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Challenge Accepted: A Finnish Immigrant Response to Industrial America in Michigan's Copper Country

Challenge Accepted: A Finnish Immigrant Response to Industrial America in Michigan's Copper Country

by Gary Kaunonen

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Michigan's Copper Country, once one of the world's major copper-producing regions, is located on the Upper Peninsula, in the northern reaches of the state. There were active copper mines in the area for 150 years, from 1845 until 1995. Many of the mine workers in this region were immigrants to the United States. Like workers in other low-paying and hazardous


Michigan's Copper Country, once one of the world's major copper-producing regions, is located on the Upper Peninsula, in the northern reaches of the state. There were active copper mines in the area for 150 years, from 1845 until 1995. Many of the mine workers in this region were immigrants to the United States. Like workers in other low-paying and hazardous occupations in the early twentieth century, mineworkers in Copper Country attempted to unionize, in order to obtain better working conditions, wages, and hours.

The Michigan miners were unsuccessful in their struggles with mine owners, which came to a climax in the 1913-14 Copper Country Strike. This nine-month battle between workers represented by the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) and the three major mining companies in the region took a particularly nasty turn on Christmas Eve, 1913, at a party for strikers and their families organized by the WFM. As many as 500 people were in the Italian Benevolent Society hall in Calumet, Michigan, when someone reportedly shouted “fire.” There was no fire, but it is estimated that 73-79 people, more than 60 of them children, died in the stampede for the exit.

Against this dramatic backdrop, Gary Kaunonen tells the story of Finnish immigrants to Copper Country, who arrived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries with little understanding of the American copper mining industry. By examining the written record and material culture of Finnish immigrant proletarians—analyzing buildings, cultural institutions, and publications of the socialist-unionist media—Kaunonen adds a new depth to our understanding of the time and place, the events and a people.

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Michigan State University Press
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A Finnish Immigrant Response to Industrial America in Michigan's Copper Country
By Gary Kaunonen

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2010 Gary Kaunonen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87013-873-7

Chapter One

Finnish Immigration and Settlement in a Hancock, Michigan, Neighborhood

Finnish immigrant socialist-unionists found life in Michigan's Copper Country much like the existence they had left in Finland, but laced with expensive machinery, sometimes pitiful working conditions, and a distinct out-group status. In this chapter, we will examine an author-defined historic neighborhood in Hancock, Michigan, circa 1910. In doing so, we will establish Finnish immigrants in their historic context concerning their unique temporal and spatial framework—affording a "snapshot in time" quality that establishes the period social and cultural demographics of likely people Finnish immigrant socialist-unionists sought to convert into class-conscious workers in the Copper Country between 1904 and 1914.

Emigration from Finland

Between the late 1880s and the early 1900s, the cultural control of czarist Russia, conscription into the Russian army, the influence of Finland's upper class, and the Finnish national church created a paternalistic hierarchy that many Finnish proletarians despised. In addition to social tribulations, Finland was also facing periodic agricultural famines that forced many into a search for more fertile environs. In the mind of many Finns, emigration to America was an answer to socioeconomic problems in Finland. The largest numbers of Finnish emigrants came from Finland's western and northern provinces. These emigrants from the west and north were largely farmers, cottagers, and tenant croppers who were poor, disenfranchised, but semiliterate country people. A lesser segment of Finnish emigrants came from Finland's southern urban centers. These emigrants were tradesmen, factory workers, and intellectuals who were wageworkers. Many of these southern wageworkers were ideologically at odds with the autocratic, imperialist rule of the Russian czar, who controlled Finland as a grand duchy of the Russian Empire until 1917.

The common perception in Finnish American labor history is that many leaders, as well as rank-and-filers, of the early Finnish American labor-political movement came from southern, urban-industrialized areas of Finland in 1905 or thereafter. This year, 1905, is significant because it featured an event that was the climax of a period of social upheaval in Finland. The 1905 General Strike in Finland and the Viapori (Sveaborg) Rebellion, which occurred the following year, cast a long shadow in radicalizing segments of southern Finland's population. The General Strike of 1905, a weeklong affair, saw Social Democrats in Tampere issue a "Red Declaration," while Red Guards in Helsinki attempted to shut down Stockmann's, one of Finland's largest department stores. The Viapori Rebellion, in 1906, saw proletarian Russian soldiers (including ethnic Finns in the Russian Army) and the Finnish Red Guard attempt to overthrow the Russian czarist government at Sveaborg Castle. This attempt at revolution failed, but set an ideological model for proletarian-minded, southern Finnish citizens.

While much of the revolutionary sentiment seemed to be coming from the south of Finland, Elis Sulkanen's Amerikan Suomalaisen Työväenliikkeen Historia indicates that leaders of the Finnish immigrant socialist-unionist movement in America came more from the largely agricultural, nonindustrialized western, northern, and central provinces than from the southern, urban centers. From biographies in Sulkanen's work, of the ninety-one leaders (with birthplaces I was able to identify in Finland) in the Finnish American socialist-unionist movement, fifty-one, or 56 percent, of the leaders came from places in the western, northern, and central regions of Finland. Of this hinterland, thirty-four came from the western and northern provinces of Vaasa and Oulu. Seventeen came from the central/eastern provinces. The balance of the Finnish American labor-political movement's leaders, forty, or roughly 44 percent, came from southern areas, though not necessarily urban or industrial. Whether these people came from the western, northern, or central provinces of Finland as believers in the movement or found this ideology in America is not always clear, but in some cases, people moved from the agricultural hinterland to Finnish cities such as Helsinki, Hämeenlinna, or Tampere prior to making their way to America.

Additionally, it is apparent from Sulkanen's biographies that two years in the early twentieth century saw the largest number of Finnish American socialist-unionist leaders immigrate from Finland, but these two years were not 1905 and 1906. Of the one hundred identified dates of immigration for leaders in the movement from 1888 to 1914, a majority (sixty-four) came within the time span of six years, 1902 through 1907. Of these six years, 1903 (eighteen) and 1902 (fourteen) saw the largest number of immigrant leaders of the Finnish American socialist-unionist movement make their way to America. The years 1907 (thirteen) and then 1905 (eleven) were the next most registered years of immigration from Finland for these labor and political leaders; the years 1904 and 1906 saw only four (each year) of the Finnish immigrant labor-political movement's leaders venture to America. Therefore, characterizing the Finnish immigrant leaders of the Finnish American labor-political movement as having primarily come from the southern, urban centers of Finland during and after 1905 is false. It is more accurate to typify the Finnish immigrant socialist-unionist leaders, and perhaps extrapolate that to the general Finnish immigrant labor-political movement's members as well, by a variety of geographic, occupational, and temporal variables.

As further evidence of the radical movement's permeation of agricultural areas in Finland, Fred Torma, an immigrant to the United States in 1905, stated that he was familiar with socialism from experiences on his father's farm in Parkano parish in the province of Turku-Pori:

At that time even the rural areas began getting speakers of the socialist thought and theory. We had a big workroom at home ... Father rented it out—I don't know if he charged any rent actually—but he gave it to those speakers and other travelers, wandering speakers and performers. Maybe he received a markka each time. I wound up being a speaker's assistant there—when they wanted a glass of water or something like that ... It was Marxist doctrine. The original. They kept coming there and I was a helper. My father received a certain education there also.

Finnish Immigration to America and Houghton County, Michigan

To many outsiders, the Finns immigrating to America seemed to share a predisposition toward social and cultural like-mindedness that bonded them together. Finnish immigrants tended to live in the same area with other Finns, get involved in the same occupations as other Finns, and join the same civic, political, and cultural organizations as other Finns. As Finnish American historian Peter Kivisto wrote:

Finns occupied the status of a definite 'out-group' even though they are White Protestant. They were depicted as "Jack-pine Savages," Mongolians (in 1907, an attempt was made to deny them citizenship by invoking existing anti-Oriental legislation), and violence prone revolutionaries.

Houghton County in Michigan's Upper Peninsula beckoned many of these immigrant Finns. Beginning in the mid-1860s, Finnish immigrants began to settle in Houghton County. These early immigrants did not come in large numbers, nor were they social reformers, but they paved the road into the Copper Country for future waves of Finnish immigrants. Clemens Niemi, a Finnish American historian, wrote: "It was not until about 1861 that we might say the actual immigration from Finland to have begun. At this time, according to the old settlers, a group of Finns from Sweden and Norway where they had been engaged in mining and fishing arrived in Houghton County. These pathfinders came from northern Finland originally and they were followed by friends and relatives." As successive waves of Finnish immigrants arrived in Houghton County starting around the mid-1880s, many newly arrived Finnish immigrants followed their predecessor compatriots into the Lake Superior copper mines. The first Finnish immigrants to arrive in Houghton County in the 1860s were familiar with mining from work in northern Sweden and Norway. As more Finnish immigrants arrived from Finland proper, the level of skill and knowledge in the extractive industries dramatically decreased with the incoming Finnish immigrant population.

The Finnish immigrants streaming into Copper Country industry were a sort of tabula rasa. Finland in the late nineteenth century had little in the way of natural resources besides the tree and accompanying log harvests. Finnish immigrants were unfamiliar with the ways of industrial work, not to mention the intricacies of the mining industry. Many Finnish immigrants in America were receptive to agriculture, but had no land to farm or had to hack some type of farmland out of the dense Upper Peninsula forest. Finnish immigrants found that if they were to make a living in Houghton County, it would first have to be in an unfamiliar industrial world as unskilled labor in copper mines. At the very least, they would have to work the mines long enough to save money for farm ownership.

The majority of Finnish immigrants settled in the upper midwestern states of Michigan, northern Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Some immigrants worked for a while in America and then returned to Finland, but by 1920 there were some 150,000 foreign-born Finns in America. Michigan alone had 30,100, or roughly 20 percent of the foreign-born Finnish population in America. Finnish immigrants inundated Houghton County, Michigan, copper mines and thus Houghton County's municipal areas. According to the 13th Census of the United States, conducted in 1910, foreign-born Finns comprised 11,536 of Houghton County's 88,098 residents. The next largest ethnic populations were the English (Cornish), Italians, and French Canadians. The mass immigration of non-Anglo-Saxon workers into Houghton County precipitated a change in the workforce, especially at larger copper mines such as the Quincy. In the early days, Cornish, Irish, Germans, and French Canadians largely made up most of the company's workforce. In 1885, this began to change as Finns, Italians, "Austrians" (persons from the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and Eastern Europeans began to take unskilled jobs.

The deluge of a cheap labor pool to area copper mines between 1885 and 1900 came at an especially fortuitous time for the Quincy Mining Company. Using copper production in tons as an indicator of success, Quincy was expanding and reaping the benefits of an overall boom during the late nineteenth century. Between 1885 and 1901, Quincy's production of copper rose from 2,924 tons in 1885 to 10,270 tons in 1901. The years of 1901 to 1910 found copper production reaching unprecedented levels, staying at between 8,000 and 11,000 tons.

The Quincy Mining Company was running well in the black and desperately needed to increase its labor force. Of the Quincy Mining Company's new employees between 1890 and 1909, Finnish immigrant workers accounted for nearly half of all new hires. Between 1890 and 1899, there were 55 foreign-born Finns working at the Quincy Mining Company; that number jumped dramatically to 256 foreign-born Finns and 21 first-generation Americans working at the Quincy between 1900 and 1909. This brought Quincy Mining Company's two-decade total to 332 Finns employed between 1890 and 1909. This number made Finns the largest ethnic group working at Quincy, surpassing the size of any other ethnic group by three times.

Finnish Immigrants Settle in Hancock, Michigan

The Quincy Mining Company needed a place to put all these new workers. While the company constructed houses for its workers at locations close to the industrial core, these houses were for preferred employees of favored ethnicities and family men; in general, neither of these two categories included many Finns. In anticipation of adding to its workforce and needing a place to put workers, Quincy platted an addition to the Village of Hancock on June 6, 1900. The newly coined Quincy Hillside Addition (QHA) was previously an unplatted area north of and adjacent to the Village of Hancock, set on a steeply pitched hillside. This hillside border between Quincy's industrial mining core and the Village of Hancock was a haphazard collection of houses, barns, and hovels along winding dirt lanes. This slapdash, ramshackle landscape found its occupants labeled as members in a neighborhood mockingly known as "Shantytown."

The Village of Hancock was experiencing a rapid growth of its own between 1880 and 1910. In a census taken for local businessman and politician A. P. Ruppe, G. Walton Smith tallied the booming Hancock population. In 1880, Hancock had 1,783 residents; that number declined to 1,772 in 1894, but rose meteorically to 4,050 by 1900 and doubled to 8,981 in 1910. Hancock was fast becoming the commercial and residential center of the Portage Lake Copper District, due to the increased production of copper at the Quincy Mining Company.

Hancock collected an abundance of Finnish immigrants, due to the large number of unskilled jobs at the booming Quincy Mine. As mentioned earlier, by 1910 Quincy employed nearly three times more Finnish immigrants than any other nationality. Hancock's streets and institutions took on a Finnish flair, accommodating the swell of Finnish immigrants to the area. The 1913 Hancock School census confirmed the large Finnish immigrant population in the city. In 1913, there were 546 Finnish children enrolled in Hancock schools. These 546 Finnish students represented an ethnic majority of 38.5 percent of the overall children enrolled in Hancock schools.

The preceding summary of QHA and the Village of Hancock sets the background for a quantitative and qualitative study of the influence of Finnish immigrants in an author-specified Hancock neighborhood. For identification purposes, this neighborhood will be referred to as the Finnish Transitional Neighborhood (FTN). The remainder of this chapter will examine Finnish immigrant settlement in the FTN surrounding Block B of the QHA, using 1910 through 1914 as a temporal period of significance.

A demographic study of the FTN is important because it establishes the Finnish immigrant experience spatially and temporally within the Copper Country during the early twentieth century. As portrayed statistically in this chapter, Finnish immigrants were flooding into the Copper Country during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most of these Finnish immigrants were unfamiliar with Copper Country industry, its working conditions, management policies, and landscape. Through efforts of organizational societies, Finnish immigrants created a response to cope with Copper Country industry and oligarchy. Diverse ideological segments formed diverse responses to tangible and intangible conditions of the Copper Country social milieu (this will be examined in chapter 2), but all organizational societies sought to find a voice and sense of being within this industrial setting. An examination of a specific Finnish immigrant neighborhood places the immigrants' individual, social, and material surroundings in a context that illustrates the historic industrial backdrop in which Hancock's socialist-unionist Finns operated.

The period of examination for the FTN, 1910–1914, coincides with the building of the Kansankoti (Peoples' Home) Hall as a meeting place. The Kansankoti housed a Finnish immigrant socialist-unionist group that directly challenged the management policies of Copper Country capitalists. Pursuant to the construction of the Kansankoti Hall, the Työmies Publishing Company, a socialist-unionist printing enterprise, moved its presses and offices to previous structures in Block B of the FTN. I argue that Block B and its Finnish socialist-unionist cultural organizations, located within the FTN, became the center of the Finnish immigrant socialist-unionist activity in Hancock, and eventually the Copper Country, because of demographic characteristics of the FTN—so let us explore those characteristics in detail.

The Finnish Transitional Neighborhood

Within the boundaries of the FTN, there were 351 total residents, according to a 1912 Polk's Houghton County Directory. Of these inhabitants, 160 were Finnish, meaning that close to half the neighborhood's population was of Finnish ethnicity. The next largest ethnicity in the FTN were the Irish—most likely due to the location of the St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church, Convent, and School at 233 Quincy Street and the Ancient Order of Hibernia at 326 Quincy. Germans were the next most common ethnicity, with their cultural center, the Germania Hall, located at 309–313 Quincy Street.


Excerpted from CHALLENGE ACCEPTED by Gary Kaunonen Copyright © 2010 by Gary Kaunonen. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Gary Kaunonen is currently in Michigan Technological University's Ph.D. program in Rhetoric and Technical Communication. Both of his grandfathers worked in the mines of the Mesabi Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota, and, before becoming an academic, Kaunonen, himself, charged blast furnaces and operated a bull-ladle in an iron foundry.

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