Finn Roads: Finger Lakes Finns Country
By Richard Koski, 2012
We’ll begin our tour of the Finger Lakes Finns area of New York State in Ithaca, at the southern end of Cayuga Lake, the longest of the Finger Lakes. Although our 45 mile tour will take us through the heart of the Finnish areas of Newfield, Van Etten, and Spencer, the Finnish population does spread out a few miles from here in all directions towards the Pennsylvania border and up north of Ithaca to Trumansburg and Interlaken.
From Ithaca we’ll head for the hills, because most of the Finns came here to farm, so their historical area is out in the country instead of the cities. Take Route 13 south from Ithaca and go about six miles to the village of Newfield. If it’s the third Sunday of the month, stop in at the Newfield Fire Hall for the monthly meeting of the Finger Lakes Finns. You can enjoy the dish to pass dinner, coffee and pulla, and entertainment of local Finnish music, or a lecture. The Finger Lakes Finns organization has been going since 1968.
From Newfield, we’ll take Shaffer Road and head south over the hills about 16 miles to Van Etten. It is in this area where in 1910, the first Finns, Herman Manninen, John Makela, and John Lehtonen came from Michigan to settle. At that time, many of the farms run by Yankee farmers were unprofitable, so as they left, their farms became available and affordable to the Finns. In 1910 Theodore Roosevelt came to Newfield to promote the restoration of unoccupied farms. John Lehtonen became a real estate agent and began advertising these farms in Finnish-American newspapers. Other Finns began arriving, many from the upper Midwest, who in turn wrote to friends and relatives urging them to come here to farm. Run-down houses and barns were fixed up, fields were cleared of brush, saunas were built, and with lots of sisu, these farms were made productive again.
About five miles outside of Newfield on Shaffer Road, we’ll go past Ruuspakka Road, up Skunk Hill, then past Lampila Road. Just past Lampila Road, we’ll cross the county line from Tompkins to Chemung County. Here the road name changes from Shaffer Road to Langford Creek Road. On the right you’ll notice the St. John’s Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church of North Van Etten. Built in 1878, this was the Union Free Church, but with so many departing Yankee families, about 50 Finnish families gathered there in 1913 to establish the Finnish Lutheran Church. Regular services are no longer held here. Almost all the headstones in the church cemetery have Finnish names.
At the church, take a right on Brink Road, and about two miles down at the intersection of McDuffy Hollow Road, at Ralph Pietila’s place, you’ll see a typical old chicken barn and a sauna in the yard. Chicken farming was the big thing with the Finns around here from the 1930s through the ‘50s, but since then it has declined to zero. You’ll see very little farming in this hill country anymore, as barns have fallen down, fields have returned to forests, and people have taken jobs in nearby towns and cities.
At the end of Brink Road, take a left on McDuffy Hollow Road, which continues on to Langford Creek Road, and then a few more miles into Van Etten. Along the way you’ll see more old saunas and chicken barns. Cross Route 224 in Van Etten and go a block farther to the end of the street. Although there is a new yellow ranch house there now, this is the site of the Finnish Hall. The hall was originally a Baptist church building, but was purchased by the Finns in 1923, and was known as the STY Hall (Suomalaisten Työväen Yhdistys). This was a gathering place for Finns on the left side of the political spectrum. By the 1940s and ‘50s politics became less important, and with the second generation, it became a popular place for plays, dances, and other social activities. In 1960 the Finns sold the hall to the Van Etten Fire Department, and a couple of years ago it was torn down. Although there was a division years ago between the hall Finns and the church Finns, there is no such division in today’s Finger Lakes Finns.
You’ll be needing a cup of coffee about now, so turn around and go back a block to the coffee shop on the corner. Adjoining the coffee shop is Heather Pelto’s gift shop where you can stop in and buy some of her homemade sauna soap, or any other soap from her Finger Lakes Soap Company. For a sense of the local Finnish-American history, you might like to walk through the cemetery on the hill across from the coffee shop.
Back on Route 224 and 34, head east about three miles to Spencer. In 1911, Joel Pelto was the first Finn to move to Spencer as a result of seeing John Lehtonen’s advertising of farms in the area in a Finnish-American newspaper. Mr. Pelto in turn became a real estate agent and attracted other Finns to the area. Just as you come into Spencer, look to the left on Railroad Avenue and you’ll see the site of the Spencer Co-operative Society. The old grocery and hardware buildings, as well as part of the feed mill are still there, although with different owners and uses. On the highway by the Dollar General Store, there is a blue state historical sign which tells a little about the Co-op. This was started in 1928 by the local Finnish farmers as a way to join together to purchase farm supplies, fuel, and groceries, and transport their products, mostly eggs, to market, mainly New York City, about 200 miles away. This was quite a large successful business, and lasted until 1996. They even had a branch store in Trumansburg for the Finnish farm families in that area.
About half a mile farther along on Route 34, is St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. This was a Methodist Church, but in 1934 it became St. Paul’s, and services were held in Finnish and English. The birch paneling was imported from Finland. While in Spencer, stop in at the Historical Society on Center Street, open on Sundays, and check out their extensive collection of local Finnish-American history. There is also a cemetery near Nichols Street with many Finnish names.
From Spencer, head east on Route 96, and after about four miles turn left on Crumtown Road. Crumtown isn’t really a town, but just an area along Crumtown Road. In 1921 the local newspaper, The Spencer Needle, ran the following article: “As ninety percent of the people in this area are Finnish, it seems proper to discard the outworn designation of Crumtown. Now and henceforth, this locality is Finntown.”
A few miles down Crumtown Road, you’ll pass from Tioga to Tompkins County, and here the name changes to South Danby Road. If it’s June and time for Juhannus, you’ll be welcome to stop in at the Finns’ largest gathering of the year at Hemmo and Patty Huttunen’s Southview Tree Farm. Bring an instrument to play, poem to read, dish to pass, and enjoy the food, fellowship, sauna, swimming, and bonfire on the pond.
Now we’ll travel about 10 miles or so back to Ithaca. As we are coming down Rt. 96B at the top of the hill just outside Ithaca, we’ll see Ithaca College on the right, Cornell University across the valley on East Hill, and Ithaca at the bottom of the valley with the beautiful view of Cayuga Lake stretching up to the north. As your last stop, you might want to check out the History Center on East State Street and their local Finnish-American archives collection. Now you’re ready for your next cup of coffee, and that should be easy to find in Ithaca.