Newport’s Finnish People
by Joan Chandler

The Finnish Socialist Hall, which was located on Winter Street, Circa 1920. In 1944, Newport Finns became disallusioned with the Socialists, and removed the S from the name on the building. Photo from Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota.

 

In 1960 I was planning to be married. My family could not afford an expensive event, so I asked a talented Newport dressmaker, Katri Palin, to make my wedding gown. For several weeks I visited her modest home on Winter Street to be fitted. Only recently - 48 years later - did I learn that Katri’s home had once hosted clandestine meetings of ardent local Communist Finns.

This intriguing fact is one of many about the Finnish people who settled in Newport beginning in the late 1800s. For roughly 100 years Finnish immigrants played an active role in the local workplaces, carrying with them many beliefs and traditions from the Old Country. Olli Turpeinen of Newport compiled information about this heritage - his heritage - and, in 2001, published a book about this history, The Finns in Newport, NH (Sampo Publishing, Inc.). In his acknowledgments Turpeinen writes, “This work was done at the insistence of Evan Hill, a Newport citizen and writer, who felt that someone should write a history of the Finns in Newport. I was reluctant . . . he finally said (quite forcefully), ‘If you don’t do it, no one else will.’ So I did it.” Turpeinen’s book explains who the Finns were, why and how they ended up in Newport, and what eventually happened to them.

Finnish Ladies made great coffee bread, Circa 1960s.

Although a few hundred Finnish colonists settled in Delaware during the mid 1600s, it was 200 years later when Finns arrived in America in large numbers, anxious to work as laborers in the growing factories and mines. They generally settled northern states, and arrived in Newport in the 1880s. Because their names were difficult for others to pronounce, the Finns often took on more “American-sounding” names. “Bill Johnson” might once have been “Yrjo Liimatainen”! There was no shortage of jobs for these hard workers. Newport’s woolen mills, shoe factory and other local businesses made it a logical and attractive destination.

While the local Finns felt at home in Newport and had no reason to venture far, they did visit Fitchburg, Massachusetts, which had become the center of Finnish activity in New England. They traveled there to purchase their beloved herring or to visit a Finnish drugstore for old country remedies. There the word spread about mills in Newport and other NH towns. It is estimated that there may have been 1,000 Finns here by the 1920s. Most of Newport’s early Finns were laborers and loggers. They were basically conservative and adhered to the old ways of social values and interactions. They were described by others as dour, moody, frugal, humorless; but among themselves they were animated.

Sullivan Street, Sunapee Street, and Canal Street welcomed entire neighborhoods of Finns to their tenement houses. From 1890 to 1950 there was always a boarding house operated by a Finnish woman. Her husband might work in a nearby mill, spending his weekends keeping the house in good repair. Their children worked in the kitchen while the mother cooked meals for the Finnish tenants. Boarding houses were located near the mills to enable workers to walk home for lunch, usually a hearty soup, rye bread, and buttermilk.

Newport Finnish Socialist Band, Circa 1912. Photo from Sulo Kanto.

Saunas (steam baths) were numerous throughout the town. Around 1905 there were several public saunas and many more privately-owned. Since the early sauna had no electricity, the man of the house would stoke its wood fire throughout a Saturday afternoon; the family would bathe later in the day. The meticulous sauna contained a stone hearth, scrubbed handwoven rugs, pegs for hanging clothes. A three-tiered bench occupied one end of the steam room. The truly manly Finn would sit in the intensely hot steam of the third and highest tier. If really grimy, a bather might beat himself with a vihta, a pliant birch branch. Once clean, the more heroic among them dove into a cool brook or rolled in the snow!

The Church and Alcohol were two important issues of local Finns by the late 19th century. An Evangelical Lutheran pastor arrived in 1896 to conduct services. He and successors served in many capacities: weddings, funerals, family recordkeeping, translating and disseminating information and news. Newport’s first Finnish ordained minister, Charles Stenman, expanded church activities; his name appeared frequently in the Argus-Spectator. By 1950 the Finnish church had disbanded, its remaining members turning to the South Congregational.

Finns never quite mastered the art of social drinking. Believing that alcohol was good for the appetite and bodily strength, many drank excessively. Temperance societies were formed by sober-minded Finns hoping to preserve local families’ integrity and to counsel the drinkers. In 1910 the Independent Temperance Society was given land by Dexter Richards & Son. On this small piece of property the Sunapee Street Hall, or Temperance Hall, was built, mostly by volunteers. The hall was a source of pride to its people. The building was plain and solid. Even today the building - now Sunapee Street Bedding - retains its construction integrity. Offices, meeting rooms, a heating source, the ravintola (restaurant), and storage took up the 1st floor; the second floor was open for dancing, meetings, and athletic training. Across the Sugar River from the hall the Finns built a park, usually referred to as Finn Park. It provided an athletic field and hosted picnics and festivals.

Finnish Atheletes at Finn Park across the Sugar River.

The Winter Street Hall was built in 1910 by the Newport Finnish Socialist Society. Evidently the Socialists wished to separate themselves from the Temperance people (and vice-versa). This hall was larger and fancier than the Sunapee Street Hall.

Young Finns did not think politically upon arrival in Newport. Many of them became the core of the Finnish Socialist Federation. A smaller number drifted toward Communism. Both groups loved speakers, and local or regional orators visited from hall to hall lecturing about temperance, the sciences, and religion. Although Socialist and Communist Finns lived and worked side by side, their philosophical differences became less tolerable after the success of the Russian Revolution in 1917. When the Communists gained more power and local validity they bought the Sunapee Street Hall from the Temperance Society. The Hammer and Sickle adorned the red flag on its stage. Cell meetings were held in the sauna at Hjalmar Palin’s home (see Introduction). Members received guidance from Elba Chase Nelson, a leading New Hampshire Communist, at her farm in Washington.

By the 1940s things were changing for the local Finnish population. Older members had died, workers had migrated to plants in neighboring states. The Sunapee Street Hall was gutted. It was becoming uncomfortable to be (or admit to being) a Communist. One local Communist laborer was said to have applied for US citizenship. The FBI, investigating his background, interviewed the man’s employer, George Dorr. Mr. Dorr said he didn’t wish to fire the man because he was an excellent worker.

The front of the Winter Street Finn Hall. Note that the “S” is missing from the letters at the top. This photo was taken in 1979, shortly before its demolition due to it’s state of disrepair. Richards Library photo.

Socialism among local Finns was also suffering. Squabbles within the national organization, aggressive recruitment by the Communists, and other factors threatened the society. A more intellectual Socialism had replaced the working-man’s philosophy. Grumbling could be heard about government relief programs - thought by many to be Socialistic. The Socialists were “leading the country straight to Hell.” As a result, the Winter Street Hall’s sign was slightly altered. Originally it read “F.S. HALL (Finnish Socialist Hall). But in 1945 the “S” was removed. Gradually the building itself fell into disuse and was sold. It became a derelict property and was eventually demolished.

The Newport Finns excelled at farming. They understood land and farm animals. Unrelenting workers, the Finnish farmers taught their children the value of hard work. Those lessons stood the children in good stead during their later years in the mills. Some of the more prosperous farmers included August Akkola, whose farm was in Pollard’s Mills; Matti Pollari, located on the Old Springfield Road, Kaarle Lehtinen of North Newport; and John Wirkkala, whose meticulous dairy farm sat on Oak Street overlooking the Sugar River.

Finns were excellent farmers and owned a number of dairy farms in the Newport area.

Nowadays, although there are some local Finnish descendants in Newport, it is rare to hear two Finns greet each other in their native tongue. Second-generation Finns are senior citizens, and are disappearing. For a long time, Finns were important to the labor movement. They added a special touch to the town, especially in the areas of Sunapee Street and Canal Street. Today, sadly, some Finnish descendants are only remotely aware of their heritage and its contributions to Newport.

Olli Turpeinen is one of those second-generation Finns, one who certainly knows about - and takes a great deal of pride in - his Finnish ancestry. This knowledge is presented with sincerity and wry humor at his tidy and memorabilia-filled farm on Newport’s Maple Street Extension, where he carries on the Finnish tradition of hard work at his Christmas tree farm.