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Window into Yesterday - The Finnish Riviera

Original Kaleva Lodge on Burntside Lake where many high school social events were held.

The Finnish Riviera.

No, not a beach on the Mediterranean. Not someplace in Finland. This is the nickname once given to two and a half miles of shoreline on Burntside Lake near Ely, Minnesota, not because it was “exclusive,” but only because the local Finns bought up the lakeshore lots. Immigrants, nearly all of them.

In the late 1880s, logging, especially of white pine, began in earnest as timber became depleted further east such as in Michigan. After nearly 50 years, the Minnesota forests became largely depleted. The logging companies moved west. Railroads had been granted large tracts of land in northern Minnesota on the premise that tracks would be laid and land would also be developed. These railroads in turn leased or sold land to loggers in the northeast part of the state. Once that land had been logged, it often went up for sale or even tax forfeit. The counties tried to sell off the now barren properties.

Burntside Lake is a spring fed glacial lake, 12 miles long. After logging, much of the lake was devoid of trees, full of logging slash, and rocky outcroppings. Land was offered for sale but there was little interest at first.

Louis White, president of the First National Bank, and Arvid Sundholm, who was a real estate and insurance agent in Ely, had a vision others did not. They purchased a stretch of two and a half miles on the southeast shore for a “dime on the dollar.” The land was surveyed, platted, divided into 100 foot lots, and offered for sale at $100 for 100 feet of shoreline. (This would be about $2,200 today -  even now a bargain for a lakeshore lot.) Sundholm kept a large tract for himself near the beginning of what would become the Van Vac Road. White kept a large piece for himself on the other end, although he never developed it. His widow sold it in the early 1960s.

Other pieces of land besides the tax forfeit ones were similarly cut over. Finns bought most of those as well. Since this was the beginning of the Great Depression sales were slow.  The price of $100 for the 100 foot lots was very hard to come by for Finnish immigrant miners. The dream of a simple cabin and a sauna on the shore kept some of them coming back to their chosen spot. Some even managed to buy more than one lot.

The Van Vac Road as such did not really exist yet- most of it was a narrow, rocky logging trail. Access was by boat.

One of the first purchases of the Sundholm/White plat was by the Knights and Ladies of Kaleva of Ely. This was a fraternal and cultural lodge. They envisioned that such a place would serve their members well with a lodge building, a sauna, with a swimming beach. A large log lodge, a log double sauna (for men and for women), and a caretaker’s or guest cabin were soon built.

My grandfather, Gust Maki, had a men’s clothing store in Ely. Now the middle of the Great Depression the retail business was not brisk. Nonetheless he somehow scraped together $300 for three lots (one of which had no shoreline access because of its rocky nature). He built a three room frame cabin. A sauna and boathouse were constructed with logs mostly salvaged from the lake bottom. Leftovers from the logging days. Furnishings were usually outcasts from home, older furniture, mismatched dishes, old cookware.

My grandmother (always called “Äiti” by her family) often took the smaller children into the sauna. We learned the children’s song “Ukko Nooa” from her (with some variation): “Ukki Noah Ukki Noah, oli hyvä mies. Kun han meni saunan, panen housut naulan, “Ukki Noah, Ukki Noah, ole hyvä mies.”

The words occasionally slip into my head again when I am in the sauna.

A gravel road came about the same time. Gust hired some carpenters (Finnish, of course) to help in building a three room cabin with a screened porch. During the construction, one of the workers had an apparent heart attack. There were no phones, either land line or mobile back then, but someone drove the 10 miles back to town to get a doctor. To no avail, as the man died on what would become the living room floor. My grandmother lived to be 100 and she went to her grave not knowing what had happened at the cabin.

These are the names of the original purchasers of the “Finnish Riviera” lots: Hegman, Pohjola, G. Maki, Tainio, Rova, Anderson, Runn, Siren,Wierimaa, Hokkanen, Niskala, Ranta, R. Maki, Tuomikoski, Kaleva Lodge, Luhtanen, Hanninen, Takkunen, Leino, G. Somero, Enquist, Häkkilä, Niklander, Hegfors, Annala, Niemi, Ahola, Palmgard, Kivipelto, Koivumaki, Hendrickson, Watilo, T. Somero, Kuoppala, Kaija, Mills, Koski, Forselius, Sundholm, Swanson and a few I have not been able to trace. All Finns (except for a few Swede Finns).

My favorite story tells of how Otto Ranta and his wife got their 100 foot lot. Over the years I had put together many displays of local history for the historical society. One day about 20 years ago I removed the artifacts from a display about Ely movie theaters. As I was leaving the building, Mike Mandy, Otto’s grandson, approached me and asked if he could get a photocopy of the Ely Theater building, one that had a movie ticket superimposed in one corner of the picture. The ticket had a number and said “Silver Dollar Days.”

“Let me tell you why,” he said. “My grandparents so wanted a certain lot and had looked at it many times, but they had no way to raise $100. My grandfather worked only three days a month in the mine. But one Saturday night, when Otto was working, Mrs. Ranta went to the movie with some her friends. There was a special drawing that night for $100 and Mrs. Ranta’s ticket had the winning number. When Otto came home from work she held back for a while with her news for a day. “I got it, I got the lot.” (In fact she had already gone to the courthouse and gotten the deed.) He was stunned. “All because you went to the show,” he exclaimed.

Mike said to me, “So now I want to frame that picture for my grandchildren so they will know how we got this place at the lake.”

Most of the cabins are still in the same family, although many of them have been enlarged, replaced, and upgraded. Finnish surnames still predominate after a hundred year. On Eagles Nest Lake One for instance, the Vermilion Co-op Point Park was established. Jointly owned at first, but when the co-op dissolved, members were able to buy lots. Smaller enclaves of other ethnic groups can no doubt be found on other lakes. By 2023 others have come looking for places on the lakeshore. Many seem rather well heeled. This stretch of land could well become a different Riviera in the future.

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