Building a Place for Finnish Heritage to Thrive

Duane: When I was growing up in Oulu, Wisconsin, everywhere you went there were people speaking the Finnish language. Finnish sounds and refrains were around every corner. I remember going to the co-op store in Iron River as a kid. There’d always be these old-timers sitting on a bench by the door, passing time, speaking in Finnish.

Photos by Megan Monday

Duane & Barb | Oulu, WI

“Those old-timers would talk about how they could walk around all day long and could hardly see the sky here because of the tree canopies.It’s not like that now, but before harvesting all the timber, the white pines were so thick that you could hardly see glimpses of the sun. Can you imagine?

Oulu, and most of Northern Wisconsin, resembled Finland a lot back in the mid and late 1800s, which were the two main periods of immigration of Finns to America. They came here because it looked so much like home. That’s the romantic version, anyway. But Finns were really a very practical people and this was one of the last undeveloped, unsettled areas that was left in the state.

The Finns immigrated because there was extreme poverty back in Finland. They still practiced the feudalism system of primogeniture, which meant that the eldest son received everything when the parents passed and the rest of the family members couldn’t own any land, had nothing to build themselves up with. At the same time, there was a contentious relationship with Russia, who was controlling the country, affecting Finnish culture, and imposing a mandatory conscription into the Russian army.

In Wisconsin, there was employment in the mines and in the logging industry, which unfortunately was also rapidly depleting the pinery that had covered the state. So it wasn’t the best employment, but Finns were very good workers. Their lifespan was so short because they were working in the mines and other intolerable conditions, and they didn’t make much money—a dollar a day, maybe. But their goal was to earn property, so they earned enough money doing those kinds of manual labor jobs until they could start farming on their own land here in the north.

They brought their culture along with them, and this area of Wisconsin became known for the Finnish language, excellent log building skills, the sauna, Finnish foods, and a strong work ethic.

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Barb: When my mother was young, she was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. This was in a Finnish settlement in Oulu, and the schoolhouse had a milkman come do delivery every day. My mom and the milkman got to talking before school, and he started coming by earlier and earlier. Eventually he started lighting the fires for her in every morning before school started. That milkman became my father.

My sisters and I grew up on a farm. Things were rustic, I guess you’d say. We didn’t have running water until I was 12. We always had to pump it. My sisters and I would get the option of what chores we wanted to take—cleaning inside or outside chores—and I always chose the outdoor ones. I didn’t mind working and I loved being in nature, so I would carry in the wood and go down to the barn and feed the cows, cats, and other animals. While Daddy was milking I would be pushing down bales of hay, or playing in them, or he would teach me how to braid binder twine for rope.

Before we got our tractor, we had horses to do the work. We had a horse named Rocky. When I was really young and I knew daddy was just about done in the field, I’d run out and he’d put me up on top of Rocky and I’d ride him home.

My parents didn’t leave the farm very often, but when they did, my mom, being the teacher she was, would write our chores up on the blackboard in chalk. We had to have them done before they got home. We lived on the bottom of two hills, and you can see far up to the road. So while they were gone doing errands, we’d play, but one of us would always be spotting for cars. If we saw our parents’ car coming over the hill, well you wouldn’t believe how much can get done in five, ten minutes.

Every Saturday morning we’d have that list of chores, which developed wonderful work ethic in us. Saturday was wash day, and Daddy would go down to the river and fill three big whiskey barrels and drag them up by the sauna. He’d start the sauna and heat up the water, and my mom would use the ringer-washer to wash all the clothes while she had ten loaves of bread rising in the house. On Saturday nights, after all the chores, Grandma, Grandpa, and Uncle Johnny would come over and we’d have sauna and fresh bread.

We didn’t get our first TV until ’55 or ’56, something like that. I remember because that’s when I first saw Elvis. I was so smitten that I went down to the outhouse and wrote E-L-V-I-S on the wall with my sisters lipstick. She was not thrilled—I’d used her only lipstick—but it was the first name I learned how to spell.

When I was a little older, Daddy built us a big playhouse outside. In the summertime, we’d all sleep out there sometimes, ‘cause Daddy said he liked hearing the raindrops. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had everything we needed and more than enough love to go around.

Duane: I grew up on a small dairy farm, like most of us did up here in Oulu. My father worked on the railroad, my mother did the farm chores, and we kids made the hay. We didn’t have much, but back then, nobody considered themselves poor because everyone was pretty much in the same boat.

The Finns were adept at making pretty much everything they needed. They didn’t have any money to buy anything, so they made it. They’re very closely tied to their natural resources. I call them the first recyclers. Never threw anything away, they just used and reused.

One example is when I was young, and we used to play a lot of baseball for entertainment. We had a town team, so us kids would go down to the game and sit by the sidelines and wait until somebody broke a wooden bat. When they broke one they’d throw it to the side. That’s when we’d scramble up to collect it, put some wood screws in it and some electrical tape, and use it again.

If we didn’t have enough kids to play baseball, we’d play scrub or invent our own game. We also spent a lot of time fishing. We would bike down to the fishing holes in the river and lay on the bank and throw your pole in. Sometimes we’d go swimming in the river, and there was always one neighbor kid that would go swimming just as soon as the ice went out on the river.

One of my favorite things to do as a kid, and still today, is to go take sauna. The sauna is as Finnish a tradition as you can get. My grandparents’ sauna wasn’t insulated, so it took quite a bit to heat it. We’d carry water from the well house. It usually took several hours to get it hot enough. Then you’d go up on the benches, throw your water on top of the rocks, and create steam.

It’s hard to explain how good you feel when your pores open up from that steam. In the wintertime, my brother and would take as much steam as we could, and then we’d run out bare naked and dive into the snow and roll around. The most exhilarating part is knowing that your heart was actually going to start back up again when you got back into that warm sauna and the snow would melt off.

Back then, your world was very small. In the winter, if it snowed, you weren’t going anywhere without skis or a horse-drawn sleigh. Even in summer, you had one car, and Dad had that at work, so either you walked or you took your bicycle.

You didn’t go to the doctor unless you were in pretty bad shape, so there were a lot of home remedies that we used. I used to get earaches all the time when I was a kid, so I’d put some sweet oil in there with some cotton and put a hot water bottle on it. I had poison ivy pretty bad one time, and my aunt gave me these purple crystals and told me to dissolve them in water and dab it on with a washcloth. Within one day, it was gone. Potassium permanganate. Later in life, I asked for some more at Walgreens, and she looked at me and said, ‘Well, we can’t sell you that stuff. They make explosives out of that!’

Growing up we were remote, so it was not an easy life, but it was a good life. We had to help our neighbors out, we depended on each other. Nowadays, I sometimes feel like there’s too many ‘me’ people and not enough ‘we’ people.’ But in Oulu at that time, we learned a strong work ethic and we helped each other out when people needed help.

Duane: Barb and I were in high school together. I was the senior student council president and she was the little freshman representative on the student council.

Barb: I was always impressed with how Duane operated on the council, and my mother was so impressed with his intelligence. In fact, my mother and Duane’s aunt were friends, and they were always conniving to try and get Duane to college because he was so bright. But there wasn’t really any money for college in the family.

Then, when Duane was a senior in high school, his dad was in a terrible accident. His dad worked in the railroad, and it was icy. He slid underneath a train and got both legs and some fingers cut off. He survived. After that, his dad was set on Duane going to college, too, so he didn’t have to do dangerous physical labor. Suddenly, with some insurance money, they were able to send him.

Education has always been extremely important to both of us. My entire family is in education, from one-room schoolhouse teachers to administrators. As for me, I became a phys-ed teacher. I’m also a Sunday school teacher and I went back to get my Master’s in guidance.

Duane: I went to college and eventually spent my career as a field biologist in the water program with the Wisconsin DNR. Conservation and history were always primary interests of mine.

The name Wisconsin means gathering of water; we’re surrounded by water. As a young person I saw what was occurring down in more developed areas of the state, and it became important to me to try to keep what we have up north here. The progressive loss of our resources is tragic. You can’t replace that. If you can’t breathe the air or drink the water, what difference does it make how much money you have? So in my career, I worked to try and protect against the disappearance of our natural resources up here.

As the years went on, I could also see the disappearance of many elements our our Finnish culture, as well. The language was leaving. As I got older I heard fewer and fewer fluent speakers. The old timers passed on, and with it, the language. Next, numerous Finnish structures were disappearing, torn down or falling down due to disrepair.

I got it in my mind that I wanted to try and save something while there was still something left to save for future generations. I wanted to try to retain a little piece of what it was like when we grew up.

When my grandparents passed, they left a traditional Finnish homestead called the Palo Homestead. I remember passing so many afternoons in that kitchen, talking with my grandma. There’d always be coffee and something good to eat. But she passed when she was 92, and the homestead sat vacant for 26 years afterward, falling into disrepair itself.

I realized that preserving that homestead would be a great start to preserving our heritage. So in 1997, I bought the entire homestead, had it restored and listed on the national historic registry.

We formed the Oulu Historical Society in 2003, and I was the first president. Oulu had its centennial in 2004, and we had historic tours, including that old homestead. People loved that thing so much. We even registered with the Century Farm Registry.

So then we started having our historical society meetings in the Palo House, and my mind started clicking that, “Jeez, we could really use a little more room…,” so we looked for another restoration project. We went on to purchase and restore traditional buildings all over Oulu. We now move them here, near the Palo homestead, to our new Oulu Cultural and Heritage Center.

But preserving the physical structures was just the first step.

Duane: Our second restoration was the Pudas House, which is Barb’s great grandparents’ house they built then when they immigrated from Lapland.

Barb: My dad’s parents immigrated from Finland in their teens. My grandpa was a miner for a while and my grandma was a housemaid. They built their own home, the Pudas House. One of the stories that gets told about it was that when it was just one story tall and still being built, a horrible wind came and lifted it up. That wind moved it eight feet to the side, in a different position. My grandpa said, ‘Well, God must have wanted it there!’ So they put the foundation under it, two more stories on top, and that’s where it stayed.

Duane: It was in such disrepair when we bought it, the roof caving in and the walls. [Editor’s note: Duane and Barb are standing in front of the restored Pudas House in the photo above.] People have told me, “You spend a lot of money on these old buildings.” I said, “Well, you know something? They print money every day, but they don’t build buildings like this any more.” I would take side jobs after I retired to try and keep things going.

People could see the value in what we were doing pretty quickly, and we tried to get people to lend their expertise to our overall goal. Now, we have a small but very dedicated volunteer force, and we’re trying to get a youth movement involved because we want our work here to be carried forward.

One of our board members, Erika Suo, is the go-getter with our youth through our educational program. She said she wanted to do it on a one-week pilot project to see how it went, and it was very well-received. So this year we expanded it to three weeks, and every session was full and oversubscribed. We’ve got kids coming from Eau Claire and even Minnesota. They meet in the schoolhouse we restored, and they learn the culture, the stories, the skills, and the language.

Barb: Since I love education, I also volunteer here at the Heritage Center. I teach the kids how to do things the way we used to, like how to wash clothes by hand, using a scrub board and a metal agitator. I teach about heating the sauna and using the hot water to wash their clothes, and how people first built the sauna so they could have heat and then started eating, sleeping, and bathing in there. I could tie that sensory experience to our history, which is so valuable.

We also made pannu kakku, which is a Finnish oven pancake, and had someone work with the kids on sewing. We have treadle sewing machines, which we start the kids on before we put them on the automatic sewing machines. It’s a thrill for kids, because it’s so mechanical.

Duane: We’re trying to establish a Finnish language renaissance here. My grandmother, who I called Aiti (which means grandmother in Finnish) is the one I hold most responsible for my retention of the Finnish language. She rarely spoke to us in English. In my class as a kid, about 80 percent of the Finnish kids spoke Finn. In my brother’s class, about three years later, it was probably five percent. It happened that fast. So now we’re trying to build it back up.

With all of these efforts, I want to keep our heritage alive. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish so far. I look around and see so many people who care about the Finnish culture. I open my ears and it’s unbelievable to me to hear my grandkids saying even a few words of Finnish. I’m telling you, it’s music to my ears.

-Duane and Barb | Oulu, WI

Pulla- Finnish Cardamom Bread (based on Effie Laukkanen’s recipe in the Oulu Heritage Cookbook)

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