Finnish immigrants persevered with ‘sisu’

Immigrant Stories
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
Walter Gallacher Post IndependentRenee Rajala McCullough's grandparents were Finnish immigrants who settled in Minnesota. After her grandfather's death, her father went to work in the community at the age of 11.

Renee Rajala McCullough: My father’s parents came to the United States, like so many other immigrants, for opportunities. Finland was really struggling in the 1800s. There were a lot of wars between Sweden and Russia in the 1700s and 1800s, and Finland was usually in the middle.

My grandfather came through Canada in 1914, and my grandmother came through Ellis Island in 1917. They grew up in Finland in the Ostrobothnia region only 20 miles apart, but they didn’t meet until they got here.

There were a lot of people coming from that part of Finland at the turn of the century. The records at Ellis Island show that all the people on the boat with my grandmother were Finnish, so hundreds of people were coming from that region at that time. The records also show that my grandmother came with almost nothing. She may have had $25 at the most.

My grandmother was one of nine children. Two of her siblings died very young, four came to America and two stayed in Finland. So she came to be with her family. She was 25 and the last to come. She came to the Iron Range in northern Minnesota to a little town called Eveleth, where there was a large settlement of Finns, many of them from Ostrobothnia.

Gallacher: It is hard to imagine the courage it took to get on a boat and go to a strange country with nothing.

McCullough: Yes, I have talked to my Finnish cousins and asked them how the Finns did it. They said it’s “sisu,” which loosely translates as “Finnish guts” or the courage to persist no matter what the difficulty is.

Gallacher: Did your grandfather come to join the family as well?

McCullough: There is less known about my grandfather. We do know that he came with his brother Uho through Canada. They stopped in Nova Scotia and Toronto for a time. My grandfather Herman continued on to the Iron Range, where he worked in the mines. His brother Uho stayed in Toronto for a while, and then returned to Finland where he married and had nine children.

Gallacher: What was life like in Eveleth?

McCullough: It was a very hard life. My grandfather worked in the iron ore mines, and my grandmother worked at a boarding house, cooking and cleaning for the miners. That’s where they met. They got married in 1919.

My grandfather was sick with black lung disease for years before he died in 1933. My father was only 11 when granddad died, but he had to take over as the breadwinner for the family. The country was in a depression, so work was hard to find, especially for someone my father’s age. Dad had to roam the streets looking for metal and anything else he could find to sell.

My grandmother never really learned to speak English, so it was really hard for her to find work. She did find a job working part-time as a housekeeper for a local attorney, but they were barely getting by.

When my father was 13, he went to ask the mayor of Eveleth for a job. Apparently he went to the mayor’s house and found him milking his cows. The mayor was impressed with my father’s determination and put him to work in the sewers of Eveleth for $5 a day. It was hard work, but he was committed to helping his mother and sister survive.

Gallacher: Was he able to go to school?

McCullough: Yes, when Dad started grade school he only knew Finnish, but he learned fast. His parents really believed in education as a way out. One of the good things about the mines was free education for the sons and daughters of miners who wanted to go.

So when Dad finished high school, he went into Eveleth Junior College. He was really good at math and took a lot of those courses. When he enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he was able to enter officer’s training school.

He ended up in the 155th Night Photo Reconnaissance Squadron. He wanted to be a pilot, but he had dental work that disqualified him, so he became a photo interpreter. His job was to study the aerial photos that the reconnaissance planes had taken the night before and help devise the best plan of attack based on the terrain. In fact, it was his squadron that was in charge of studying the photos in preparation for D-Day.

Gallacher: What did your father do after the war?

McCullough: He ended up staying in the Air Force – the Army Air Corps became the Air Force after the war. He was stationed at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver. That’s where he met my mother. The Air Force paid him to get his bachelor’s degree and his master’s in meteorology.

Gallacher: Did your dad ever go back to Eveleth, Minn.?

McCullough: My brother took him back a few years ago, a year before he died. He was beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s by then, so my brother took him while he could still remember. They walked the old neighborhood, stopped in the corner market. The daughter of my dad’s best friend was working there and she recognized my dad.

“You gotta go see Dad,” she said. “You’ll find him at the house sitting on the porch.”

Sure enough, there he was sitting on the porch. He stood up as my dad approached the gate, hesitated for a minute and then said, “Melvin, is that you?” They spent the rest of the day together talking and joking.

Gallacher: How did you reconnect with your relatives in Finland?

McCullough: My parents went back in 1973. A lot more was known about my grandmother’s side of the family. My dad had been in touch with his mom’s sister and brother’s family.

They were so excited to hear that the relatives from America were coming, they painted their houses in preparation. Our Finnish relatives treated my folks like royalty. My dad and mom got to meet Dad’s cousins and they took them all over Finland.

While they were there, Mom and Dad decided to go see the town where my dad was born, even though they didn’t have any information about his relatives or their whereabouts. My dad spoke Finnish, so he figured he might be able to find where his dad had grown up. So they drove to Lehtimaki and started asking around.

They stopped a man on a bicycle and asked him if he knew anyone named Rajala, and he said, “Sure, follow me.” So they followed this guy on a bicycle along a dirt road to a little house.

A man answered the door and Dad explained that he is Melvin Rajala from America looking for his relatives. They were invited in for coffee and the man went to his bedroom and brought back a photo album.

“I have some old pictures that someone from America sent my father,” he explains.

They were leafing through the album together and they came to a picture of a little boy and little girl. It was a picture of my father when he was 3 and his sister Nelma when she was 5. My dad realized that he was in the home of his cousin Oiva Rajala, the son of his dad’s brother Uho.

Notes: Ostrobothnia (Swedish: Osterbotten; Finnish: Pohjanmaa) is a region of Western Finland. It borders Central Ostrobothnia, Southern Ostrobothnia and Satakunta, and is one of four regions making up the historical province of Ostrobothnia.

The Finnish famine of 1866-1868 killed 15 percent of the population, making it one of the worst famines in European history. The famine led the Russian Empire to ease financial regulations, and investment rose in following decades.

D Day, June 6, 1944, was when 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France. They were supported by 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft.

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