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Village meetings were held twice a year. The village elder was elected for 1-3 years at a time and the post was passed from farm to farm. Some villages had village chests in which documents were kept. In some parts of Finland a village horn was used to call people to the meeting which was usually held in the village elder’s house. It was the task of the village elder to inspect fences, roads and fireplaces. Various batons were sent from house to house, such as snow- ploughing batons, to indicate whose turn it was to provide such services. Or a round metal disc reminded the holder of his duty to ring the church bells. Some villages held village prayers and the villagers were called to prayer by a birch-bark prayer horn.

Fishing communities had organizations based on harbor rights regulations. People were called to meetings by a copper horn, a drum or a chapel bell. The harbor elder received 15 liters of Baltic herring from each fisherman as payment. Prayers were held every day, and a pastor came to conduct a worship service on Sunday.

All over Finland it was customary for neighbors to help with farm jobs. It was voluntary assistance given free of charge. Those participating were given a meal and dances were held later. The jobs usually involved getting the harvest in, hay-making, potato lifting, dung spreading, carting logs and firewood, fixing roofs and bringing in boats for the winter. Women took part in spinning and cool carding. Young girls would get together in the evening with their handwork, and young village men visited them there. Similar get-togethers were held in the malt saunas when malt was dried in the autumn.

In the 18th century catechetical meetings were held, usually in the winter. The pastor would spend the night in the house. All the people attending had to be served a meal and coffee.

Peasants usually ground their own grain, but at the end of the 18th century mill cooperatives began to hire millers. They received lodging, pasture land, hay, fuel and grain for their services.

People living on islands traveled to church in boats owned and maintained by the church boat associations. Some villages had companies responsible for hiring meadow and forest guards, and for building church stables, boat houses, saunas and village roads and bridges.


Turnips preceded the potato as a crop. Up to the late 19th century they were widely grown in the southern part of the country. Swedes and cabbages were grown mostly in the south and southwest. From the Middle Ages onward, the peasants were obligated by the Land Law to grow hops. After import restrictions were lifted in the 19th century, there was a decline in growing hops. Tobacco was introduced in the 17th century, and by the following century it was rather common in various provinces. By the 19th century tobacco growing declined. The first attempt to grow potatoes was in the 1740s and 1760s. But it didn’t really take hold until the early 19th century when they were widely grown.

Fields were already fertilized in the prehistoric era. The biggest problem was the insufficient supply of dung. Sheep and cow dung were the only fertilizers used in the grain fields. Additives to the dung were marsh soil, chopped fir branches, clay and moss. There were dung cowsheds and the dung was taken out to the fields in the winter or spring. Horse manure was used only for vegetable crops, including potatoes.

Various types of wooden plows were the main tools used in tilling the soil. Hoes were used only for clearing new land and to loosen peat sod on the marshes.

Before winter rye became common in the southwest, the main sowing season was early summer. Barley was sown between May 25 and June 12. Hemp and turnips were sown in mid-June, and potatoes were planted a week earlier. Winter rye was sown between August 10 and 24.

Sowing was generally a man’s job for the head of the household. But in northern Ostrobothnia women did the sowing. Sowing baskets made of birchbark were used in eastern Finland. The sowing baskets of western Finland were made of bent Aspen boards. In the north the baskets were made of woven roots. In the southeast, south Karelia and Häme a sowing apron was used. Horse-drawn sowing machines appeared on large farms in some parts of Finland at the beginning of the 20th century and later in the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1910 neighbors helped each other to harvest the rye. Long-handled scythes were used to mow the hay and cut the grain before machines came into use. All over Finland the grain was dried in a threshing barn. There was a chaff room on the side and a high frame for drying grain in the open air.

The harvest was brought in between July 29 and August 10. The final date for potatoes was September 21. The cut grain was tied in sheaves which were left to dry in the fields. Threshing took place between Michaelmas and All Saints’ Day. The grain was winnowed by tossing it in a windy place with a little shovel. On the southern coast the grain was poured from a basket into a receptacle in a windy place.

Until the end of the 19th century, nearly all animal fodder was obtained from natural resources, consisting mostly of meadow hay and leaf fodder. Leaves, bark, and moss were gathered. Birch sap was also used to feed the cattle. Hay was made between July 12-13 and July 29 to August 10. Then leaf fodder hay was made. It was an important fodder for the sheep. One hundred bunches per sheep was considered sufficient for the winter. There were leaf fodder forests. The young trees had to be pinched to make them branch out. A special tool called the brush hook was used. Some of those trees can still be seen. Rushes, reeds and sea grasses were also cut with a special scythe.

One problem was finding fodder for a winter lasting about seven months. The horses were fed best. There was not enough hay for cattle and insufficient manure for the fields. During the winter cattle had to make do with straw made into mash with hot water and meal. Cattle were also fed the poorest hay, turnip and potato peels, lichen and leaf fodder. Dating back to the Middle Ages, the villages had village herders to herd the cattle. In order to increase the meadow area, the surface of many lakes was lowered from the middle of the 18th century to the 1870s.

Pasturing usually began on May Day in western Finland, on April 23 in the eastern parts, and pasturing lasted until Michaelmas. Pasturing was in three stages: in the spring on village lands, then in the forests during the summer, and in the autumn in the fields and meadows after the hay and grain had been brought in. After the spring work was done, the horses were left in the forests all summer and brought back for autumn work.

The Finnish horse belongs to the old race of ponies of the Baltic area, and also Iceland. They were trained as cavalry horses in the Thirty Years War. In the 19th century new breeds were imported from the Baltic countries and Sweden, especially after the 1860s, when the first horse racing tracks were founded. Large numbers of horses were exported to Russia.

The cows were milked twice a day during the summer – morning and evening. In western Finland they were herded into a pen by the cowshed at night; in eastern part of the country they were kept in a field. In the Swedish-speaking area there were special shelters near the farms. Since the 16th century there were herdsman’s chalets in southern Ostrobothnia, mainly in the coastal area south of Vasa. The milk was brought from those huts to the village each day. The huts were also found in Karelia.

The tool for hay-making since prehistoric times was a short scythe with a curved handle. The oldest scythe blades found in Finland date from the early Roman times. They were short and used from right to left. In the Middle Ages the blade of the western Finnish scythe became longer and the cutting method changed. Mowers now struck the hay from both sides and the scythe was turned above the head. Mowers began work early in the morning when the hay was soft from dew. In the afternoon it was raked into long rows that were turned during the day. The hay was raked into little cocks for the night and then was spread out to dry again the next day. The dry hay was taken to a barn for the winter. By the 1920s hay-making in the meadows became rare in the south of Finland, but could be seen in the east and north until after World War II.

Excerpts from “Finnish Folk Culture” by Ilmar Talve

June Pelo

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