Welcome to Finland, Michigan

The night before our flight to Isle Royale we stayed in the small city of Hancock, Michigan. Upon driving into city we noticed a few things: The Finnish Mutual Insurance Company, street signs that were in English and Finnish, and Finnish flags, to name a few. When we checked into our hotel we got the usual speech. Don’t smoke in the room, breakfast goes until 9am, pool hours and sauna hours. Sauna? Our hotel has a sauna? That’s definitely a Finn-thing. There was clearly a heavy Finnish influence in the area. I was intrigued.

My dad was Finnish – well, half Finnish (the other half Irish, on his mom’s side). While my ancestry is mixed quite thoroughly (Irish, Finnish, English, Swedish, German and Italian, to be exact), that 25% Finnish has always been a bit of a curiosity to me, though I’ve never really taken the time to research it. Unfortunately, since we were departing the next day for Isle Royale, we did not have a chance to explore the area to discover anything about the connection. After our return, however, we spent a second night in town and decided that before leaving we would explore that connection.

Hancock has a rich Finnish history and is the home of Finlandia University. The University, which was founded in 1896 as Suomi College, also houses the Finnish American Heritage Center. That was our first stop.

Inside the main foyer hung a painting titled Christ in the Garden. Upon closer inspection we discovered it was an alter painting from the Finnish Congregational Church of Quincy, Massachusetts. I had no idea such a place existed, but the artist, Matti Karna, had spent time in New England.

We looked around a bit. There were a few exhibits in the lobby, but the building seemed quite empty. A sign pointing upstairs indicated offices for the Director of the Center; The Finnish American Reporter; and the Honorary Consul of Finland. That turned out to be all one person.

James Kurtti was in his office upstairs, and we had seemingly saved him from a long winded telephone call. He welcomed us in, and apologized for the “mess” (looked like an office to me), as he was taking advantage of a quiet, rainy day to do some organizing. We were interrupting. Still, he was happy to speak with us about the local history and Finnish culture and gave us quite a bit of his time, which was very much appreciated.

He provided a bit of history for the university, the area, and the center itself, plus the latest edition of the Finnish American Reporter. Additionally, he gave me information about organizations in Massachusetts that I can connect with when I return home if I’d like to explore some local Finnish culture.

When I mentioned wanting to visit Finland (and a trip from a few years ago that never quite materialized), he strongly recommended finding family members still in the country and connecting with them first before going. Knowing people in the country will allow for a much richer experience. He gave me some tips on how to accomplish that, noting in particular that if I can narrow down the village that my ancestors were from that the church would have really good records and be able to assist me. I do have some genealogy records from one of my dad’s cousins, so I may just do that.

As for how Hancock became Little Finland? Some say that the Finns were drawn to Michigan for the climate, which is much like Finland. But the reality is, they couldn’t have known that in advance. They came to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for the mines in the late 1800’s. Copper mining in the Upper Peninsula dates all the way back to the Native Americans. Hancock has a rich, and sometimes ugly history in the mines (some of which our cab driver had shared with us on the ride from Copper Harbor to Houghton Airport the night before).

As we left his office to go explore the exhibits, Sriram casually asked, “What’s with the coffin?” On a large conference table, under a banner from the University was what looked like a very old coffin. Jim replied, “You weren’t supposed to notice that.” He lifted the cover to reveal an intact skeleton. A fascinating story went with it, though the story is not mine to tell.

Downstairs we explored the exhibits which included paintings, photographs, a case of sports memorabilia for Tauno Nurmelo (whose athletic accomplishments rival those of Jim Thorpe), traditional costumes, and musical instruments, as well as a history of mining. Jim found us a bit later and brought me a pack of notecards with Finnish folk characters on them. Perhaps when I get home, I’ll finally read that book of Finnish folklore that a friend of mine gave me some time ago.

It was a very interesting visit. We were extremely glad we stopped in.

Quincy Mine

Deciding to keep with the theme, we headed to Quincy Mine, at the Keeweenaw National Historic Park just a ways up the road. Quincy Mine operated for 100 years between 1846 and 1945. We arrived just in time for one of the final tours of the day.

Our guided tour of the mine began with the above ground buildings and facilities, including a visit to the World’s Largest Steam Hoist. The hoist itself and the building that housed it (which included imported tile and an interior that made it a showroom) cost $360,000 to build and was only used for 11 years.

Our guide went on to explain the communication systems used. There were telephones from the hoist building into the mine, but language barriers quickly ruled that system ineffective and dangerous. Lights and bells were the primary communications within the mines.

The second part of our tour would take us into the mine – to level 7 of 92 (most of the levels are now under water). At 9,260 feet deep, the No. 2 shaft is nearly 2 miles deep. Inside the mine is dark and cold (the temperature in the mine remains at a near constant 42 degrees). Before heading down we borrowed miner’s jackets and donned hard hats. To enter the mine we were required to ride a tram that would bring us down a pretty steep incline to a side door, though nothing close to the incline that the miners would have experienced. Miners entered the mine at a 55 degree angle. A cart then brought us into the mine to explore the various elements of the mine and the conditions the miners worked under. Inside the mine is a variety of the equipment they used, and we were given a history of not only the work, the tools, and the methods, but also the conflicts that took place in the mine and between the miners and the company.

It was a truly interesting and unique place. If you’re ever in the area, I would recommend a tour.

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Miners Descending
Mabel Mustonen

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