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Swede-Finns in Mason County, Michigan


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The territory now occupied by Finland was under the influence of Sweden for six centuries until Russia conquered Finland in 1808. Russia maintained jurisdiction until 1917, when the Finns gained their independence.

During the domination by Sweden, countless numbers of Swedes moved to Finland and it is this group and their descendants who are known as Swedish-Finns. Down through the years the Swede-Finns have comprised about 10% of the population of Finland.

The first Swede-Finn to come to Mason County was Alex Mattson, an uncle of A. A. Palm, who arrived in 1868. In 1872 came Andrew Newberg. Anders Borg and 17 others came from Chicago shortly after their arrival from Finland. They found work in the sawmills and lumber camps.

From 1885 to 1900 many Swede-Finns emigrated to Mason County to begin a new life in a strange land. In addition to a burning desire for a better existence, the other impelling force in young men was to avoid the compulsory three-year service in the Russian army. This period of conscription was harsh and cruel, and the young men would rather take their chances for survival in America where there was, at least, freedom and opportunity.

The young men who came worked in the lumber camps and sawmills in Mason County. Those who worked in the Butters Mill and at Taylors Mill lived in boarding houses in Buttersville and the “Island”, also known as Finn Town. At the height of its population, about 30 families lived in Finn Town. The men worked for the Danaher lumbering interests, north of Branch, and John G. Peters lumbering interests in Victory and Hamlin, also the Stearns interests at Stearns Siding, south of Branch.

The first settlement of fishermen in Ludington was on the shore of Pere Marquette Lake in what is today the Fourth Ward. As the lumbermen came in and sought sites for their mills, the fishermen were driven out of this location and established their fish shanties and their ice houses and their dance hall. From each shanty a long dock extended in Pere Marquette Lake where the fish boat tied up. There was also a salt shed of Butters and Peters Lumber Company in the grouping of lake front buildings and from this extended an extra long dock to which the Pere Marquette steamers tied up while they loaded salt and also fresh fish for shipment to Milwaukee.

Living was simple and the fisherfolk were busy and happy. Of modern conveniences there were none. Water for washing and general household use was carried in buckets from Pere Marquette Lake and drinking water was carried from a well sunk on the Lake Michigan shore. Madsen & Johnson, a prominent grocery firm made weekly deliveries to Finn Town, using the ferry which operated from Taylorsville to the foot of Perry Street; and the children attended school in Buttersville or rowed across the lake to Ludington’s First Ward school.

At the turn of the century, most of the fishermen had only sail boats, fishing for lake trout, and their nets would be set 5 to 10 miles out in the lake, depending on the season. Catches would average between 200 and 300 pounds, and fish were sold from 5 to 6 cents per pound. The fish were iced in barrels and shipped by boat to Milwaukee and Chicago markets. The nets were lifted by hand. In the early 1900s, gas fishing coats came into use with mechanical aids used in lifting nets.

Among the Swede-Finns who became fishermen at the turn of the century were Andrew Newberg, Andrew Borg, Andrew Gustafson, Leander Johnson, Matt Anderson, John Gustafson, Charles J. Johnson, Emil Bishop and Matt Lindquist, followed by his sons Fred, Alec and Hugo, and Alexander Holmstrom, followed by his sons Axel, Oscar and Ernest, and John Johnson, followed by his sons Frank and Fred.

There was no fishing in the winter months in those days when the ice blocked the channel, so many of the men went back to work in the lumber camps and others found work in the saw mills and freight sheds.

Charles J. Johnson came to Ludington in 1891 and he was married to Miss Ida Mattson in 1902. Their marriage was celebrated with a big reception in the dance hall on the “Island” and they went to live in a four-room house which was purchased from Andrew Gustafson for the sum of $25. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were the last of the fisherfolk to leave the “Island”, moving to their new home on West Loomis Street in 1910. Prior to this time, all of the others had moved to the mainland to enjoy more modern conveniences and for their children to be nearer the schools they were attending. Most of them built their homes on West Loomis Street.

The “Island” remained the center of fishing operations for many years after the families left. Fish shanties continued to be used and boats tied up at the adjoining docks.

Swede-Finns found work in the Stearns Mill, the Ward Mills, the Anchor Block, which was the forerunner of the Morton Salt Company, and the Basket Factory. Living in the Fourth Ward were Leander Haglund, Victor Carlson, John Wigren, Andrew Erickson, and Andrew Liljeberg. Matts Johnson was prominent in the Fourth Ward, serving as Ward Commissioner, active in the Swedish Aid Society; he and his three sons were carpenters.

Mr. A. A. Palm and sons George and Albert owned and operated a furniture store on South James Street. At one time, Herman Borg and Charles Skoog owned and operated a hardware store in the second block of South James Street. Charles Skoog and his sons Herman and Warner purchased Mr. Borg’s interest and they later moved to a store in the third block of South James Street.

Other families of Swede-Finn origin were Swan Peterson, Gust Sundholm, Andrew Johnson, Herman Matson and Matts Jacobson.

As with other ethnic groups, the Swede-Finns, outside of their own homes, found the church the center of their social activities. The women were active in the Ladies Aid and they found enjoyment in visiting and “coffee klatches.” Many men served on the church council of Emmanuel Lutheran Church.

I must also mention the young ladies from Finland who came to Mason County to make their living and to find mates in this new land. With deep devotion to their husbands and children and with love in their hearts, they found joy in the midst of hardship in raising their families.

With one or two exceptions, there were no prominent Swede-Finns in this community, but I can say without reservation, they appreciated America, they were dedicated and sincere in whatever they did, they were law abiding citizens, and they were an inspiration to their children.

C. Evert Johnson, January 1980%%%(His parents were Charles J. Johnson and Ida Mattson, above.)

Submitted by June Pelo

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