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Stories from 'the old ones' fill new book

With the publication of his new book, "We spoke of many things," Carlton County historian, playwright, journalist, businessman and political activist Dan Reed completed what was really a lifelong project last year.

The book tells the story of generations of Reed's ancestors as they made their way to and from Finland to northern Minnesota, with many settling in the Automba area where Reed still lives and serves as a township supervisor. It is culled from recollections of visits over 60 years, and four large boxes of mostly handwritten notes on scraps of paper, backs of envelopes, tablets, plus newspapers and letters.

In addition to the stories, there are photos: close to a third of the 329 pages are filled with photographs and newspaper clippings dating back to 1890.

"My grandmother called me a pörröpää, a burrhead, when I was little because I was restless, and always asking too many questions," he said in a recent interview with the Pine Knot. "From the age of 4 or 5 years old, I'd be asking all kinds of questions. I was 10 or 12 when I started writing notes."

Blessed with an incredible memory, Reed punctuates his conversations with Finnish words and sayings, and frequently refers to "the old ones," who told him their stories over the past six or seven decades. He laughs a lot too, big belly laughs.

He is a true storyteller, or "kalle" as they say in Finnish. Ask him a question about a long ago event or business, and he'll spin a tale that tells the before, during and after, with plenty of flavorful details along the way.

Getting the girl

Like the story of how his grandpa Matt Reed got together with his grandma Edna (Järvenpää) at a Halloween dance in 1914 at the Young People's Hall. Automba - now a very sleepy town with a population of 147 - was a bustling place 110 years ago with a railyard half a mile long, three sawmills and close to 1,000 people in the area. While it wasn't exactly lawless, there was certainly a flavor of the Wild West about the place.

Edna won first prize for a dress she made at the dance, and Matt later walked her home. But she wouldn't let him kiss her for six months, their grandson writes. But Matt Reed wasn't the only fellow interested in Edna (who, incidentally, wasn't sure she wanted to marry). Otto Salomaa was also sweet on Edna, so he brought a gun to the Young People's Hall and threatened to shoot Matt. Edna stood between them and, according to her grandson, told Otto: "If you are going to shoot Matt, you will have to shoot me first." Otto backed down and the rest is history.

It's all there in black and white in Reed's book. Family trees for various branches of the family, stories of who married whom, travels and travails, the rise and fall of family fortunes, births and deaths, drama and the many fires back in the day.

Tremendous loss

He includes the "Great Fire," as his elders called it, the 1918 fires that swept through much of Carlton County, taking many lives in the Automba and Kettle River area. His grandparents survived, but his grandmother lost an aunt and eight Jokimaki cousins that day after seeing them at a birthday party earlier.

"Each fall the old ones would get very sad - it was a painful time for them," Reed said. He heard the story of the birthday party many times, attended by those who weren't already fighting the many fires that had been popping up over the previous weeks of dry weather. They thought there was no chance of fire at that particular farm.

"By evening her aunt and eight cousins were gone, burned up trying to get to the river," he said. "They couldn't find the baby until a neighbor boy looked and found a little burnt thing in the field, small enough to go in a shoebox."

In 1968, Reed was working for the Moose Lake Star Gazette and organized and wrote much of the 50th anniversary edition of the 1918 fire, so he gathered even more stories. The old ones would tell him how they survived the fire, how they survived after the fire, and how they rebuilt.

He recalls visiting with Mrs. Kotala and her husband, drinking coffee and eating hard salami on their best plates, hearing the stories. She lost her whole family except a sister and brother.

"You could see the fire in her eyes as she talked about it," he said. "Every so often I gather a little more information, and I talk to her: 'Mrs, Kotala, you would approve,'" he says, nodding. "I also talk to my grandparents and some other people from before."

Reed said he figured out later that he has some trauma from the fire, even though it happened before he was born, from hearing all the stories and being so absorbed by them.

More people died from the flu pandemic the same year, and others from smallpox in 1924.

"My grandma Krigsholm Koivisto lost a brother. He wouldn't get a shot," he said. "I can still see her face when she told me that story. He was the one she was closest to."

Finnish threads

Although Reed was born and raised in northern Minnesota, he has a certain lilt when he talks. That, combined with the Finnish words and phrases he sprinkles throughout a conversation, make his family history, and Finland, seem not so distant.

"When I was small, I could switch over and talk either [language]," he said. "Even yet, when I'm working with the younger people, I will ask for a vinkkeli (a carpenter's square)." When asked to spell it, he laughs and says he'll have to check the dictionary or email his cousin in Finland later. "I have conversational Finnish."

Reed is in touch with many family members in Finland. The book had its unofficial debut on a trip there last fall. During his stay, he was interviewed about his book, which has now been translated into Finnish and is for sale there.

The book had another debut in Carlton County Friday during the Knot Gallery portrait show reception.

"Some people question how important it is to remember those years, when your grandparents and other folks were alive," he said. "I tell them, this is who makes you who you are."

Although the book is a historical narrative of Reed's extended family, he said readers have told them they recognize echoes of their own family experiences, or that it brings back memories for them.

"It truly is about any of the immigrants or people that have moved into a new area," he said. "People are reinventing themselves: what they do, how they live, their dreams. It has universal themes, even though it's a Finnish journey."

While Reed does his part to carry on the Finnish tradition of oral storytelling, he has raised the bar by writing down those stories. He also said it's a relief to have finished this lifelong project, while his mind is still sharp.

"It truly is a gift from the old ones to the ones who are still left to come," he said.

Find out more

Look for more Dan Reed appearances to promote "We spoke of many things," including one at the Carlton County Historical Society in Cloquet soon. To contact Reed, email [email protected]. Copies of the book are available at the Pine Knot News office at 122 Avenue C.

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