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Cultural Tracks: The Second Generation

Part 2 of Finnish Americans in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Historically, the UP has been and still is the nation’s primary settlement area for Finnish Americans, and they have left their cultural tracks on the region.

The Second Generation (American born children of immigrants)

These clannish immigrants were busy breeding once they moved into rural settings. Based on one study, of Pelkie, a rural community in Baraga County, the average number of children born to Finnish immigrant parents (the “second generation”) surviving beyond the first year was 6.5, the same as in Old Order Amish farming communities in rural Pennsylvania (Loukinen 1979).

Nearly all of the rural second generation had spoken Finnish at home and had learned English in a one-room school where they were punished if they were caught speaking Finnish. They were given the impression that speaking Finnish was un-American. Approximately one in ten also spoke Swedish, about the same proportion as back in Finland (Loukinen 1982). Those born between 1900 and 1930 in the rural areas completed eight grades of education in one room schoolhouse, until roads and school buses in the later 1930s permitted them to travel to nearby towns where they completed high school, and some went on to college. Based on U.S. Census ancestry report data, among second generation Finns born before 1916, 29.6 percent of men and 40.6 percent of women were high school graduates; 13.4 percent of the men and 14.4 percent of women had some college; and 4.5 percent of men and 3.6 percent of women were college graduates. Those living in mining towns and in cities were more likely to complete high school and college (Stoller and Karni 1992).

Leftist political radicalism was discredited and almost completely disappeared in the second generation. It was replaced with a more moderate, pro-union, liberal ideology supporting the Democratic Party. In some communities, Church Finn and Red Finn distinctions still served as slight barriers between residents, but it disappeared in most places.

Based on a study of 359 second-generation Finnish Americans from Pelkie, three out of four of the second generation Finnish Americans had migrated in search of urban employment. Of these migrants, 42 percent had returned within ten years to live in Pelkie (Loukinen 1982). This remarkable attachment to their rural community of origin is exceptionally high among second generation Finnish Americans from the UP. So many of them had migrated to Detroit between 1920 and 1950 that they were able to visit with relatives, neighbors, and friends from back home. Migration to the city did not mean breaking the bonds with their home community; it actually served to strengthen such attachments. Friends from home helped new migrants find jobs and lodging. Many persons had married others whom they had known from back home, after dating in Detroit. When asked where he had liked to hang out after work in the 1940s in Detroit, one man said, “Where I could find a ride home.” Another said that he had seen more Pelkie people on Woodrow Wilson, a street running through the heart of Detroit’s Finn Town, than he had ever seen in the village area in Pelkie (Loukinen 1982).

My own family’s experience reflects this deep attachment to the UP. Both of my parents are second generation Finnish Americans who grew up on small farms in Houghton County and migrated to Detroit in 1939. Whenever work schedules permitted, they returned home. My father often worked an afternoon shift, and when we were to go to the UP, he came home shortly after midnight to wake us up with the call, “Daylight in the swamp!” It was an echo from his youth that he had heard while working in the lumber camps on the Keweenaw Peninsula. The car had already been packed, and after a shower, we would hit the road. I can remember the sense of excitement as we approached the Straights of Mackinac and waited for the ferry boats. Seagulls filled the windy sky, sometimes hanging motionlessly on air currents. Indians roamed from car to car selling smoked fish wrapped in newspaper to passengers waiting for the next boat. Dad usually slept in the car during the ferry boat ride to St. Ignace, while my mother, sister, and I roamed the decks searching through the fog for a glimpse of the UP.

I can still remember the clanking sounds of the steel ramps of the ferry boat falling onto the dock in St. Ignace, and the sounds of eager passengers starting their engines. It was always a thrill to reach the UP. Dad rolled down the window as he swung west on US 2 toward Lehto’s Pasty Shop, and fresh, surprisingly cool air filled the car. We breathed in deeply and as we took in the lake air mixed with cedar, pine, and ferns. We exaggerated the virtues of this clean air and felt as though we had passed into another world. We were home, where we really belonged. It was though we had lived in exile in the Detroit metropolitan area where my parents worked and my sister and I attended school. The UP had always been our psychic homeland.

My family made its annual pilgrimage to the UP every summer vacation over a period of thirty years, on most deer hunting seasons, during layoffs, and labor strikes. Immediately upon my father’s retirement in 1972, he and my mother moved to the UP and built a retirement home on the lake shore near their childhood homes. Virtually all of my aunts and uncles, and all of my parents’ childhood friends and acquaintances have followed an identical pattern. Like spawning salmon, the retired second generation had returned to their birth place. The vast majority of second generation Finnish Americans, who had left the UP in search of employment, had never really left the UP in terms of their social and inner lives. When people ask me, a third generation American of Finnish ancestry, where I’m from, it is a complicated question. I grew up primarily in the Detroit metro area and partially in the UP, but I’ve always felt that I’m from the UP. Many third and fourth generation Finnish Americans whose parents are from the UP have had the same experience.

Seventy-three percent of the rural-born, second generation, UP Finnish Americans from Pelkie married other Finnish Americans, according to the Pelkie study based on interviews with married couples (Loukinen 1982). Another study of the second generation in urban Conneaut, Ohio focused on those born between 1926-1935. It reported a 43 percent endogamy rate (Kolehmainen 1936). Most sociologists would claim this sharp difference in second generation endogamy estimates between the rural UP and urban Conneaut, were due to differences in the relative proportions of Finnish Americans available in the marriage market; but the author of the 1936 study insists that it was due to a form of youthful rebellion against immigrant parents, and the tendency for women to seek mates belonging to more prestigious Americanized groups. No sex differences in rates of in-group marriage were evident in the Pelkie study. The national estimate of second generation endogamy based upon single ancestry reports by persons assumed to be the third generation, i.e. born between 1945-1960 is 37 percent (Stoller and Karni 1992).

According to one analysis of a national sample of 1980 U.S. Census Ancestry data, second generation (American-born) were more geographically dispersed than their immigrant parents, and their occupations reflect this trend (Stoller and Forster 1992). More than 40 percent of the employed adult second generation Finnish American men born before 1930 worked in white collar positions, as did 70 percent of the women in this cohort. Forty-one percent of the men, and 21 percent of the women worked in blue-collar jobs. Only nineteen percent of the men and 7 percent of the women worked in mining, farming, fishing, and forestry, the occupations typical of their immigrant parents. Among those born after 1930, more were likely to work in white-collar occupations and less likely to work in blue-collar jobs. This is especially true for the males. Relative to other Euro-American ethnics, an exceptionally large number of women became teachers (Stoller and Forster 1992).

Today, the second generation is passing into history. Many are either deceased, living in assisted living apartments, or in nursing homes. Some, whose health permits, are trying to teach their children about family history and cultural traditions. Most of their children, the third generation, are largely unaware of their heritage and are too busy spending and earning to do this task.

Acknowledgements to: Michael M. Loukinen

For rights and permissions contact: Originally Published in: A Sense of Place, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: Essays in Honor of the Career of William Vandament editors: Michael Marsden and Russell Magnaghi, Copyright Northern Michigan University Press, 1996

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