Finnish People Emigrated to Better Land--Friendship, Maine

By Audra Emerson, written for
Contact Literature:  Native American and Emigrant Stories, Final Project, Spring 2002, University of Maine

"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."
-Eleanor Roosevelt-

 This quote from Eleanor Roosevelt has always been a favorite, and upon discovering the past of my family it seemed only fitting that this be how the story was opened.  The story of Jacob and Elizabeth Seppala is one of true courage, tragedy, inspiration, and faith.  It starts in Finland in the late eighteen hundreds, roughly 1888, when Jacob Seppala freshly married to the beautiful Elizabeth has started a humble homestead to farm and raise a family. Elizabeth became pregnant with their first child, and their life seemed to be unfolding into what they had always dreamed of, the land was rich for farming, and they had a miracle on the way.  Unfortunately, in 1889 there was a fire that engulfed their barn and after demolishing it moved onto their house before it could be controlled. While there is no record of how this fire started, the devastation it brought to Jacob and Elizabeth is un-measurable. Not only did they lose everything they had built so far, their barn, house, and stock, but they also lost the only thing left of value, their child. Elizabeth took sick, possibly from all the smoke she had inhaled and lost the baby to a miscarriage one month later. 
When the question is asked "Why did the Finns immigrate?" There are a few answers to be found.  First, is a quote from the book Finne, The Finns Among Us , this quote is written in Finnish and translated to English. 

Pellot ovat palijaina, vainiot vaikeroivat, silla sato on tuhotta, viini kuivunut oljy ehtynyt. 
The field is wasted, the land mourneth, for the corn is wasted: the new wine is dried up, the oil languisheth.

This is the main reason why many Finnish people emigrated to better land, they believed that if they were to make a prosperous living it would no longer be in Finland. Another reason the Finnish people left their homeland was due to "increasing demands for "Russification" by the hated Czarist government. This created visions among the Finnish subjects of ever increasing numbers of conscripts for the Russian army and diminished civil rights at home."  We very often tend to forget the Finland that was our forefatherís home was governed by class distinctions and racial prejudice.  It was rare that you would ever see a wealthy family emigrate, but at the same time the poorer classes were left with very few other options. 
 While Jacob and Elizabeth had come from a wealthy line, the fire destroyed everything they had and thrust them into a class with a much lower rank in their society. At this time of despair Jacob was subjected to the misgivings of Matti Kurikka, a man who would be responsible for the immigration of thousands upon thousands of Finnish people. He was a Russian educated man with a passion for words. He talked of the mystic nature of the ancient Finns. He took his knowledge of Kalevala, a work written by Helena P. Blavatsky on the her belief that the "archaic oral traditions of the Finns was in perfect Harmony with the mystic Wisdom Religion of her revealed philosophy."  With her teachings in mind Kurikka spread this knowledge and encouraged the Finnish people to move to a place where their glory could be worshipped, out from under the rule of the Russian Government. 
These words got into the mind of Jacob Seppala at a time when he most needed the encouragement to start over, so with their dreams shattered and Elizabethís health in a threatened state, Jacob decided that they would move on to the land of opportunity.  They started their journey to America in 1901.
Oi sie kaareva venonen pursi puinen hankaniekka! Ootko kaunis kannannalta kun oot kaunis katsonnalta 

O you strong ribbed little boat wooden craft with tough rowlocks are you fair at carrying as youíre fair to look upon?

            There were 259,000 Finns that immigrated to North America between the years of 1900-1923, and the only option available for crossing the Atlantic Ocean was by large steamship companies that regularly sailed the ports in England. In 1883 the Finland Steamship Company was formed, it was often called the F.A.A, Finska Angfartygs Aktiebolaget in Swedish. The Finnish name for this company was Suomen Hoyrylaiva Osakeyhtio.  When Jacob decided to emigrate he did what all of our Finnish ancestors did and went to the nearest F.A.A agency and collected tickets on the next Steamship leaving for North America. Most of our ancestors, including Grandpa Seppala, opted for 3rd class, or maybe a better description is could only afford 3rd class! They had no real choice of what Steamship or the date of departure, the F.A.A made the decision depending on their profit margins and schedules. While the information I have on the actual journey of Jacob an Elizabeth Seppala across the Atlantic Ocean is limited I found an actual description of a journey of a similar Finn in the book "Finne, the Finns Among Us." 
"Ötold me that Arthur Kajander, age 25, purchased a ticket ($54.00) from Turka, Finland to Waukegan, Illinois USA. The ship from Finland to England Arcturus, 19 Aug.1903. Ship from England: Etruria, 19.Aug 1903. Ocean Line: Cunard Line. Destination port: New York."

While 54 dollars may not seem like a lot now, it was roughly 1000 dollars to our 
Finnish ancestors, per person. Not to mention that 3rd class on these steamships was a step above being a stowaway.  A small trivia fact: There were 63 Finns onboard the Titanic the day it went down, of the 63 only twenty survived the fateful day. Here are a few charts outline the number of Finns leaving Finland at this time and in what direction they were heading.

 The journey of my grandfather is lost with my ancestors and while they are dead and cannot tell me of this journey, I learned much from my Grandmother Pitcher regarding their journey to a new life once they arrive in the America. With a fresh outlook and a whole new dream, Jacob and Elizabeth arrived empty handed on Ellis Island in the May of 1901.  With only the money that they had borrowed from friends and family, the couple immediately sought out work to start their new life. Jacob found a job as a teamster, driving a six-horse buggy pulling goods from one side of the city to the other, while Elizabeth got a job as a seamstress in a factory close to their humble dwellings.  When they had finally saved the money needed to pursue their dream of a life on a prosperous farm with a family of their own, the pulled up their newfound roots in New York and headed west. Jacob had heard that the climate in Minnesota was much like the climate of Finland so they set their course for the farming land of small village outside of St. Paul. 
 My ancestors were not the only ones with this idea, in 1900 the census data indicates that Michigan had 18,910 Finnish immigrants, and Minnesota had 10,727. These were the leading to states for Finnish immigrants with Massachusetts (5,104) and New York (4,048) in third and fourth place. In 1900 the United States had a total of 62,641 Finnish immigrants. 
 When Jacob and Elizabeth reached Minnesota they immediately began to focus on making a homestead for themselves. It was not long after they arrived that they were blessed with the birth of their first daughter Sadie. Things were going well for the Seppalaís their farm was prospering and their family was healthy and growing. With their daughter Sadie now 5, Elizabeth was pregnant again with their second daughter Helen. It was after the birth of Helen that things started to go down hill for the Seppalas. Helen was born with a lung disorder, Jacob and Elizabeth decided that they would relocate to Massachusetts, closer to Boston, so Helen could see a specialist and get the care that she needed. Once again the Seppala family uprooted themselves and set out to start again. They settled in Fitchburg, Massachusetts where there was a prominent Finnish community already growing in numbers. They remained here for the next fifteen years, in this time Helen made many visits with her father to Boston to see a specialist and her health was thriving, Elizabeth gave birth to daughter number three Sigrid, their first son Walter (Oiva), and their fourth daughter Ester. 
 When Helen had a clean bill of health from her doctors Jacob decided it was time to again pursue his dream of farm and family, so he set off in search of a new place to settle. His search brought him to Maine, he had heard of  community of Finnish people that had been settled on the coast of Maine and were farming the land, fishing the waters, and helping each other get along. He came to this place after crossing the Kennebec river in Bath by ferry, seeing that there wasnít any bridge at the time. He ended his journey in Friendship, Maine after visiting the community, meeting with the Finnish Congregational Church, and finally purchasing a farm for his family to live on. 
 Jacob returned to Fitchburg and to Elizabeth with the news of his find. Later that month the family of seven again packed their belongings and made the not so long journey from Fitchburg, MA. to Friendship, ME.  It was here that their youngest child Elsie was born.  Their family now complete and living the life they had always dreamed was again struck by tragedy. One day while out plowing the fields he worked so hard to maintain, Jacob suffered a heart attack and died at the young age of forty-five. Knowing that she could not keep the farm going and take care of her six children on her own, it was not long before Elizabeth had to remarry. She married a man named Matt Anderson, also a prominent Finnish family in the area. It was Matt Anderson who built the house that I currently live in.  Accordingly, being a better carpenter than a farmer, Matt and Elizabeth Anderson sold the farm down the road and moved closer to Finn Town, another settlement 4 or 5 miles out of town.  Here they also had a farm, but a much more manageable farm that the children and Elizabeth could run while Matt was working building houses. Finn Town is still there to this day only, it is technically a part of Friendship, it is called Finn Town Road. 
 Jacob and Elizabethís second to last daughter Elsie married a man named Ralph Starret who had immigrated from Finland and moved directly to Maine, a short 5 years earlier.  Ralph and Matt built a farmhouse neighboring that of Elizabeth and Matt, and they started their family. This family consisted of three daughters: Marilyn, Patty, and Mary.  Marilyn is my grandmother, she met my grandfather Ronald Pitcher at the age of 17, and was married at the age of 18.  Again, it was Ralph and Matt that built the house that they still live in to this day. They had two children, my mother Elaine Ester Pitcher, and my uncle Karl Pitcher.  My mother married Terry Warren Emerson and had three children: Jacob (after grandfather Seppala), Stacy, and myself Audra Ryan Emerson.  I feel blessed to know that I can trace my geneology all the way back to the date that my great, great, grandfather Jacob and great, great grandmother Elizabeth came to the United States to start their new life. I hope that someday I can go to Finland and trace my heritage even further back in time. 
 Maine Finns did not have an easy life, this was a whole new climate for them and they were forced to change their ways to suit it. One Finnish minister was  quoted to say we must...
 Laai nyt lattiat laveat, hanki ikkunat isommat, seisottele seinat uuet tee koko
 tupa parempi!

Prepare now floors that are wide fetch windows that are bigger raise walls that are  new, and build a whole cabin that is better!

There is no doubt that the earliest Finnish settlers in Maine were in the Mid-coast region, 
were spread out among the towns of Rockland, Thomaston, Friendship and Waldoboro, there were many other settlements but these were the most prominent in the beginning. They were a very cooperative community, Maine was a hard rugged place and they were willing to help their neighbors in times of need. They turned to the church in times of struggle and the earth to make their way. 
              The Finnish people were known to be of a simple nature. This does not mean simple as in ignorant, but simple as in basic. They had their work they had their leisure and that was all that mattered. They worked hard and when they were done they got together and sang, danced, and feasted.  Many of these dances and recipes have been passed through the generations to me and I know them as my ancestorís new them- soul food and music. I would like to share some of the most popular recipes with you in this project. 
               It has always been said that Finns love their coffee, and it is definitely hereditary, they referred to coffee as "Kahvi leipa", and what is coffee without their coffee bread. This is a bread referred to as "nisu" (nis-shu) or "pulla" bread. This is not a bread in the true sense, itís not eaten with meals or used in sandwiches, but more of like a pastry for special occasions or with their coffee. My family still makes this bread to date, but generally it is reserved for times of celebration such as Christmas and Easter. It always made a great present for my teachers at Christmas time!

Nisu Bread
 2 packages of active dry yeast
 _ cup warm water
 2 cups warm milk
 _ cup sugar
 _ cup butter (softened or margarine)
 1 _ teaspoons salt
 _ teaspoon of ground cardamom
 2 eggs
 7 to 8 cups all purpose flour

                 In a mixing bowl dissolve yeast in warm water, add milk, sugar, butter, salt, and cardamom, eggs, and 3 cups of flour. Beat until smooth, stir in enough flour to form a soft dough. Turn onto a floured surface, knead until smooth and elastic (about 6-8 minutes). Place in a greased bowl, turning once to grease top. Cover and let rise until double in size (about one hour). Punch down. Turn into lightly floured surface, divide in half, then into two sets of three and make braids. Cover and let rise until doubled (45 minutes). Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes. 
             After the bread has cooked many Finns like to jazz up the bread. We personally will drizzle light confectioners frosting over the top with nuts and cherries. While others may add pearl sugar in a dusting or raisins.  But the bread itself is wonderful even without the dressings. I encourage everyone to try it at least once in his or her lifetime.
             One more recipe that we absolutely love is the Finnish oven pancake, known to Finns as "Pannukakku."
 2 cups of milk
 _ cup of sugar
 _ tsp salt
 2 or 3 eggs
 2/4 cup flour
 4 Tbsp butter

              Beat eggs, add sugar, salt, flour, and milk. Melt the butter in the baking pan, and add the batter around the edges of the pan. This will force some of the butter to the top as the pancake rises. Bake in a hot oven at 450 degrees to make the batter puff, but watch to be sure batter doesnít burn, as oven temps vary. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes. Sprinkle confectioners sugar on the top if a sweeter taste is desired. Serve alone or with various berries. Enjoy!
               There is one more thing I would like to share with everyone regarding Finnish heritage that I found interesting. Upon talking with my grandmother about Finland she informed me that the sauna, pronounced "sow-nuh" but butchered by the English language, was brought to the United States from Finland. I had no idea that the origin of the sauna was Finland.  We may be called a simple people, but out simplicities are what make us great!
               Here is a sample of the newspapers that were put out among the Finnish community, they wrote their papers in the Finnish tongue, this translation is a vague one but the point is clear. 

               While I know there is so much more to be discovered, I have enjoyed every minute of the knowledge I have learned regarding my heritage. I have always wanted to research my past, but I have always said "Iíll do it someday"  well I am glad that I had a reason to do it know, and I regret that I havenít done it before.  I take great pride in retracing the steps of Jacob and Elizabeth Seppala, they knew what it was to suffer and yet they went on and followed their dreams of a new land, a new home, and a loving family, those things are family traits that I can still see in my grandmother and mother. There is so much that I will never know because I didnít take the time to discover it when my great aunts and uncles were still alive.  I think everyone should take advantage of the relatives they still have living, because the knowledge they possess about our history can never be recovered!  There is no knowledge like first hand experience!

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