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Community Roots: Selections from the Local Legacies Project
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FinnConn folk dancers, 1992
FinnConn folk dancers of Finnish American Heritage Society, 1992. Photo: Walter Sandholm

Sisu and Creativity - The Essence of the Finnish Immigrants in Eastern Connecticut

Finnish immigrants arrived in New York City as early as the 1890s, but Finns did not begin to settle in Connecticut until the 1920s, looking for relief from the poverty that drove them from their native land. These immigrants were endowed with sisu - a Finnish term that connotes a combination of hard work, determination, and perseverance.

Their yearning for open space and property led Finns to Connecticut, many settling in the Canterbury area and buying cheap and available land from Yankee farmers. Arriving in Connecticut with carpentry skills, enterprising Finnish men constructed social halls where immigrants could meet others of common background and language. A group called the Finnish American Education Association purchased a piece of land on Bacon Hill in Canterbury prior to 1924 on which they erected a social hall, followed by other halls in eastern Connecticut, including the Finnish Hall in Brooklyn, the Aura Hall in Voluntown, and the Finnish Hall in Waterford. All were centers for political discussion and activism, especially of the Socialist persuasion. When Russia invaded Finland in 1939, these halls were the centers for fund-raisers and collecting donated clothing and other supplies for the Finnish people.

Early Finns in Connecticut also built their own homes, each one with an essential sauna, demonstrating the Finnish saying: "It is possible to have a sauna without a house, but never a house without a sauna." Not only important to the Finns for bathing, saunas were also for socializing: the women and children used the sauna first, then retired to the house while the men used it.

Finnish sisu allowed the immigrants to farm very rocky land and pour cement foundations for their homes and other buildings by hand, always demonstrating talkoot, the spirit of cooperative effort that multiplied the hands and lightened the work. Many engaged in poultry farming, and made a decent living selling chickens and eggs; farming cooperatives were quickly established.

In 1987, spurred by a desire to prevent the imminent sale of their Finnish hall for delinquent taxes, the Finnish American Heritage Society (FAHS) was formed in Canterbury. Their mission remains to promote Finnish heritage, culture and language. After purchasing the hall, members of that group totally renovated the building, which was dedicated in October of 1998. Today the FAHS has constructed a national monument to Finnish-American WWII veterans, provides Finnish language services, and serves traditional Finnish food at social events. Their folk dancers and their singing group perform at various functions. Under the auspices of the FAHS, Finns in Connecticut celebrate Finnish independence day in December, perform the Finnish national epic Kalevala in March, and in June celebrate Midsummer's Eve, an ancient pagan ritual marking the longest day of the year, by dancing and singing around a bonfire. The FAHS also maintains archives and videotaped interviews of elderly Finns at their Finnish Hall.

The project is documented with a thirteen-page narrative, 21 8x10 color photos with descriptions, and a binder containing a spiral-bound booklet "Immigrant Radicalism in Rural New England: A History of the Finns in Eastern Connecticut, 1915-1945," magazine articles, newsletters, calendars, and additional miscellanea.

Originally submitted by: Sam Gejdenson, Representative (2nd District).

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The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

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