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FinnFest tour to highlight Carlton County

There was a time when a person could hear a church service in Finnish in Cloquet, live in the "Finntown" neighborhood and join one of several cooperatives started here by Finnish immigrants.

Many descendents of those immigrants still live here. Some are easily identified by their blue eyes and blond hair, or their names - Riihiluoma, Juntunen, Ikola and Soukkala, among others - while others may be identified by their speech patterns or habits, such as taking a sauna (pronounced SOW-na if you're a Finn, not SAW-na).

Those connections and history will be part of a tour later this month, offered as part of the myriad FinnFest activities based in and around Duluth July 26-30. Touted as "North America's premiere experience of Nordic culture and learning," the celebration of all things Finnish is being held in Duluth for the first time since 2008. There will be shopping and food at the Tori (a marketplace, no pass required), plus music, art, movies, games and educational lectures for passholders. Even the Finnish ambassador is giving a talk.

There will also be tours - and that's where Carlton County comes in. As part of the festival, Finlandia Foundation Northland is providing "Forests, Farms, and Fires: South of Duluth," a historical tour of Esko, Cloquet, Fond du Lac and Jay Cooke State Park.

The tour dives into the history of Finns who arrived in the area as early as 1872 to homestead farms and work in the forests and mills. They built a strong Finnish community in Carlton County, only to start all over again after the devastating fires of 1918.

Tour attendees will visit the Carlton County Historical Society in Cloquet, where Marlene Wisuri will discuss the sixth-deadliest fire in U.S. history that destroyed the community of Cloquet and much of Carlton County on Oct. 12, 1918, when more than 500 people lost their lives in the fire. The historical society also will have a display of the large Finntown that existed in Cloquet and another about the fires that affected the area.

Retired Cloquet library director Mary Lukkarila grew up on the Iron Range hearing her grandmother speak Finnish, surrounded by Finnish culture. She was surprised to learn how many Finns also settled in Carlton County, and to see all the Finnish road names on the Fond du Lac reservation.

How many Finnish connections are there?

"Just about anyone you talk to," said Lukkarila, exaggerating only slightly. "Northern Minnesota was home to the highest concentration of people who moved here from Finland, whether they went up to the Range or stayed in Cloquet."

That includes a substantial number of Finnish people who settled on the Fond du Lac reservation. Many married Native American neighbors, something Lyz Jaakola has firsthand knowledge of, with both Anishinaabe and Finnish parents. Jaakola and local doctor Arne Vainio are both featured in a Finnish book about "Finndians" from several years ago, although both favor the more tribe-specific term "Finnishinaabe." Jaakola - an FDLTCC teacher, musician and Cloquet city councilor - will talk about the Finnish settlers who moved onto the Fond du Lac Reservation and touch on the common values of the two cultures when the tour stops at the Fond du Lac Cultural Center and Veterans Museum.

"We want to make sure people understand the land belonged to the indigenous people before we came," Lukkarila said.

According to MPR News and the APM Research Lab's Roots Beyond Race project, there are about 1,200 Minnesotans who identify as both Native American and Finnish.

The tour also includes lunch at Mike's Café in Esko and a tour of the Esko Historical Museum and Palkie Gristmill, led by Rodney Ikola and the Esko Historical Society. Esko was one of the first Finnish settlements in northeastern Minnesota.

The final tour stop will be at Jay Cooke State Park, named for Jay Cooke, who came to Duluth in 1868 and began a railroad from Carlton, Minnesota to Tacoma, Washington. At the park, participants will experience the unique geological formation and learn about the wildlife of the area. It will also give people a chance to stretch their legs and enjoy one of the most beautiful spots in the region before heading back to the city to dive into other FinnFest findings.

FinnFest draws both a national and international crowd, and Lukkarila hopes some will choose to visit Carlton County. But she stressed that it is also an opportunity for local residents to find out more about the history here, and perhaps even the history of their own ancestors.

Who knows? Maybe they will decide to get involved in the Northland chapter of the Finlandia Foundation, which was formed after the 2008 FinnFest and which Lukkarila chairs. Three of its current board officers hail from Cloquet, including vice chair Anja Bottila and secretary Susan Vincent.

Bottila said it's fun being involved in the "Finnish goings-on in the area," and encouraged others to join, "especially younger people," she said.

Lukkarila said it's not uncommon for younger generations to want to know more about their heritage, even if their parents didn't. She said two of her great-nephews are trying to learn Finnish online.

Finlandia Foundation Northland doesn't have set meeting dates or places. Lukkarila said they have meetings in various communities within their Head of the Lakes coverage area as well as Zoom presentations. There is an annual meeting with a free program every October. Other annual events include Juhannus at Sampo Beach in June and a celebration of Finland's Independence Day in October. The organization can help with education, or grant opportunities to attend language camps or even do research in Finland.

Have questions or want to join? Call Finlandia membership chair Arlene Putikka Tucker at 218-289-5080, or just mail a check for $10 (with a note that you want to join) to Finlandia Foundation Northland, PO Box 3050, Duluth MN 55808.


FinnFest bonus

A tour of Carlton County will be part of the FinnFest celebration later this month in Duluth. To register for the tour, visit 2023.finnfest.us, click on "Reserve Now" and then "Reserve a spot" and select "Tour – Forests, Farms, and Fires: South of Duluth" from the various tour offerings. Cost is $105.45 per person with a maximum of 45 spots available. Lunch and refreshments are included.