Little bit of local Finn history is on the road

by Anne Swenson

The Ely area has a number of people and businesses that sell items on eBay. Most transactions are successful, a rare few leave a bad taste and then there are the unusual encounters...<BR><BR>When I offered some wooden fishing gear on eBay this fall, I received a request to withdraw one item and donate it to a soon-to-be museum.<BR><BR>The item was a homemade wood fishing reel. It was found in the Winton house which my family owned in the 1970s. The house had earlier been owned by Nick Kuitunen who had worked in the grocery department of the St. Croix (lumber company) Store in Winton earlier that century. <BR><BR>His family had used the home as a boarding house, complete with a sauna over the Shagawa River, a building which is still there. Near the back alley was a tiny garage with a small loft. It was there that the homemade reel and other fish-related items were found. Kuitunen had carved a fish cleaning board out of a three foot plank that was three inches thick and made a fish scraper too.<BR><BR>The man who spied the wood reel on eBay was Gene Kangas who was then trying to start a Finnish Heritage Museum in Fairport Harbor, Ohio. He and I corresponded via email and before long he asked if he could have all the remaining Kuitunen fishing items to display. <BR><BR>It took a while to find a big enough box, but he now has the items along with an old copy of the “Winton Historical Booklet” which was published in 1976. <BR><BR>Upon receiving the material Kangas wrote, “I think the reel must have held a long line that had hooks on it. The line was baited and set out for the night. Then it could be brought in each morning to see if there were any fish on it. The lines are called various things - night lines, trout lines, etc. This was something done by people who needed fish to supplement their diet.<BR><BR>“Everything is obviously handmade by someone who valued being economical and was self-sufficient, qualities of a true Finn. I especially appreciate the copy of the article you sent. I know that our webmaster would be very interested in using the material in the article to do an edited version for our museum website. Can you provide contact information for the publication? Would you happen to know if the photographs in the article might also be available?<BR><BR>“Regarding the wonderful fishing items you sent, the combination scaling-board and scaler will make a very interesting display. They are simple, kind of primitive and yet there is an elegant quality to them,” Kangas wrote.<BR><BR>The website, FinnishHeritageMuseum.org, explains, “The Finnish Heritage Museum was established in Northeastern Ohio to preserve Finnish and Finnish/North American Heritage for future generations. Objects selected for our collections will provide all visitors with an opportunity to learn about and better understand Finnish and Finnish/North American history and culture.” <BR><BR>Specifically, the group is “collecting objects that help explain, document, and reflect life in Finland, traveling to North America, and life in North America. How do we define ‘life?’ It means work, play, sport, family, church, etc.; essentially all of the things we do everyday.”<BR><BR>The museum is still seeking items and materials if you are interested in sharing some.<BR><BR>One of the things which has interested me about this area has been the strong influence of the Finns. Winton was teeming with Finns during the heyday of the competitive sawmill yards - St. Croix and Swallow & Hopkins. <BR><BR>Those early settlers were named Reko, Aho, Hill, Mahlamaki, Kuitunen, Niemi, Hokkanen, Ekonen, Laitinen and more. But there were a few Norwegians, Italians and cousin Jacks too. <BR><BR>Ely could brag or scorn its many saloons which brought about the ire of Billy Sunday, but Winton also had them although the majority of Finns scorned them: Ellefson’s Saloon, Peterson’s Saloon, Kearny’s Saloon, Weed’s Saloon and the St. Croix Lumber Co. side’s First & Last Chance Saloon. The latter tempted men on their way to and from work at the mill. It was a lonely time for so many men and so few women to share.<BR><BR>Surprisingly citizens elected women as mayors twice. They supported the Finn Hall and provided theatrical entertainment and a library.<BR><BR>When we lived in Winton many of the old stories were still fresh in the minds of residents. A group of us interviewed many of the old timers and were told tales from their youth of seeing a murder take place from under a wood sidewalk, chewing used and abandoned chewing gum, or men who would buy back their own boots after visiting a certain lady of the evening. <BR><BR>The past seemed a rough and ready time. A bit of the frontier being tamed to build the big houses in big cities throughout the Midwest. A billion or more board feet of lumber were processed there, with over 5,000 men working in 50 or more lumber camps right up to the Canadian border. <BR><BR>It all ended in 1922-3 when the mills were dismantled, many of the houses were moved to Ely and little more than memories remained.<BR><BR>Yet it was the retelling of those memories by those good people which first introduced us to living in the northland. <BR><BR>Giving these few small treasures to a museum to be shared with others is a debt we willing pay.<BR><BR>