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Building Contractor Johan Johansson Bäcksbacka


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After the severe years of famine 1867-68, a man named Johan from Bäcksbacka in Purmo left home on foot toward the country’s capital city. The wandering road was 52 miles long and the money for the journey was 1 mark. On his back was a birch-bark basket that held two loaves of bark bread, a little bit of meat and some clothing. At home he left an aged father, three sisters, wife and two sons, Johan aged 4 (the principal person of this story), and Erik 2 years. His old mother and five children had died earlier from hunger and tyfus. After the famine years, the exhausted elderly father succumbed soon and the home was forced to go under the hammer.

The following addresses could not be geocoded: Purmo,Finland, Helsingfors,Finland, Tavastehus,Finland and Åbo,Finland. The map cannot be displayed. In his literary memoirs, Johan Johansson (who wrote his name thus without using his family name Bäcksbacka) wrote about life in Purmo after his father went to Helsingfors and most of the family members died and the farm was lost. His mother Anna Maria Erkkilä from Oravais and sons Johan and Erik moved in with an “America widow” in a sod hut. There these four people endured until Johan was seven years old. The boys contributed to the family’s livelihood by begging at farms that were better off than they were.

During this time the father had found employment. He had become a farm hand and driver for Tilgmans Printer and so he could plan to send for his family. This happened before Christmas 1871. The journey was undertaken with a horse-drawn conveyance to Tavastehus to which the railway to Helsingfors had reached in 1862. The mother, who was deeply religious, had to work hard to help support the family in Helsingfors. Their house was located on the disreputable Rödbergs road.

In the capital Johan went to elementary school and fulfilled his dream to write on white paper – a hope from his days in Purmo. He was able to go to school for two years and received a good report card and 25 marks as a reward. He then went on to intermediate school where he stayed a year and then he got a job as messenger and office boy with Frenkells book printer. However, that business trade didn’t interest him. After three years he took a job which he held for 17 years as a brick layer, and then he reached his final career as a building contractor at Åbo castle until 1548 when, in gratitude from the king, he received a small fief in Pedersöre parish

After 12-hour working days having, among others, laid the bricks for the famous “Grönkvist rock wall” at the North Esplanaden and attending a woodworking class at night where he mainly learned mathematics and ruled drawing, Johan Johansson applied in 1883 for entrance to a building contractor school from which he graduated in 1885.

The first real building commission for Johansson was the Ateneum at the railway station market place where he served as assistant controller for three years. The architect for the Ateneum was Theodor Höijer (1843-1910) and Johan Johansson was the master contractor for him and several other noted architects. Among his other building projects are the fire station at Hagasundgatan (now Centralgatan), Höijer’s house at Mannerheimvägen 16, and the Girsén house on Skillnaden.

After receiving practical guidance by a capable architect and learning architectural secrets and finesse, Johan ventured to become independent. To begin with he built minor buildings until the end of the 1890s when he received a contract from the Deaconess Training School to construct a large group of houses in Djurgården. Johan Johansson also built 40 buildings of varying sizes in the capital, most were public buildings. He also built the new student dormitory, Kaleva insurance company, Central Printing, telephone buildings, and many school houses. He also built houses in Borgå. His workmanship was well-known.

The picture of Johan Johansson as a building contractor is only one side of his life. His spiritual life and zeal for God’s riches shows another side of his life. This could be a remote inheritance from his forefathers, because artistry and belief often go hand in hand. His mother’s religious life was based on a national religious movement in Österbotten. He was affiliated from childhood with Laestadism and remained in the movement for the rest of his life. In his youth he talked at sacred meetings not only in his homeland but also in foreign countries such as Estonia.

At the end of 1903, beginning of 1904, he made a trip to Wästerbotten and succeeded in getting a notable portion of Lars Levi Laestadius’ manuscript of “Dårhusjonet” (The Retarded Person). The interesting story of this journey was made public a few years after Johan Johansson’s death under the name of “På jakt efter Dårhushjonet” (The search for the retarded person). Throughout the years Johansson made several trips to Lapland where he visited his fellow brethren and admired their unusual nature.

It is obvious that he could not escape the scorn for his devoutness, but he bore everything without faltering. As well as the names “Lill-Jussi” and “Helig-Jussi” that were used by workers in the building industry, for the most part he used the name Johan Johansson to distinguish himself from other building contractors. He was also known as “Sverige Jussi”.

In his marriage to a native Swede Mathilda Ottilia Larsdotter, Johan Johansson had two surviving daughters and three sons. Of the sons were the deceased Erik Bäcksbacka, priest in Bromarv, Vernor and Leonard, Master of Arts and art dealer in Helsingfors. The latter’s daughter Irina Bäcksbacka is a noted artist and is married in Spain. Johan’s second marriage to Laura Maria Ajo was childless.

               From Finlands Swedish Technicians
                    By Prof. Jonatan Reuter
                 Rewritten by Bror Höglund

Master Contractor Johan Johansson’s father’s father was Johan Johansson Tarvonen, b. 5 Jan 1817 in Lappfors, Esse. Married 17 Apr 1843 to farmer’s daughter Maja Lisa Eriksdotter Rif, b. 26 Aug 1821 in Pedersöre, daughter of farmer at Rif Johan Erik Johansson, b. 1802 at Kif in Vestersundsby, Pedersöre and his wife Anna Maria Jakobsdotter Storsandsund, b. 6 Jan 1799.

Johan Johansson first was son-in-law at Rif but moved in 1851 to Bäcksbacka in Purmo. Three of the children were born at Rif, and the rest of the children born at Bäcksbacka. Children:

  1. Johan, b. 2 Oct 1844. Moved to Helsingfors 1872.
  2. Henrik Gustav, b. 24 Dec 1846.
  3. Anna Lovisa, b. 10 Aug 1849.
  4. Johanna, b. 29 Jan 1852.
  5. Leander, b. 2 Jun 1854, twin.
  6. Matts, b. 2 Jun 1854, twin.
  7. Alexander, b. 21 Mar 1859.
  8. Petter Anders, b. 3 Sep 1861.
  9. Lisa, b. 25 Feb 1864.

Paul Andersson

English translation by June Pelo

From Släkt och Bygd Nr. 17, Släktforskarföreningen i Jakobstad, Dec. 1973

(While working on this translation, I learned that Johan Johansson’s mother was my great grand aunt through the Rif family. JP)

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