Kingfield Finns settled here around 1910
His son, Michael, says there’s no record of any Finns in Kingfield in the census of 1900. At an informal gathering at Mike’s house recently, Mauno, his wife Katherine, sister Pirkko Atwood, her husband Maynard, William Neimi, and Kara Neimi, who now lives in the house once owned by her grandparents Neilo and Lempi Wuori, shared stories and recounted Kingfield’s Finnish heritage.
Due to political strife and economic uncertainty, many Finns left their homeland in the early 1900s in search of a better life in America. Occupied by Sweden, the country fell into a flux, between Swedish and Russian occupation, World War I, and the ensuing Bolshevik revolution. Some left their families behind, hoping to find work and be able to send money back home.
That was the case for William and Mauno’s grandfather John who came to America through New York’s Ellis Island in 1910. He came to Kingfield, then to Monson to work in the mines, then to Sudbury, Vt., and out west. He must have liked Maine the best, Mauno said, because he came back and bought a farm to raise money and get the rest of the family over here. It took another nine years for that to happen. Tyynne wasn’t born when he left for America. She was 11 when she finally came to Kingfield with her mother Eva Kristina, joining Mary, Aino, Martta and Niilo. The twins, Ali and Irja were born in Kingfield.
Martta married Ensio Kankainen, and Mauno was born two years after the twins. Mauno remembers returning to Finland when he was two. His father wanted to go back to see how his mother was doing, and bring the rest of the family to America. He was seven when the family returned to Kingfield. He doesn’t remember that much about Finland where his sister Pirkko was born. But he does recall getting really sick on the return voyage. He also remembers taking the train to Farmington, getting on the Narrow Gauge Railroad in Farmington, and disembarking at Knapp’s Garage that shuttled them back to the Farm on Stanley Hill and seeing those very red apples… “It must have been in the fall,” he said.
It was a time of hard work and some fun. Mauno remembered the Wuoris having dances at their houses. People would alternate and host dances. Music was an important part of Finnish culture, with accordions, vocalists and lively dance. The Finns formed a club on Middle Road where they held dances every weekend, he said. “It was a very popular place.” William added, his uncle, Alfred Pilman would play with an entire orchestra. Sometimes there would be three, other times, even up to nine. They traveled all over the state, he said, to South Paris, New Portland… Many were held at the old Kingfield Odd Fellows Building, where the Sugarloaf Ski Shop.
Mauno said they danced and danced so much, the floors would be bouncing,” He could call certain contra dances, as well. He told of his grandfather John. If the girls could smell alcohol, they wouldn’t dance with him, so he’d grab a broom and dance around the floor. Maynard added, “All Finns liked to dance.”
Pirkko showed a 200 plus year old quilt her grandmother, AdolFina Kankainen had made where she’d harvested the materials, spun them out and then wove them. It still maintains its vibrant reds and blues. The Finns lived off the land. They farmed, gardened, canned, hunted, fished, picked blueberries, raspberries, made fine woodwork, rugs, from scratch.
Mauno worked cutting wood with a cross cut or bucksaw. There were no chainsaw then. In the spring, his father would put the pulp on the river bank, and bring it down the river. “I was on the last drive down the East Branch of the Carrabassett River from Kingfield to Salem. It was warmer in the water than outside on the bank.” He was working chasing the trails of wood that had become stuck on the river banks.
They took advantage of old vacant farms, bought them for a song, and fixed them up. This was a common practice for properties to be deserted, Michael explained. People had moved, died, couldn’t pay their taxes, or just could not afford to live there anymore, and they’d pick up and leave. It could have been some of these farms were lost during the Great Depression. People lost them and couldn’t support them.
And it wasn’t in just one area where the Finns settled. They were all over town. Some settled on the British side (Maple Street). Others on the American side, in the area by the Stanley Museum. William estimated at their peak, there were up to 15 or more families, 50 to 60 people. There are fewer now, but names like Silanpa, Lehto, Latti and Kankainen are still here.
John employed up to 20 people at one time, with the lumbering, sawmill and transportation of lumber to the mills. At one time, Mauno owned the ski shop. Kara’s grandfather Fred Morrison owned the pharmacy. They had quite an influence on the town, Michael said. The Norton Wuori American Legion is named after John Ilmari Wuori who was killed during the invasion of Africa in World War II.
Mauno and Pirkko have been back to the homeland several times. They speak Finnish. William said he never learned English till he was about three. When they moved from the hill to live with his aunt and uncle down to Stanley Avenue, he said it was hard playing with new friends who spoke English.
Mike says he attended a wedding at the Lions Club in North New Portland when he was about 12. “I thought that was pretty exciting, and assumed there were many more weddings just like that.”
The culture is fading somewhat, much because people of the 40s, 50s and 60s generations don’t attend dances and festival. But Mauno does his part to perpetuate the Finnish heritage. Mauno belongs to the Finnish/American Society of Maine, and the Sauna (pronounced sawna) Society. The Finns invented the sauna, and it came to Maine with them. There’s dancing, music, food and they speak Finnish. For William, his aunt Tyynne Pilman, who will turn 101 on July 16, said, “She and I speak in Finnish all the time.”
Of the Finns, Michael said, “They all came here to cut wood.” And Michael’s son, Eric, pursuing his MBA at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, hopes to carry on the Finnish logging tradition studying how to be an entrepreneur timber forester. He is following in the footsteps of his family: his father a forester; his grandfather, a logger and landowner; his great-grandfather, a logging contractor and woodsman; and his great-great-grandfather, a logger.