Who Knew? Finns in the Finger Lakes

The local band of Finnish Americans called Toivo (“Hope”) continues to play traditional folk music and polkas on their accordions and fiddles.

“My grandparents, the Herralas, were ranchers from South Dakota,” begins Lisa Koski, from Trumansburg, who is telling me the story of her Finnish ancestors. “In 1913, they came to the Finger Lakes, with their 200 horses on the train. At the train stop in Spencer [in Tioga County, south of Ithaca], they unloaded the horses and herded them through town to their farm in Halsey Valley.”

“It looked for all the world like a Western roundup,” notes a document on the website of the Finger Lakes Finns (fingerlakesfinns.org), a nearly 50-year-old social organization that promotes cultural and educational awareness of the Finnish heritage in the Finger Lakes. With nearly 100 members, the group meets in Newfield each month to share a meal and visit with friends and neighbors. Finns may be shy, but they are very social people.

Reviving farms and celebrating a proud heritage
In 1809, the Finnish-speaking areas of Sweden became the Grand Duchy of Finland, and part of the Russian Empire. Ninety years later, as the government worked to “Russify” the Grand Duchy – politically, militarily, and culturally – many Finns escaped the repression by coming to North America. Agents from U.S. companies recruited them for labor, and guided them to very specific locations here, including the lumber mills of the Great Lakes, the mines of the western mountains, and the factories of New York City. Between 1890 and 1914, more than 200,000 Finns arrived in the U.S., according to the Library of Congress.

In 1910, they started coming to the Finger Lakes, leaving the mines and factories of the Midwest for farms in the hill country of Tompkins, Chemung and Tioga counties. Within the next four decades, upwards of 500 Finnish landowners arrived in the Finger Lakes, according to figures from the New York Folklore Society. With dairying on the decline, the Finns revitalized the farming industry of the region. They established chicken farming and founded strong community organizations, including social clubs and farm cooperatives. They also shared something new to America at the time: sauna, a form of relaxation not seen as simply a luxury in Finnish culture – but as a necessity. So much so, there’s a sauna in almost every home in Finland.

The importance of maintaining their cultural heritage has continued through the decades in a variety of ways.

In 1968, the Huttunens, Washburns, Sincebaughs, Pines, Vaananens and other Finnish families came together for the first meeting of what would become the Finger Lakes Finns. They had put an ad in the paper about getting together for a dish-to-pass at Stewart Park in Ithaca, and “It was amazing how many Finns turned up,” recalls Patty Huttunen. Patty and her husband, Hemmo, lived on South Danby Road in Spencer – affectionately known in the early days as “Finn Boulevard” since all its residents were either Finnish or married to a Finn.

When the families first got together, a lot of Finnish was spoken during their meetings. But parents also wanted their children to assimilate and appreciate their new homeland, so they strongly encouraged kids to learn and speak English. My father, John Koskela, learned English when he started school in
Trumansburg.

A musical legacy
Folk dancing and music were always important aspects of their social gatherings, and they loved sharing their culture with the local community. There was an active folk dance group of eight to 10 couples that always performed at the Ithaca Festival. Today, the local band of Finnish Americans called Toivo (“Hope”) continues to play traditional folk music and polkas on their accordions and fiddles. More recently, they’ve added banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass and drum and have expanded their repertoire to include Cajun, Tex-Mex, Swing and Appalachian music. Jean Alve, the Spencer historian, now retired, was a square dance caller every Friday afternoon at the Ithaca Senior Center for 40 years. While Jean is not Finnish, her husband was, so perhaps the love of Finnish culture infiltrated her life.

Music has been an integral part of the Finger Lakes Finns, and remains a vital link between generations. Jason Koski plays in Toivo with his father, Richard; and Jason’s daughter has learned Finnish tunes on the piano. Katrina Mackey, daughter of Carl and Raili Washburn, fondly remembers the music and folk dancing of her childhood, including one festival in particular. “It was at the former Women’s Community Building in Ithaca,” she told us. “There was a feeling of celebration in the air, so much dancing, music and food. It was fun running around with the other kids.”

Katrina learned to play the violin as an adult, and her daughter made a kantele, a traditional Finnish stringed instrument also known as a “lap harp.”

Megan Ludgate, a junior in college and recipient of a 2012 Finger Lakes Finns Annual Scholarship Award, is one of the younger people involved with the Finger Lakes Finns. Not unlike many kids of recent generations, Megan had not thought much about her Finnish heritage until she realized what a profound impact her Finnish great-grandmother had on her life. “Although I hardly remember her, she willed her fiddle to my father and brought music back into our lives. Because of her fiddle, my father began playing folk music and from that point forward, it has changed my life in many ways. It kindled my own interest in music, and introduced me to dance. I began playing Finnish music on the flute, which has opened doors for me to explore other parts of my heritage. As I grew older, I realized how much of my life was influenced by my heritage, including our Finnish-style sauna.”

Megan has paid it forward by playing Finnish music for others with her father, Michael Ludgate, and Katrina Mackey.

While some members of the Finger Lakes Finns have moved to other areas of the country, they feel so strongly connected to their Finnish roots in our area that they retain their membership. Doris Corbin of Jamestown said she enjoys “reading the newsletter about people and the area doings, even though I cannot attend.” Her brother, Frank Gottberg, is active in Finnish American Culture in Southern Michigan, but returns to Trumansburg to see old friends, the Finlanders, and former classmates. Al Saikkonen attended Ithaca High School and Syracuse University, and still works in Syracuse during the summers. “Although I moved away from the Trumansburg area 45 years ago, I feel a connection to my Finnish heritage through newsletters and media info from the Finger Lakes Finns,” he commented.

Finns who have stayed or moved into the area, like Ristiina Wigg, enjoy the monthly meetings, participate in Finnish language classes and the annual “Finnishing Touches” craft fair, learn about contemporary Finland, and attend local concerts like the ones being held this year in celebration of the Sibelius 150 Jubilee.

One young family from Finland was staying in Philadelphia and came to the Finger Lakes to attend Juhannus. The traditional music, food, kokko (bonfire), sauna, and community made them feel at home. They told us it was the most Finnish experience they had while
visiting the United States.


by Karen Warfle