Långstedt, Rainer (2015). Finns in Spencer and Van Etten

From the book Finnish-Americans in War and Peace.


For many Finnish immigrants, the jobs available to them in the Midwest were in the fields of mining or as lumberjacks. About 70% of the Finnish immigrants had a farm background.14 After working two to five years in a mine in the Midwest, the Finns started to look for inexpensive land.15 Several Finnish language newspapers were in publication in the United States in the first decade of the 20th century. Advertising in these newspapers, a few entrepreneurial Finnish-speaking real estate brokers advised Finns, who had largely settled in the Midwest, to move to the Southern Tier of New York State. The land is rocky and hilly; the farms were run-down and in some cases abandoned. The inexpensive farmland advertised in Spencer and Van Etten, New York, made for a strong selling proposition. The Spencer area is heavily forested. The immigrant Finns were used to that from their home country and recognized the potential use of it in the farmstead for building material and fuel. A second selling point was the presence of other Finns in the area, offering familiarity and community. While most Finns moving to Spencer and Van Etten were relocating from other parts of the United States, there were also a few settlers that moved directly from Finland to Spencer. A March 1914 issue of the Spencer Needle newspaper reported on one such arrival:

Miss Josephine Wortman, of Siikainen, Saarikosken Kyla, arrived in Spencer coming direct from her home in Finland. She was three weeks and one day on the ocean and experienced a very rough voyage. It was necessary to bail water and keep the pumps on the vessel running most of the time, owing to a leak that had sprung into the vessel. Miss Wortman had planned to come on the vessel that preceded the one she came on, but her parents persuaded her to wait until the next vessel. The first vessel was sunk at sea. She was sick most of the way and only ate three meals during the three weeks aboard the vessel!!

The surge of Finnish settlement in Spencer began around 1910. By 1940, people with Finnish surnames owned 27% of the land in the town of Spencer. Neil Riker, who has written about the history of Finns of Spencer, estimates that there were about 300 Finnish families in the Spencer area in 1930.16 The Elmira Star-Gazette estimated the Finnish populations in Spencer, Van Etten, and Newfield to be 1,100 in 1939.17

To increase their likelihood for success, the Finnish farmers settling in Spencer and Van Etten pooled their resources. They formed the “Finn Harvester Company,” which owned machinery that could be used by the shareholders. By 1921, they had a thresher, ensilage cutter, buzz saw (for firewood), and a “power machine.” The company was conservative in their spending and financially healthy.

A concurrent description in The Scientific Monthly from 1923 illustrates why the Finns succeeded where others had failed. Professor Eugene van Cleef* remarks that:

“These farms have been in a state of abandoned cultivation because the struggle has been too severe for the Yankee farmer or he has not been able to solve the problem of how to farm these particular pieces of land. Now enters the Finn who boldly, slowly, methodically and laboriously begins to rehabilitate these farms and succeed where his predecessors have failed. He purchases a cow, some chickens and a horse, if funds permit. The first two items give him a substantial food supply in the form of milk, butter, eggs and even chicken meat occasionally, while the third provides power and transportation. He clears away a few of the almost innumerable boulders, cuts off a portion of the dense second growth vegetation to make room for the hay and enough of truck garden products for his own use, and drains a portion of the land. Tree stumps give him no particular concern at first, for he just cultivates around the stumps. In the course of time, and for the Finn time accomplishes much, all the land will be cleared, drained and under the plow.”

From the description, one gathers that the goal was self-sufficiency rather than a business.

*The Scientific Monthly, May 1923. Professor Eugene van Cleef of the Ohio State University wrote articles for the American Geographical Society. He also published a book The Finn in America in 1918.

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