THE NEW SETTLEMENT
There was much work that needed to be done after the first Finnish families moved to Spencer. Most of the men were fairly skilled in construction, so improvements were soon seen in repaired houses and barns. The new buildings that went up were usually built without outside help. Children took it for granted that they had to help in all manner of farmwork. Electricity was not yet available in rural areas and few labor saving devices were in use, so there were countless tasks for boys and girls in the home, barns and fields.
As a rule, the women were capable homemakers. They baked their own bread with whole wheat or rye flour added to the dough. “Pullaa” or Finnish coffee bread was made in large quantities. Rare was the household that did not offer even a casual visitor a cup of coffee and “pullaa”.
During the winter months a few of the women worked in New York City as cooks for wealthy families to help out with the farm income. As girls in Finland they had learned to spin, weave, knit and sew. Woolen socks, mittens, caps and sweaters for the family were knitted during time that was free from the many tasks of the household, garden, dairy and poultry care.
Most of the new arrivals became engaged in dairy and poultry farming, with the whole family pitching in to help. Crops of hay, oats, wheat, corn and buckwheat were harvested. The depleted soil was built up with fertilizers, lime and manure. One or more pigs, a winter’s supply of potatoes and vegetables, in addition to the dairy and poultry products, provided a healthy diet. Nearly all the farms had old apple orchards and pear trees that still bore fruit. Children were sent to pick the plentiful wild berries to be eaten fresh or canned for winter desserts.
There was much to be learned concerning local farming methods and machinery. Crops such as field corn and buckwheat had not been raised in areas where most of the newcomers had lived before. New and different kinds of machinery were needed to plant and harvest the crops.
Although most of the Finns came here with enough funds for a healthy down payment on a farm and even for some livestock and equipment, often unexpected expenses had to be met. Sometimes it was for more livestock than a farmer had anticipated as necessary just to make a living income. Loans from the bank as well as credit on purchases were needed by many of the newcomers until their farms became productive.
Local businessmen were initially reluctant to give credit to the first of these foreign-born arrivals. After a few years the trustworthiness of the industrious Finns became evident and it was easier for those who came later to get loans and credit. Without this help it would have been even more difficult to get started. Mr. Charles Seely, for instance, helped many of the farmers by permitting them to buy feed, grain and seed at his mill on long-term credit. Mr. Henry Fisher even learned to pronounce and use many words in the Finnish language to the surprise of the customers at his general store.
American born neighbors of the new residents were friendly and helpful and many lasting friendships were made.
After the newcomers had moved to their farm homes and the most necessary repairs had been made, a sauna was constructed. Usually this was accomplished during the first year of residence. To the Finn a sauna was not a luxury but a necessity. It has been a part of Finnish life from time immemorial.
The sauna was a small wooden building originally located far enough from the house so as not to be a hazard in case of fire. It contained a small dressing room and a steam room with a stone fireplace of “kiuas”. Here, also, was a wooden platform on which to relax while enjoying the effects of the steam. A few wide steps served as bleacher-like seats for the bathers as well as for access to the platform. The fireplace was heated until the farthest stones sizzled when water was poured on them. The water was heated in containers on top of the “Kiuas” or by piped heat from the fireplace to a water tank beside it. Cold water was carried into the steam room in pails or old milk cans.
After the fire and smoke died down and only a big bed of red coals remained in the fireplace, the sauna was ready for use. The higher on the steps one sat, the hotter, with the platform being the hottest place. Basins were used for bathing. To create the steam, water was thrown on the hot rocks with a dipper.
Children of these first Finnish families can still remember how, dressed in their night clothes after a hot sauna, they ran to the house and never felt the cold, even during the coldest winter weather.
Pliant switches of birch, chestnut or maple were cut from a tree and bound, with the leaves left on them, to form a whisk or “vihta”. Fragrant cedar was preferred but little was available here. The switch was soaked in warm water then slapped over the body to improve the circulation.
With very few exceptions, the farmhouses of that period had no bath rooms. Friends exchanged visits, trying out each other’s saunas and enjoyed coffee with “pullaa” or “nisua” afterward. Some of the Yankee neighbors who were invited to share the sauna visits, learned to enjoy the merits of the steam bath.
In later years, with electricity and plumbing available, many built a more convenient sauna within the home. Usually the “kiuas” or stove that was installed in the later saunas was of iron, topped with a sheet-metal enclosure which was filled with rocks. These stoves were smaller and could be heated more efficiently and without smoking up the steam room. Hot and cold running water was an added convenience in most of the later saunas. The rest of the sauna remained much the same as in the original building.
THE FINNISH LANGUAGE
All the newcomers who were natives of Finland were literate in the Finnish language. Because it is written exactly as it is pronounced, the language is very easy to learn to read.
The Lutheran Church was the State Church in Finland. Everyone had to go to confirmation school. To be confirmed, it was necessary to be able to read and write. After the move to America the immigrants continued to read by subscribing to at least one Finnish language newspaper and often some other periodical.
Children grew up speaking Finnish to their parents and English among their peers. When the oldest child in most families entered school it was often a bewildering experience. However in most cases, the English language was mastered in a few weeks. By the time the younger siblings entered school, they already spoke English. In most larger families the younger children could not remember the time they were unable to speak the two languages.
For emigrants who left Finland as adults, the English language was a difficult one to learn. In conducting business an older child was sometimes called upon to act as interpreter or “tulukki”. This wasn’t hard for the youngster to do ordinarily, but it could be embarrassing sometimes when directed to haggle for a lower price on some merchandise.