Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Finnish Community of Lauderdale County in 1885

I found  "The Heritage of Lauderdale County, Alabama," online some time ago. The book has no publication data; it is likely an unpublished manuscript.

Nevertheless, it contains a great deal of historical information about the county in Alabama where I live. Lauderdale County is actually older than the state itself, created in 1818 by the Territorial Legislature; Alabama became a state in 1819.

I am somewhat of a history buff and most of the information was familiar to me. However, I found two entries therein about a Finnish Colony that once existed in the county -- something I was not aware of.

I know from my blog statistics that I have readers in Finland, so I am reprinting two articles, as you, too may find them interesting.

The book begins:

"A special thank you goes to Marjorie and E.B. Norton Jr. for undertaking the task of documenting every historical marker in LauderdaleCounty. They visited each site and transcribed the text as listed on the markers. Marjorie compiled the text and her husband E.B (illegible) the locator maps. We praise them for such a worthwhile endeavor. This is an invaluable addition to our heritage."

Finnish Colony At Cloverdale - II
Cloverdale's Finnish community was established by immigrants from Finland who wanted a better life and freedom from oppression. Finland had been under Swedish rule in the years 1155 -1809, then Russian rule from 1809 - 1917 when Finland obtained their freedom.

During the years 1880 - 1900 there was a Russian military leader who was very harsh and wanted to make Rusians out of the Finns. Times were very hard, especially for the farmers. Finns had always had to serve in the Swedish army and then in the Russian armed forces. Many young men were tired of serving the Russians and did not want to continue being oppressed. The Finns always dreaded the times when the Russians came to their farms and confiscated their food and animals.

In addition to harsh treatment by Russia, there were the long dark cold winters when living was very difficult. Summers were short, the weather was cold and rainy, making it difficult to raise food for family and livestock. They heard living was easier in the United States and work was available. 

Most of the Finns at Cloverdale came from the north central area of Finland not very far from the Arctic Circle. A few were acquainted with each other
in Finland, but most were not.

The immigrants obtained passage on ships bound for North America and entered North America at Halifax, Nova Scotia; Saulte St. Marie on the Canadian-Michigan border at the mouth of Lake Superior; others through Ellis Island. Most of the Finns who came to Cloverdale first lived on Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin where they worked in the iron and copper mines, on the railroad, in the woods cutting timber, or on boats plying the Great Lakes.

There were land agents advertising the good farm lands for sale at Cloverdale, Alabama. Thus began an influx of Finns moving to Cloverdale around 1885 and continuing until 1912. Most of the Finns settled on a road currently known as Renegar Road. The road is the first road to the right just past the post office and exits at Cloverdale School.

There were about 8-10 families with names such as Hakola, Ilves, Haataja, Seppanen, Keranen, Ahonen, Symons, Leskinen, and Marjetta whose family name was changed to Abramson. The total population was about 60 persons.

Some came but did not stay long, possibly due to the hot summers. Finns have a word which cannot be translated - "sisu". Sisu is a key word for a Finn's success. It's an inner fire or superhuman force that comes in times of stress and helps a person to overcome obstacles which seem unattainable.

The Finns who came to Cloverdale showed their "sisu" by overcoming the burdens of learning a new language which was entirely different to their native tongue; also facing a different culture, weather, livelihood.

The families that stayed all farmed, learning to raise crops such as cotton, plus foods needed for families and livestock. Everyone had large gardens for vegetables, orchards for different types of fruit trees, and very important, a spring and fall crop of potatoes. There were a few cows, lots of chickens and some hogs on each farm. Dairy products were VERY IMPORTANT since butter was much used for seasoning and milk for drinking. One popular dairy product called ''viili'' was similar to our present day unflavored whole-milk yogurt. Homemade bread was baked with flour made from wheat raised on the farm.

In November or December the arrival of a large wooden bucket of salted herring from Finland was eagerly awaited. Delicious dishes were made with this salted herring and potatoes. It was important to have the fish and potatoes for Christmas dinner. This was a traditional Finnish dish.

Coffee breads seasoned with cardamom were very popular and, of course, coffee was always ready. Most everyone drank milk at meal time and adults had coffee at mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Even when the adults were working in the field, the coffee was taken to them.

The Finns enjoyed a simple farm life, since they enjoyed the quiet beauty and solitude of nature. They realized it was a special privilege to be an American and to be able to own their own farms. The older immigrants had much difficulty learning English, so Finnish was spoken at home. However, it was very important that the children learn English, many learning when they started school. Parents stressed the fact that being an American was a special privilege. Thus, several men served in both World Wars and one immigrant served with General Joe Wheeler in Cuba and the Philippines.

The Finnish community at Cloverdale has now disintegrated. However, it could be said that this community truly was a "melting pot" as the first generation Finns have mostly married spouses with non-Finnish backgrounds. The descendants became a part of the community and the USA by being teachers, farmers, writers, nurses, bankers - to name a few of the occupations pursued by them. All have benefited from the courage displayed by the early
immigrants who were willing to face an unknown life in a new country.

Submitted by: Milka "Millie" Seppanen Duke, a first generation Finn who grew up in the Clover Finnish community.

Finnish Colony At Cloverdale I
The Finnish settlers first came to Calumet, Michigan where they found work in the copper mines. There was quite an influx of Finns to Cloverdale between the years 1885 and 1912. This was due to three Finnish land agents, J.P. Hendrixson, Adolph Korvonen and Matti Lappi from Michigan and Illinois who wished to establish a Finnish settlement in the South. 

Through Finnish newspapers in the north, they advertised good farm land in the South, at Cloverdale, AI. First to purchase land were William and Louise Keranen from Ironwood, Michigan. Her mother, Nina Symons came with them about 1885. They ran a store in Fairview until his death in 1916. Mrs. Keranen later married Isaac Heikkinen but they divorced in 1917. She later married Andrew Leskinen and both died in 1930's. William Isaac Abramson and family came from Michigan in 1884. He highly recommended Cloverdale to other Finns. 

In 1897, Joseph Ives and wife Katarine left Finland seeking a better place to live. He purchased a farm. In 1890, Stepanus Hakola of IImajaki, Finland left Finnish army and came to U.S. first going to Chicago. He purchased land in Cloverdale in 1896 and later joined U.S. Army where he became ill and lost his farm. His brother, Jacob Hakola, a carpenter in Helsinki, Finland brought his wife and two sons to redeem the farm. Later they had one daughter, Hilda Hakola who married Meadows Gray. 

Matt Haataja born in Oula, Finland came to America in 1906 to find a better place to live. In 1911, he moved to Cloverdale. The same year came Olli Seppanen family from Calumet. They also bought a farm and remained. Other families came but stayed only briefly.

It seems that all the Finns who settled in Cloverdale came between 1880 and 1906 when Finland was under Russian dominion. Years between 1910 and 1925 were the growing years of "Little Finland" in Cloverdale. About eight families with population of about 50 became almost as one family and continued the Finnish language for sometime. They were remembered because of their "sauna" steam baths and their "Sisu". Hard to explain, they felt it was their "sisu" that sustained them. Their meaning of this word was "an unexplainable kind of inner fire or superhuman nerve force that comes miraculously in time of stress and helps one to do the most impossible."

In 1998, the only land still owned by Finnish descendants
belongs to Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Duke (Millie Sepannen) whose both
parents were Finnish.

From Paper by late Mrs. Hilda Hakola Submitted by: Mrs. Henry


  1. Sanda, thank you very much for this post.
    Lots of small details I never heard of, although being a Finn myself.
    I do know, that many Finns moved to USA at the turn of the century, Minnesota is probably the place many of them settled to.
    But I never knew, that they had settled in your whereabouts too.
    Many of us Finns had relatives, who made the long trip, relatives, who sent " luxury to us packages " for decades.
    None of my family, near of far, ever made the journey over.
    You mentioned the word " sisu "as characteristic for the FInns.
    True, we are very proud of it.
    To extend it a bit, there is a saying - " with sisu through a gray stone ".
    I feel honored having had the chance to read this interesting post of your´s : ).

  2. This is indeed an interesting post, Sanda. So many little pockets of European people spread around the world, often escaping oppressive regimes. I have thought about it, but cannot think of ever, to my knowledge, met a person of Finnish descent in Australia. However there are many Dutch, German, Italian, Greek, central European, Irish and English people, and in more recent times those from Africa and Asia. We are indeed a melting pot country.

  3. Very interesting bit of history Sanda. My paternal Grandfather was from Finland. His family eventually settled in the Dakota's. Thanks for giving us this history.


  4. How one admires these stocial people who travelled far distances to start new lives,especially reading about the Finns who I knew so little about till I 'met' my blogger friend Mette,thank you Sanda for another informative historical post.

  5. Very interesting and what a lot of work went into this post. Never knew Lauderdale Co was established before the state. I would say we need to make a drive to Cloverdale one day soon.

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  7. Today the last of the Finnish immigrants was laid to rest. My great Granny was 102 and was one of the Abramson children. She lived in Cloverdale and spoke fluent Finnish till the day she passed. She was an absolute legacy.


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