On the Mark: FinnFest tour was a real North Shore treat


August 4, 2023

Last week, hundreds of locals and visitors, some from abroad, journeyed to Duluth to celebrate Finnish culture and its enduring presence in our communities. It was challenging to choose among many options: talks, films, presentations, musical performances, dancing, Finnish food and drink. Husband Rod Walli and I chose to join the daylong bus trip up the North Shore, offered by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor emeritus Arnold Alanen. At the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, we climbed on a roomy bus at 8 a.m., returning, after many adventures and new insights, about nine hours later.

Alanen, who grew up on a farm in far eastern Aitkin County along the Carlton County border, is writing a book about the North Shore and has spent years visiting residents and their homes, schools, parks, and community groups.

“My family was heavily into reading. Each week we received 17 newspapers: 12 were in English, including the Pine Knot, five in Finnish, all published in Minnesota and Wisconsin,” he said.

His book, “Finns in Minnesota,” was published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, in 2012.

Alanen emceed the trip by microphone from start to finish, narrating the features of Duluth’s Lake Superior shore, including homes, waterworks, and parks. He pointed out the home recently owned by Carl Gawboy and his wife just north of Duluth. Decades ago, Gawboy, with fellow Ojibwe artist Wendy Savage, initiated the Ojibwe Art Expo in the 1970s, bringing Ojibwe artists’ works to galleries and exhibitions around northern Minnesota. It ran for nearly 25 years.

In the first of many stops, we descended from the bus at the vintage Larsmont schoolhouse, welcomed by a local historical society member. The school was built by Finland Swedes — people born in Finland who spoke Swedish and arrived here in the late 19th century.

Their descendants have continually donated time, energy and thought into preserving the school and using it for local events. A woman ushered us into their vintage one-room schoolhouse, complete with a tiny bed for the teacher who lived there during the school year.

While we ate delicious cookies and bars with coffee, our host spoke about the challenges of education in that era.

Alanen narrated the next stretch up the shore to the well-loved Gooseberry Falls State Park, where we again disembarked and walked the trails down to the base of the falls. I swam in this river, below the falls and out to Lake Superior, many times on family vacations from the Twin Cities area. Further up the trail, Alane described the continuing era of iron ore mining in the upland interior. We saw clear evidence of these activities in Silver Bay, where a taconite processing plant, along with docks, railroad tracks, and ore boats, links the Mesabi Range to the steel mills of the Great Lakes, especially those at the southern end of Lake Michigan.

Farther upshore, our bus driver turned left on Minnesota Highway 1. He drove slowly through Finland with its 1913-built co-op store, one of only two surviving in the state. It serves the farming families and campgrounds in the nearby hills. Beyond Finland, we visited a traditional Finnish farming community, currently being rebuilt as a Finland Heritage Site. The buildings include a sauna, schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, and other structures, all situated close to the original cabin of Finnish homesteader John Pine. Our guides demonstrated for us the tools the Finns brought to construct their original small homes, a school and church. After a marvelous open-air meal of meats, veggies, bread, cakes, lemonade, and coffee, we toured the large southeast-facing veggie garden they are reconstructing.

Next and finally, we reached Grand Marais. Alanen had arranged for us to visit a newly opened two-room commercial sauna, with an adjacent lounge and spa room, located on the north side of town. After that, we disbursed for an hour to walk the shore, clambering over rocks, enjoying the gulls and their chatter as they sailed above us.

On the way back to Duluth, Alanen shared more stories about the North Shore highway, including the hard labor used to build tunnels where the granite reaches steeply down toward the lake. We returned to the DECC about 5 p.m, thanked Alanen and wished him well with his book project.

Columnist Ann Markusen is an economist and professor emerita at University of Minnesota.One of the five owners of the Pine Knot News, she lives in Red Clover Township north of Cromwell with her husband, Rod Walli.


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