Mecklenburg, New York, with his son, Carl, on the farm he and his late wife, Ellen (Petaja) bought in 1941. His daughter, Shirley, and son-in-law, Bob Barton, are building a house on part of the farmland overlooking the hills and valleys of the Finger Lakes. Another daughter, Sharon, and her husband Jim Connor, live nearby in Ithaca. Art has five grandchildren.