SFHS Topmenu: Finlander | SFHS | Repository | Talko | DEE |

Sylvia Björklund - Traveling to America with her Mother in 1916


Jump to: navigation, search

by Brent Thompson

Sylvia Ingeborg Mattsdotter Björklund was born at the Björklund family farm in Jeussen, a village slightly to the east of Kronoby, Finland, on 11 January 1911 to Matts Oskar Mattson Björklund and Alina Johanna Andersdotter Sweins.

Matts Oskar, who went by Oskar, was born in the same farmhouse on 1 July 1889, and according to family records the family had been on their land since at least 1715 where they raised cattle and grew their food, principally potatoes. The family had moved to Jeussen from Kronoby in the early 1700s. Oskar was the oldest of nine children, eight of whom lived to adulthood.

Alina was born in Öja a coastal village located on a sheltered bay 14 miles to the west a few miles south of Karleby (Kokkola) on September 19, 1886. She was one of at least six children, probably four girls and two boys.

Finland had been part of Sweden for more than six centuries, but in the peace treaty of Fredrikshamn 1819 Sweden ceded all claims to Finland. The Russian czar elected to give Finland status of a sovereign nation, a Grand Duchy in the Russian empire.

The czar graciously exempted Finnish males from military service for a period of 50 years. The exemption was later extended to 1878. In that year the Finnish Senate enacted a law establishing a Finnish defense force. In 1901 russophiles attempted to force a change of the Finnish constitution to make Finnish males eligible for service in the Russian army. The initiative died as a result of fierce resistance from the Finnish people and its leaders. But persistent rumors went around, prompting many, particularly in Österbotten to emigrate rather than risk being drafted into the Imperial army.

Oskar was one of those who elected to leave, as was his younger brother, Anders Victor who went by Victor, born September 7 1891. Both left Finland for America, Oskar in mid-1911, six months after the birth of his daughter and Victor went soon afterward.

Oskar went initially to Astoria to stay with his wife’s brother Anders and his family and then to Empire, Oregon, now a part of Coos Bay. There he found work as a mill worker or carpenter and stayed with relatives on his parent’s side. From Coos Bay he sent money to Finland and communicated with his family by letter. In 1914 Oskar moved to Bellingham, Washington to work in ship building as a ship’s carpenter. From Bellingham he continued to send money to Finland to support his wife and daughter and to pay for them to come to America.

But by late 1914 World War I had broken out and due to the submarine threat crossing the Atlantic in the early stages of the war was considered too risky for the family to attempt. Thus the family waited until things were safer to attempt to be reunited.

Oskar, Alina, and Sylvia
After Oscar left for America, Alina and daughter Sylvia had gone to live with Alina’s family in Öja. Thus, Sylvia’s early memories are from that area. One of these early memories was of her uncle Anders and aunt and young first cousins Helga and Fritz visiting from Astoria around 1913. She remembered how excited she and the family were to have cousins visit from so far away. She recalls running in circles around the room in her excitement. After that visit Cousin Helga always remained one of her favorites.

She didn’t remember much else of their visit possibly because the festive feeling was short lived. During that visit her uncle Anders became ill and died. His wife and children returned to Astoria soon after his death.

Another early memory was of her mother trying to get her to put her feet into the water of the inlet near their home. The water was too cold for Sylvia to consider. She steadfastly refused despite her mother’s continued efforts. That experience of being almost forced to go in the water caused her to avoid water, and as a result Sylvia never did learn to swim well.

She would sometimes accompany her mother, two aunts and grandfather when they went to dig potatoes in their field across the bay. The family homesteads in Öja were located on granite with minimal soil so they had to raise their crops elsewhere. Her contribution on one occasion was to tip over the buckets when they were full. After the third time she was scolded. She also accompanied her mother and family on haying excursions. The fields were about two miles away, and they traveled to and from by rowboat. When working the fields they sometimes stayed overnight in a hut the family had built for such occasions.

Sylvia had fond memories of living by the water with her extended family, staying by the warm fire on cold days and nights, and climbing up to the sleeping loft. Her grandfather Bert would often set Sylvia on his knee near the stove and tell her stories. He was her favorite.

Years later in one of her four visits to Finland she saw that the boat house which had been next to the water at high tide had “moved” up the shore 15 feet in the 75 years since she left. The land in on the Österbotten coastline is still rebounding 2 to 3 feet every 100 years having been compressed by massive ice sheets during the latest ice age.

When Sylvia was about four she played with four pair of skis left outside her grandparent’s house when guests were visiting her uncle Evart. The house was on a knoll, and in the process Sylvia tried skiing on each pair of skis with all of them ending up in a pile at the bottom of the little hill. The guests did not seem inconvenienced by her play, and no significant damage was done to the equipment. Adults were very tolerant of children, and Sylvia recalled few if any disciplinary acts. She felt most of the time she was treated respectfully as if she were an adult.

One time she needed rescuing after climbing over the fence in the sheep’s pen in the barn when the family was milking the cows. She was running around the pen hollering and scaring the sheep. Finally a buck had enough and butted her into a corner. Her screaming brought her mother and aunts to the rescue.

Her uncle Evart made her a sparkstola, which is like a scooter with a seat and a handle on two skis which Sylvia enjoyed playing with. She sometimes played with a little girl who lived nearby across the pond who also had a sparkstola.

Prior to leaving they obtained a passport which was in Russian. They also went to stay with her father’s family for three weeks in the summer before they left. There Sylvia played with her older aunts Ingrid, born in 1901 and Karen born in 1908 whom she again saw during her visits in 1973 and 1984. She remembered Karin most of all because Karin being closest in age was the one to take Sylvia around during those weeks in Jeussen.

Sylvia wasn’t used to being picked up, and uncle Nestor who was 15 years older liked to do just that so Sylvia tried to avoid him.

When they went to the nearby river Sylvia, age five, was surprised that all the kids swam nude.

Once back in Öja Sylvia tried to imagine what America would be like. She pictured a red house by itself on a hill. She had no concept of a city having only lived in two small villages of no more than six houses.

They left in October 1916 for America, as the US was always called. Alina and Sylvia first took the train north from Gamlakarleby. In Gamlakarleby the train station was outside the city so she did not have a chance to see much. When they arrived near the Finnish Swedish border, they left the train with all their luggage, took a bus, and then had to walk part way across ice before a snow buggy carried them the rest of the way. The walk must have been a long one because my mother remembers being very tired before they were given a ride.

Sylvia didn’t know why there was no continual train line between Finland and Sweden only that they had to get off the train and travel by land before once again getting on a train. They continued to Stockholm where they stayed over night in a hotel near the train station.

While in Stockholm her mother bought a hat which curiously she never wore. She had intended to wear it when she was reunited with her husband, but she and other rural women were accustomed to placing a shawl over their heads for warmth and shade. As a result the hat rarely emerged from its box.

From Stockholm they went to Oslo, and then over the twisting, many tunneled rail route to Bergen where they boarded a Norwegian ship for New York.

Just prior to departure the captain asked Alina if she would allow another woman to share their cabin. The woman was Russian which aroused the ire of Alina. But the captain convinced Alina to let the woman join them.

There was a language barrier. Alina and Sylvia spoke only Swedish and the woman spoke only Russian. Alina would not even try to communicate with the woman, but the woman did try to make friends with five-year-old Sylvia by showing her some stones when Alina was out of the cabin. Sylvia would not approach the woman, and she later realized the stones were jewels and the woman was carrying her savings and wealth in the form of jewels.

In crossing the Atlantic the captain first went north to avoid German mines around Scotland and then zigzagged to attempt to avoid submarines. The captain regularly assembled the passengers and told of their daily progress and where he thought the mines or submarines might be. There were no incidents, but everyone was tense. Upon arriving at Ellis Island in New York they had to open their mouths for an inspection of teeth and gums, and then the inspectors looked deeply into their eyes.

After passing through immigration they traveled by train on a seemingly endless ride across the country to Astoria. There were few opportunities to leave the train. At that time passengers placed their garbage in a trap door in the floor where it fell beneath the train. Sylvia remembers throwing apple peelings and other trash through the hole but one time threw the bowl along with the peelings. That got her a scolding by Alina.

After arriving in Astoria they stayed with Alina’s sister-in-law and family. Sylvia once again was able to play with cousins Helga and Fritz. The day after they arrived, Oskar came from Bellingham. Oskar had not seen his wife and child for over five years, and Sylvia was at first afraid of this unknown man who was her father. The family stayed in Astoria only a short time before going to Bellingham.

Soon after arriving in Bellingham, they had their picture taken together. They lived in a flat and in the spring of 1917 they moved to a house at 1342 Iron Street. Sylvia stayed out of school her first months in Bellingham, but in the fall of 1917 at age 6 ½ she started school.

She was the only immigrant in her class and was determined to learn English quickly. By 1916, after five years, Oskar spoke decent English, and he insisted that Sylvia and Alina learn English as fast as possible. Oskar very much wanted to be a part of his new home, America. Each evening Sylvia met her father with her school book, and he would work with her on her English. Soon she learned to read and speak, and after a year moved a grade ahead.

In the last phases of the war Oskar’s brother Victor and his wife Anna came to Bellingham from Minnesota to also work in the ship yards. They had three children; the oldest was Karen, born in 1914, with whom Sylvia played. Victor and Anna took a house on the street behind Iron Street.

When the war ended in November 1918 the ship yards had little work, and both Oskar and Victor lost their jobs some time in 1919.

By then the family had moved to 1636 Iron Street and a second child, Peter Oskar born on 22 March 1919. Alina stayed in the hospital with Peter for a week after the birth because when Peter was born, he had a high fever. Soon after the family moved to San Francisco where they lived in an apartment on a hill that lay on the future approach to the Bay Bridge. Around 1924 the family bought a new home south of the main part of San Francisco at 754 Paris Street in a neighborhood where all the streets were named after the great cities of Europe.

Personal tools
blog comments powered by Disqus