By Tucker Henderson
Special to the Dispatch
I recently wrote a college essay on why Finnish immigrants choose the New York Mills and Heinola, and Topelius area as their permanent home within the United States. I have tweaked and edited it to sound less academic as I don’t enjoy reading dense works like that and I doubt you do either. Here is why more Finns choose New York Mills and Heinola rather than say Perham, Ottertail, or Henning.
After the “Yankee” timbermen of the New York Mills Company went looking for other economic ventures after the sawmill’s closing, Finns settled this area in the late 1800s and early 1900s and started to farm. This area is still a large farming region and many of you readers are of Finnish descent.
There are a few reasons that Finnish immigrants choose this area to settle and start farms and families. One compelling reason was the fact that the Minnesota landscape closely resembles much of Finland. Both are (or were) largely forest, covered by many lakes, and have a similar climate. Many Finns felt at-home or at least as at-home as they could in a foreign country. One early Finnish-American newspaper editor in New York Mills, Rev. J. W. Lahde, suggested that the town be renamed “Uusi Suomi” which means “New Finland” in Finnish.
Once the first Finns settled here in the 1874, many more Finns followed. Large “Finn-towns” such as Duluth, Virginia, and Finland, Minnesota attracted even more Finns. This same effect happened with Heinola and New York Mills. All businesses in the two villages were run by Finns and business was conducted in the Finnish language. Most businesses began with a Finnish name which was later translated into English as pioneer’s descendants learned English in school. Many businesses had both English and Finnish signs well into the 1970s and perhaps later in New York Mills.
One last reason that Finns were attracted to this area of Minnesota was that in the early years of Finnish immigration to the United States (roughly 1865-1920), land in Southern Minnesota had already been taken for homestead land. My ancestors, Isak and Klaara Piippo, first came to Holmes City, Minnesota in Douglas County to live with Isak’s brother. He was unable to find any available land in the area to file a homestead application on, so he moved the family to Heinola in Otter Tail County where land was still available.
Modern remnants of the area’s ethnic history still exist. Finn Creek Open Air Museum is located in the Heinola area and showcases what life was like in an early 1900s Finnish community. The farmhouse was built by Finnish immigrants around the turn of the 20th century and many buildings were built by Finns and moved in after the museum started in 1975. Place names such as Jaaska’s Corner, the Piippo Arola road, and Salo’s Hill all bare the Finnish settlers’ names of that location. Central Park in New York Mills has a plaque honoring the Finnish pioneers in both languages. The Apostolic Lutheran Church in New York Mills still has older members that speak Finnish as it was their mother-tongue at home. The altar within the church bears the letters “A.L.S.K.” which stand for Apostolis Luteralainen Seurakunnan Kirkko which is Finnish for the Apostolic Lutheran Congregation’s Church. Many more remnants remain and so does a rich history.