Back to Westminster

I guess my parents thought the tenement life for a family with a child wasn’t the greatest. At that time, Worcester was a dirty industrial smokestack city. The pull of a rural lifestyle came back, and since they had wonderful feelings about their earlier four years in Westminster, they decided to return that beautiful Massachusetts town. This time they contacted Antti and Eeva Hämäläinen at Gate House and East Roads in Westminster. (At that time East Road was called Lake Road.) My parents purchased over three acres of pasture land from the Hämäläinen’s a half-mile south on Gate House Road, just before it deadends at Worcester Rd. or Route 140, where Wachusett Reservoir and Wyman’s Pond come together. Their plan was to build a house and buildings to begin a poultry farm.

The land bordered on a Wyman’s Pond cove and was bereft of buildings. Wyman’s Pond or Reservoir was several miles long and fairly narrow in places and wound its way generally north to a dam by the Westminster Narrows at Leominster and East Roads. In the early days water had poured down the Narrows stream from Wyman’s Pond to provide water to run the paper and textile mills of Fitchburg/ Wachusett Reservoir, nestled at the foot of Mount Wachusett, served as a source for potable drinking water.

Hanna and Antti hired my father’s old school chum from Helylä, Jussi Siitonen as the contractor to build the house and outbuildings to their desire. Either 1926 or 27 was the pivotal year when they purchased the farm plot. The plan was to build a two-bedroom one-story house, a single-car garage by the road, several poultry houses and a sauna by the cove. At that time there were no electrical lines strung to that part of Westminster and the phone line only came as far as the Hämäläinen farm’s half-mile away.

The building program began in earnest. The sauna/wash house was one of the first building erected, as was a chicken house on a slight rise above the sauna, which served as a brooder house for baby chicks. Two wells were dug. One was near the new house site which would furnish potable water for drinking and other household needs. A cesspool was dug for the wastes from the indoor toilet in the house. The other well was dug near the cove next to the sauna for sauna water and for laundering use. It would also provide water for the three poultry houses to be erected in a line a distance away. At first we carried the water to the chicken basins by hand in buckets pumped from the sauna well. There was also a remnant of an abandoned cranberry bog in the shallows of the cove grown wild.

The house itself consisted of a kitchen. dining room, living room, two bedrooms, and a sun parlor which would serve as a solarium for growing flowers. My mother was fond of raising flowers. There was also a pantry for food storage. The house itself was a single-story bungalow. We also built something never found in the 200-300 year-old farms in Westminster that most of the Finnish farmers had purchased.. This was an inside flush toilet with inside plumbing. Thank you, sir Thomas Crapper, for you wonderful invention! The water for the house came from the well, and often as not in the wintertime the plumbing froze. The only source of heat for the whole house was the kitchen stove, on which we would heat hot water pulled up by a hand rope from the well to defrost the pipes leading to the kitchen sink and toilet. There was no hot water thank so if hot water was needed it had to be heated on the stove for cooking washing and shaving.


At first we burned wood in the stove so we needed to by wood for our woodpiles by the house and sauna as the umpteenth-growth brushwood trees on our property were useless as a source. We did build a full cellar under the house, another rarity on the old farms, in which we had space for a coal bin. So eventually we switched to coal and eventually to the New England form of heating and range oil.

There was no electricity so we had an old-fashioned ice box in the basement we would use in the summer. Moses Vasara, the Westminster Finnish farmer who pedaled ice on the side in an old truck would work the countryside stopping at the farm homes twice a week. The source of his ice was Meeting House Pond near town which Vasara farmed for ice every winter.

My parents did want the benefits of electricity for lights in the house, although the Gardner Power and Light Company had not yet reached our part of town with its poles and wires. For most people like us, kerosene lamps were the only option. So we bought a gasoline-powered generator which again we installed in the cellar, or kellari in Finnish. So we did have a source of electrical power to serve our lighting needs, if not “city lights”. But we needed a supply of gasoline to keep the generator powered or else the lights would fade. No solar power then! We stored the gasoline in a large can next to the generator. Now that I think about it in retrospect, how could we be so foolish! In the 18 years we lived on the farm, we could have been burned out by explosion and fire anytime, and been burned to a crisp! But good fortune prevailed.


We moved to the farm sometime in the spring of 1928 when I was two years old. Jussi Siitonen didn’t quite have the house ready, with the sauna a typical Finnish priority! So we just moved into the sauna. We had a wood stove in the dressing room and a well nearby so it was habitable. We began to bring the furniture up from Worcester and stored it in the brooder house. So we began sleeping in the chicken coop. This was the very first memory that has stuck in my mind that I can still recall. I remember the iron bedstead in the coop and playing in the dirt just in front of the door to the brooder house. The next memory that I can recall was on my third birthday when my mother lifted me above her head in the kitchen an declared: “Sinä olet kolme vuotta vanha tänään!” ( “You are three years old today!”) Eventually we did move into the house an I had the north bedroom to myself until I was 18.

Antti continued to work in Worcester August’s bakery, commuting back and forth six days a week with a Model T Ford with a rumble seat through rain, sleet, snow and ice, over a two-lane winding blacktop road. That’s our first car that sticks out in my memory.

Although we were farmers’ Coop members, my parents weren’t involved actively at first after the move back to Westminster. Because of my fathers long hours at the bakery. But we did go to the Saturday night dances sponsored by the Westminster Local in the main auditorium of the old Westminster Town Hall. Or to the Juhannus kokko (Midsummer Eve‘s bonfire) at the coop cabin just north of town. These were still the days of patriarchy when the men would make the meeting decisions and the women made the coffee, sandwiches and pulla (coffeecake). But the women weren’t afraid to speak their minds and were strong people.


Speaking of decision-making, I remember how my parents handled our family finances. With their background in the egalitarian values of democratic socialism, they conducted their family affairs with equal say-so, My father didn’t control the purse strings, and both had access to our not too ample funds. When major decisions were made to taking out loans to build the house or to erect a new poultry house, the issue was discussed between them to consensus. There were seldom major haggles, although they had different approaches to the value of money and spending. My father felt that money was made to be spent (on worthwhile things) and had contempt for the capitalist ethos of hoarding and aggrandizement. Both grew up poor and hungry but my mother’s reaction to her background was different. She was a saver, a penny pincher, and sometimes miserly. Her idea was that everything we earned came as a result of backbreaking labor and should not be frittered away needlessly, but somehow they did make their necessary compromises.

We did finally purchase our first batch of baby chicks and for the first few years raised laying hens for eggs as well as some poultry for the market. But it was still on a relatively modest scale because of Antti’s long bakery hours in Worcester. But Hanna, with her farm background, was not afraid of heavy outdoor work and took care of feeding the chickens, bringing them water, collecting eggs. We also had a garden where we raised our own vegetables for immediate consumption and canning and storage for the winter. We had some apple and pear trees which bore little fruit as their care was sadly neglected.

We also raised strawberries in quantity enough to sell to local grocery stores in Fitchburg, particularly to the Fennia Market on Academy Street on the Upper Common. There was also berrying in the woods for blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries. In the fall months my mother loved to go mushrooming. We also had a potato field and a potato-storage space in our multi-use basement. My mother would make preserves and bottle them in mason jars so we’d always have home-grown fruits and vegetables to carry us through the winter months, besides giving us the benefit of tasty fresh produce during the summer growing and picking season. We’d even harvest cranberries from the vestigial bog in the cove. Hanna also liked to pick dandelions from which she made non-intoxicating dandelion wine which she’s serve to visitors all year round. I enjoyed looping the dandelion stems together making long chains of them.


About 1929, Antti, having gotten tired of the long commutes to Worcester, decided to go into the bakery business himself in Fitchburg’s Finntown, only eight miles away. He bought the High Street Bakery where Elm and High Streets join, just down the hill from Rollstone Street. He bought it from a Finn named Heisson. It has previously been owned and operated by Pekka Koski, who was now a dairy farmer in the north part of Westminster near the Fitchburg line.

One lucky break my father had was in Vieno Koski, Pekka’s daughter, who came with the bakery and knew all its operations. Vieno was extremely valuable to my father. He had a small retail counter above on the street level for walk-in trade which Vieno managed. She also functioned as my father’s bookkeeper. And as a bilingual second generation Finn she would be a translator for Antti whose English didn’t serve well enough in some situations.

My father hired several bakers to work in the shop. A few names I remember, Urho Lehto for one. Another was Emil Lehtonen, one of Sanni Lehtonen’s sons who now owned our Old Farm. Antti taught Emil the baker’s trade. He also trained his brother Ernest Lehtonen who worked at the trade for a time.

Another Westminster boy was Harold Muhonen, oldest son of Helmi Muhonen (later Soini), one of our closest family friends in Westminster who in our early days on the new farm lived close to us in a farm across the yard from the Hämäläinen’s, which Helmi, a recent widow of Eino Muhonen, shared with her children Harold, Edwin and Mildred. Later they moved into the center of Westminster on Bacon street. But Harold just wasn’t cut out to be a baker and didn’t last on High Street

He also hired different bakery truck drivers to deliver the bread to stores and to Finnish homes around the countryside, all the way into Southern New Hampshire. Uncle August finally gave up his bakery in Worcester and he and Aino lived briefly in the Niinimaki apartment house on Elm Street near the bakery. August helped Antti get the business started . The trucks my father inherited weren’t in the best of shape and August being a decent mechanic helped keep them in repair. But August was looking around to set up his own next bakery. He finally set up shop in northeastern Connecticut where a lot of Finnish farmers lived as potential clientele. He set it up in Central Village, near Moosup as the Wayside Baking Company.


One of the bread truck drivers my father hired was a personable young and single second-generation Finn named Armas Linnus. A really nice guy and a conscientious worker. Meantime Vieno Koski and my mother had become close friends and sometimes on Saturdays they’d go to the movies at the Fitchburg Theater downtown on Main Street. In those days the theater had an orchestra pit and a live orchestra, with a vaudeville show on he stage to boot before the film started. Probably for a few cents admission. Baby sitters were unheard of, so of course I’d join the women at these shows. I remember movies that featured Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo, silent films at first, although talkies were just around the corner. I don’t remember what my first sound flick was. I recall diving under my seat in fear once as the villainous World War I German pilot, the Red Baron would engage in dogfights between flivver planes, scarf flying. His dark goggles would freak me out.

Anyway, Armas and Vieno met at the bakery. Their match was a natural. They eventually married and both continued to work at the bakery for awhile. They built a house in northern Westminster and had a large family of children. Some years ago at a FinnFest cultural annual, at Marquette, Michigan as I remember, I told Katy Heiniluoma of Hubbardston, Mass., one of the Linnus’ youngest children, that if it weren‘t for my father serving as an inadvertent matchmaker by hiring Armas, she never would have been born..


Vieno became pregnant with her first child June at almost the same time as my mother got pregnant with sister Irma in 1931. I remember them visiting and talking shop on the babies to come. Since my mother already had me as son she was dying to have a girl six years later. She had now lost her reservations about having children. She was now 38 years old and my father was 44. She had been 32 and my father 38 when I had been born. So they were late bloomers as parents.

Finally in February my mother began her initial labor pains. Aunt Aino came up from Connecticut to take care of me while my mother was going through labor at Burbank Hospital in Fitchburg. It happened on February 16, 1932, at 9:30am in the dead of winter. Antti got the call at the bakery with the mistaken message it had been a boy. He phoned Eeva Hämäläinen at their farm down the road. She came and told Aino that I now had a brother. I was delighted, thinking, oh boy, we could both go out in the snow and ride down the hill on my sled. Later on my father found out that it had been a girl after all. My mother named her Irma Kaarina.

So she came home and a crib was set up in my parents’ bedroom while I slept in my own. Already our new house was proving too small with a second child also needing her own room in a few short years. I had a lot of mixed feelings about my sister initially. Until then I had been the sole center of attention with my parents, August and Aino, and our circle of friends most of whose own children were much older than me. Now I was no longer the “cock of the walk”. Someone else was now diverting attention from me. I was at time angry and envious and even once reportedly said: “Everything was fine until she came along.” This was an occasion for mirth with my parents.


So life continued with our now enlarged family. I turned six on march 18 and was scheduled to start school in the coming fall. The year before I started, there was still a one-room schoolhouse at the corner of Worcester and East Roads nearby that had one teacher who taught the first four grades. After fourth grade, the children were transferred to the consolidated school in town. But it had closed for the opening of my school year.

So, along with the other kids in the outlying areas of town, I was bused into the school complex in the center of Westminster. Ilmari Karvonen, our good family friend from the Old Farm days, drove the school bus that served our part of town and I rode to school with Ilmari for the first nine years of my education, through junior high school. In fact, with the exception of a special bus operated by the tri-city Flanagan’s Bus Lines, all the school buses that took the kids to school were Finnish farmers who owned and operated these buses for supplementary income. They were under contract with the Town of Westminster and hauled in the children from the first through ninth grades. There was no kindergarten then in Westminster.

I had a bit of a handicap in starting school in September, 1932. I knew virtually no English. We only spoke Finnish at home. My folks never did learn to speak English well. Antti had to know some because of being involved with bakery work. Hanna never learned it except in rudimentary form. For more complex language situations they would ask for help from adult children of Finnish and neighbors. Walter Wintturi was frequently our interpreter. They didn’t want to try to speak to us in English because they didn’t want to teach us bad language habits.

In most cases in the community we got by with our Finnish. Our social life was almost exclusively among other Finns. We had a large Finnish community in Westminster, about 300 in a total population then of about 1500 to 2000 people. We and the French-Canadians were the largest ethnic groups in Town. The Westminster Local of the United Cooperative Farmers would hold at least monthly dances in the second floor auditorium of the Westminster Town Hall which they rented. They’d put on one-act Finnish language plays which were directed by a local farmer named Alex Waronen during the 1930s and early 1940s. There’d also be a Finnish community Christmas Party at the Town Hall annually sponsored by the Coop local on Christmas Eves for the families and children of the members.


We’d do most of our shopping in Fitchburg with its thousands of Finns. Since there were so many Finns in the city and surrounding Finnish-populated towns like Westminster, Ashby and Ashburnham, there were many Finnish-speaking service providers: doctors, lawyers, dentists, barbers, beauticians, cobblers, jewelers, photographers, auto repair garages, small groceries, pharmacies and bakeries like my father’s. Dr. Richard Westlin, who had had his medical training at the University of Helsinki, for years was the community’s only Finnish MD, until Dr. Frederick Djerf, a young Finnish-American, set up practice in Fitchburg and became a family doctor.

Stores and banks would engage Finnish-speaking clerks and tellers. A lot of our shopping was done in Finnish-run stores like the large United Cooperative Society’s food market on the Upper Common. A lot of our financial needs were met at the Workers credit union in the Raivaaja building then on Wallace Avenue which was often called Raivaajan pankki (The Raivaaja Bank). It’s manager for many years was John Suominen, a leading Social Democrat. My parents early on established a savings account for me at the Credit Union which I had until almost 30 years later when I was living in Los Angeles.

“Yankee” stores would have Finnish clerks and commercial banks would have Finnish tellers. For men’s clothing, we’d often trade at the Lane Clothiers on Main street which had two Finnish salesmen, Gustav Laakso and a man named Johnson. Our pharmacy needs were met at the Anderson’s Drug Store on Main’s street’s Upper Common, operated by another Finnish-American named Otto Anderson, another old Quincy Socialist who once drove a bakery truck for the Quincy Baking. Co., then run by William Wick and my Uncle August. The Finns would call the store: Andersonnin Apteekki.

So we got along famously with our Finnish for the most part. But it was an early handicap for a number of us Finn kids not knowing English when starting school. So for the first few months after entering class I felt lost.


The first day of school my mother outfitted me in what was seen as “sissy” garb. I had bangs, a white shirt with decorative, frilly-embroidered front and collar, dark satin shorts, pink socks, and she bought me a brightly colored lunch box with a flower pattern. The minute I got off Karvonen’s school bus into the school yard, a horde of boys descended on me, second and third graders, screaming like banshees and started to beat up on me. My shirt was torn and I was bruised and cut all over.

But I was a big kid and swung back with my lunch box, hardly a Ghandian pacifist reflex. Some teachers or larger kids may have broken it up. I don’t remember. From then on I was dressed differently and carried a black, proletarian-style lunch bucket.

Of course, class was confusing and chaotic for me at first, not knowing English. The first day I was crying. My teacher was Miss Doris Fenno, who taught the first grade `at the George C. Upton Elementary School for many years. During the first few days she would bring in Sylvia Turunen, a Finnish-American teacher from Fitchburg who taught second grade, to talk and explain to me. The other Finnish-American teacher at the Westminster schools was Signe Antila, also from Fitchburg who taught eighth grade.

Somehow I began to get by. Arithmetic was relatively easy for me as I knew numbers. The language indoctrination was slow and painful.

The morning ritual that opened everyday I couldn’t understand, something entirely new for me. The morning started with a pledge of allegiance to the American flag which stood in the front of the room. It was all a bunch of mumbo-jumbo to me. At that time the words “under God” did not appear in the pledge. They were added later on in 1954 during the Eisenhower Presidential Administration in the midst of the Cold war anti-Communist hysteria. At this writing (July, 2003), Dr. Michael Newdow is challenging this amendment in the US Federal Court system on the grounds it violates the church-state separation principle of our constitutional Bill of Rights.

Then came the “Lord’s prayer”. This was new to me coming from an atheist home. I thought it was weird that kids would put their head down to the desk wrapped in their arms mumbling something strange. At first I thought it was a game. It was many years later that the late Madalyn Murray O’Hare and other atheists challenged religious practices in public schools as a violation of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state principle and won a Supreme Court decision forbidding them. In the early 1930s atheists and other secularists did nothing to bring to an end to this imposition of Christianity in the public schools.

Another patriotic ritual would end the opening morning ceremonies. The singing of “America”: “My country t’is of thee, sweet land of liberty, etc.” Jingoism was not part of our family tradition which looked more to the values of the Socialist international working class rather than national state patriotism. I’m surprised that my atheist and libertarian socialist views developed and prevailed with all this early high-octane indoctrination from without. So my family values have had a strong impact on me.


I got along quite well with the other kids despite language differences on the school playground during recess and lunch periods. There were also plenty of Finnish kids around I could talk to in our first language. This is the first time I had anything to do with my Yankee peers, some of whose families had lived in Westminster for generations, from before the American Revolution of 1776. I don’t know whether we Finns or the French-Canadians were the largest minority group. There were some Irish as well as a few Italian families, and one Polish family, the Skorko’s who owned an auto junkyard on the Gardner Road near the Gardner city line. There were no Blacks or Asians, but there was one Native American family, the Feltmans, who lived across the street from the schools with an American Indian mother and a German father.


There was prejudice in Westminster, being the foreign language-speaking large minority group that we were. This anti-immigrant fear was something that prevails against Latinos, Asians, and Middle Easterners in the United States in this year 2003, and which is bringing about a new upsurge of right-wing populist movements in Western Europe – all replete with racism. In the Westminster schools this was most overt in the early grades of elementary school. I remember an older boy named Carl Smith who was an instigator of these prejudices. There were occasional fistfights between Finnish boys and non-Finnish boys, usually the attackers being the latter. This does not mean that these were majoritarian attitudes, but they weren’t insignificant. There were no organized violent gangs in Westminster.

I remember comments like: “Why don’t they go back where they came from.” “They don’t even speak English right.” We were called “square heads” and stupid, although a lot of the brightest children in school were the progeny of Finnish farmers and factory workers. There were nasty comments about our saunas which were considered “foreign” and somehow “un-American”. Usually these attitudes came down to the children from narrow-minded adults. They don’t usually generate from the kids themselves. These were Depression years so attitudes did circulate that these foreigners have come here to take jobs away from “real Americans”, although by the early 1930s immigration had dwindled down to next to nothing after restrictive Federal laws were enacted after World War I.

But usually by junior high school many of these negative attitudes had subsided. After the ninth grade most of these teens were bussed to Fitchburg High School and by that time we mostly all got along well. We became good friends, played ball, and dated and hung out together.

But prior to then, Finnish immigrant families had been looked down upon by some of the old Yankee old stock residents as ignorant foreigners. French-Canadians got some of the same treatment in those days. They were called “Frogs” and although their weren’t many Italians in Westminster (Fitchburg had a large Italian community) their denigrators called them “Wops” and “Dagos”.

Some of these anti-French and anti-Italian attitudes infected the Finns, too. I remember even my own family as well as others thought that French-Canadians were dirty, smelly and lazy. The same applied to the Italians. (Some of these attitudes may have stemmed from the use of garlic with its attendant smells by these ethnicities, which Finns rarely used then.) Intermarriage was taking place between second-generation Finns and people of these ethnicities, causing heartbreak among some Finnish parents. One reason was that these “others’ were of Roman Catholic persuasion, with the Finns having a strong Lutheran background. And some of the Finns were converting to Catholicism in these marriages. These same fears also applied to the Socialists and Communists among Westminster Finns with their secularist views. Marriage by Finnish second generation young folks to people of Yankee Anglo-Saxon stock was considered a step upwards by some Finns, especially since the latter were the “Establishment” and were mostly Protestant. There was a group pride toward “Americanism” particularly by the non-Socialist Finns and they looked favorably upon this kind of upward “social mobility” as having arrived as Americans.


Eventually as Finns became more established citizens of Westminster, they began to be accepted more positively and began to even be elected to public office in town. In my time, as I remember insurance agent Peter Säkkinen was elected for at least a term on the Board of Selectmen. A poultry farmer named William Johnson also served on the Board. Our neighbor Otto Leino, ironically one of the pro-Communist Finns, was elected as Sealer of Weights and Measures in this predominantly New England Republican town.

In the Post-World War II years after I left Westminster, others were elected. Our good family friend Walter Wintturi was on the Board of Selectmen for several terms, even serving as its Chair. Eugene Niemi, one of the sons of Kasper and Hilma Niemi, our friends from the hillside of Mount Wachusett, was at one time the elected Town Clerk. Niemi, now deceased, established an insurance agency in town, still operated by his son in 2003. Toivo Tuominen was for many years a respected Police Chief in Westminster.


I was painfully beginning to orient myself to school in the fall of 1932, when I came down with scarlet fever. We had some French-Canadian neighbors, the Beauchamps. The Beauchamps had a house next to ours on Gatehouse Road closer to Worcester Road. They had a residential cottage with a gas station and convenience store at the intersection of Worcester and the foot of Bolton Roads. There were three Beauchamps siblings living in these places, two sisters Louise and Dolores and a brother Raymond. Despite ;language difficulties, my mother and Louise became good friends. Their grandmother Beauchamps also lived in the larger house nearer to us. We called her the “The Ranskalainen Mummo” or “The French Grandmother“. Her son, the father of the adult siblings was a medical doctor. “Dr. Beauchamps”..lived and practiced in the French-Canadian Cleghorn district of Fitchburg.

One of his sons had a young boy, Bobby, a year or two younger than me, who lived with his aunts and uncle and great-grandmother during the summer months in Westminster. Despite the language barrier, Bobby and I were playmates. In the late summer and early fall of 1932 a scarlet fever epidemic began to spread among children in the Fitchburg and Gardner areas. School had already started but one weekend Bobby came to stay with his Westminster relatives and we played together as usual. Bobby came down with scarlet fever and his great-grandmother’s place was placed under quarantine. Shortly after, I came down with it. It was diagnosed by Dr. Mossman of Westminster.

My sister was an infant and wasn’t feeling well. Immediately, the MD ordered me taken to an isolation hospital for contagious diseases which was located in Gardner at the time. He said since my sister was a baby and might get scarlet fever from me, she could die. So off I went. The red quarantine sign went up in front of our house as well.

So I spent a month at this hospital, quite ill. My parents weren’t allowed to come into the ward to see me because of the contagion factor. They would come into the yard below the windows of my ward and the nurses would take me to the window which might have been on the second or third floor and we could wave to each other. All I could do was cry when I saw them. I was lonely and miserable. There were several other boys in my ward and none were Finnish. I still couldn’t speak or understand much English which made me feel even more miserable.

But in a way this isolation period turned into an advantage for me. Wanting to communicate with the other boys, all of a sudden my knowledge of English began to take off! By the time my month in the hospital was over, I could rattle off pretty well in English., although it was still pretty rough and limited around the edges.

I came home sometime early in November and had to stay out of school until after the holidays as I was still quite weak from the scarlet fever. But I was beginning to get a good grip on English language children’s books which I had plenty at home to deal with during my convalescence.

In January I returned to school and the rest of the year went well and I could handle myself better and better in English as the semester rolled on. Ms Fenno thought I had done well enough so she didn’t feel she needed to hold me back another year and I was promoted to second grade, beginning in September, 1933.

Lempi’s Political Adventures

My cousin Lempi went through quite an eventful time after she left Worcester in 1929 to for New York to stay with her Communist mother. (Later Iita made a wide swing to the right toward the end of her life and became a rabid right-wing Republican.)

Lempi went to work in New York City, mostly as a waitress. The city was a hotbed of radicalism and she fell in with the youth of the Young Communist League and the Communist Party and became an idealistic “flaming revolutionary”. There were strikes, demonstrations, early feminism, abortion rights, and all kinds of causes in which to be active. She met a young Jewish Communist named Lawrence (Larry) Cohen who was the son of a New York Jewish millionaire. His father was connected by blood to the Fleischman’s Yeast family as well as to the owners of Filene’s Department Stores. Larry went to Harvard and became an activist in the Communist John Reed Club on campus, an historic political institution at Harvard. Lempi moved with him to Boston. She later told me that Larry would make speeches on the plight of the working class on a Boston Common soapbox, wearing an expensive raccoon coat and a bowler hat. He was quite a brilliant chap who spent hours every week reading The New York Times and was well versed in Marxist theory, but of course with a Stalinist twist.

Somewhere along the line in the early 1930s, Larry and Lempi got married. Larry’s father was so angered by this for marrying the daughter of a lowly non-Jewish immigrant baker, when he already had plans for him to marry the daughter of another prominent Jewish family, high in social and financial status.

In fact, he was so angry that when Lempi and Larry went off for a year’s honeymoon in the bohemia of Paris in the early 30s, he sent his son only $100 a month sustenance to punish him for his marital and political foolishness. So there! Actually, the young couple lived like royalty on that $100 on the Left Bank. They mixed with all the exiles, intellectuals, revolutionaries, artists, and writers which has always made Paris one of the most exciting cities of the world.

She told me later that they made friends with people like the writers Romain Rolland and the American novelist James T. Farrell from Chicago. They had a total ball that year. I remember her sending me a nice oil painting set and my sister a little pink French dress for either Christmas or for her first birthday. They had a total ball that year.


After a year in Paris, Lempi and Larry returned to the Depression-ridden States, and lived for a short time in Boston, where Larry had gone to school at Cambridge. They remained involved with the CP-USA.

There was an incident when Lempi was making a passionate speech on some issue on the Boston Common and the cops grabbed her and threw her in the paddy wagon. She fought back furiously and the incident was photographed and reported in the Boston daily papers. Aunt Aino came from Worcester and showed us the papers. My father who was a Democratic Socialist and not in sympathy with Lempi’s CP politics of that time, nevertheless glowed with pride over his favorite niece, saying: “That’s my girl!”, admiring her for her fighting, passionate spirit.

I remember as a child when Lempi hitchhiked through Westminster and stopped at our farm, on her way back to Boston after making a speech at Smith women’s college in Western Massachusetts. She was wearing a red shirt and red suspenders. I’ve never forgotten that. I’ve always loved her and from early on she became an inspiring role model for me. She even brought me children’s books in which Lenin was portrayed as a big hero. My parents didn’t read English and didn’t pry into my reading habits.

She and Larry moved back to New York where they continued their personal and political lives. They never had children because Lempi did not want to be a mother since she wanted to dedicate her life to be a professional revolutionary.


Somewhere in the early 1930s Larry was brought up on charges in the disciplinary hothouse of the “democratic centralist” Communist Party and was expelled. I never knew the specifics. But I know he had a brilliant inquiring mind, and a truly critically thinking intellectual, and probably posed the wrong questions to the orthodox political hacks who ran the CP.

But this happened in one of the frequent periods of ferment in the history of the CP. A lot of this ferment then was taking place over events in the Soviet Union when Stalin was consolidating his control of the system and crushing his Bolshevik rivals in the leadership. Among the CP-oriented groups in the United States whose political fortunes reflected the Byzantine gyrations of Soviet politics were the Lovestoneites, Jay Lovestone being an important CP leader, who with his supporters became pariahs in the Party following the shakeout which ousted the Bukharinites out of power in the Soviet Union. The Lovestoneites were expelled around 1928.

Before that Lovestone & Co. had had a hand in expelling the followers of Leon Trotsky who were purged in 1927. They became known as the Trotskyists or deprecatingly, Trotskyites, or just plain “Trots”. The alternative Left labeled the CP as Stalinists, a term which has stuck.

So it could have been debates about any of the these factors as well as others, that got Larry to look at things differently that got him expelled. Lempi was expelled for defending her husband against his charges.

She later was involved with A.J. Muste’s American Workers Party as an organizer and still further down the line was an early member of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, led by James P. Cannon. Toward the end of her life she was an independent socialist with anarchist leanings, but more on her story later.

The Great Depression

The bank crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression had an impact on my family as well as the Finnish-American Labor Movement. Sometime around 1933 my father lost the High Street Bakery. People just didn’t have enough money to buy sufficient bread and bakery products. Antti allowed a lot of credit to customers who were unable to make up for it with cash. This could not go on indefinitely.

Armas Linnus, my father’s old bakery driver who I visited a few years ago in Westminster (he and Vieno are both in their 90s in 2003), told me a story about the last days of the High Street Bakery Part of his route was in southern New Hampshire. My father tried to tighten up on his generous credit allowances and instructed Armas not to give one woman in New Hampshire any more bread until she produced some cash to pay for her back bills. So when Armas told her this she gave him a $5 payment and promptly bought $10 worth of more baked goods on the cuff! Armas said that often a whole day’s receipts from the New Hampshire run would only amount to $12-$13.

Things could not continue in this way and since income dwindled to next to nothing, he couldn’t pay wages and purchase supplies. So he laid everyone off and closed the doors of the bakery. Emil Lehtonen, one of his bakers, tried to resume the business on his own but failed after a strenuous struggle.

By then Uncle August had gotten a good footing in Central Village, CT. with the Wayside Baking Co. he hired my father to be his shop foreman for $30 a week, while he drove the bread route himself. So Antti worked in Connecticut for four years, boarding with August and Aino initially and later with August and Naima Saario, a Finnish poultry farm family in Canterbury or Moosup. Antti would arrived home to Westminster late on Friday nights and returned early Sunday morning to Central Village to fire up the ovens. Most of the years he drove a 1932 Pontiac sedan.

Years later, after my father had died, some Finnish man she didn’t know came up to her in downtown Fitchburg and gave her a $20 bill. She puzzled about what this was for. “It’s for the bread your husband so generously advanced to us on credit, that kept my family from starving during The Depression,” he said.



A lot of our family friends were jobless during those years. But the Westminster Finnish farmers were able to survive, thanks to the marginal farms we operated. We had our own garden truck and fruit trees which enabled us to put up preserves for the winter, we had chickens for eggs and meat, we had fish from the pond, and there were wild berries and mushrooms. We’d but a three quart can of raw milk (no pasteurization then yet) from the Niemi farm, which one of the Niemi sons would deliver to us every morning. Some Finns considered us wealthy, as my father had a $30-hour-a-week job, where much of the factory pay was less. When the WPA (Works Project Administration) New Deal jobs started, I think the men were paid $18-$20 a week on road paving and construction and the building of the Whitmanville dam on the north side of Westminster.


Some of the Socialist Finns in the Fitchburg area had citizenship papers and could vote. Others like my family did not until the early 1940s. Many Finnish supporters of the Socialist Party-USA backed Norman Thomas for President, who succeeded the legendary Eugene Victor Debs as the perennial Socialist candidate. A second-generation Finnish dairy farmer from Westminster, Peter Wartiainen, Jr., was an active member of the Socialist Party of Massachusetts, and I remember a couple of times he was the SP candidate for the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office. The SP-USA was then on the Massachusetts ballot. (Later the dominant major parties in Massachusetts and elsewhere tightened up the ballot laws to make it difficult and impossible for minor parties to retain ballot status. Stringent signature requirements made it impossible for many small parties to achieve ballot status by petition. The DeLeonist Socialist Labor Party was able to maintain ballot status because at one time they had considerable financial reserves to pay for signature campaigns. Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party was able to do so in 1948, but the Socialist Party could no longer muster enough support to do so.)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932 and the New Deal reform measures became popular with the Finnish Socialists. By 1936, the Finnish Socialists had accepted FDR’s New Deal to the extent that most voted for him for a second term against Republican Alfred Landon. Some probably continued to vote for Norman Thomas. In 1932 the Communist Party ran a ticket of Earl Browder and James Ford for President and Vice President, but I was too young to remember any talk of the Finnish Communists voting for them.


We were never hungry during the Depression although everything was tight. But friends of the family were unemployed and found work with the WPA road and dam building projects around Westminster. There was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that had a camp a few miles up the road from us and every morning while I was waiting for the Karvonen school bus, two CCC trucks came down Gate House Road taking the men to Mount Wachusett to build trails and do conservation work. I had never seen African-Americans before, and I remember one young Black man being part of the CCC crew. Harold, the older son of our good family friend Helmi Muhonen was in the CCC and rode in one of the trucks up the mountain.

People generally lent each other a helping hand during those years. There was barter, eggs and chickens for milk, butter, and buttermilk. The Farmers’ Coop Westminster camp had a blueberry weighing station where people could bring blueberries they’d have gathered every evening, get them weighed and earn a little extra money. I remember Co-Op volunteer Toivo Nikki usually handled the blueberry operation. Then they’d be taken to the central wholesale of the United Farmers Cooperative for shipment to market.

I earned my first money picking blueberries. Oskari Lehtinen had plenty of blueberries in his woods which he let us pick. My mother would take my sister along who was too small to do anything and I’d pick the best I could though I found it boring. I remember that with my first money I earned blueberrying, I bought a Mickey Mouse wristwatch of which I was very proud.

A source of our Saturday night social life were the one-act plays put on by the amateur actors of the Westminster Coop Local, produced in Finnish at the Town Hall. These would be followed by dancing accompanied by a home-grown band, playing waltzes, schottisches, polkas and tangos. There’d be coffee, pulla (Finnish coffee bread), sandwiches, and soda pop for the kids. The Huvitoimikunta (Entertainment Committee) would organize these social evenings.


On Juhannus Eve (Midsummer Night’s Eve) on June 21 the Co-op would have a kokko (bonfire) in the field on the Coop camp property. We would party and all the Westminster Finns and their families would show up. We kids would do our usually horsing and running around.

To fire up the kokko, we had a tall pole in the ground on which we would pile up old worn-out tires to burn to nearly its top. One year, since we had an excess of tires somebody got the bright idea to attach a crosspiece near the top to form an arm the extra tires could be mounted on. It formed a cross. So a little gasoline was splashed on, and a torch lit an impressive bonfire. Finnish Juhannus tradition was well served.

But people in the cars driving by on the Gardner-Fitchburg State Road down the hill from us saw it as something different. They saw the fiery cross and thought the Ku Klux Klan was doing its thing., although the Klan was unknown in Northern Worcester County. In the Fitchburg Sentinel the next day appeared a story that the Klan had burned a cross on a Westminster hillside. But the Finnish farmers celebrating Juhannus had nary a thought they had set up the vile race-hating symbol of the Klan.


In my time, Westminster had only one police officer in town, part-time, and he was the elected police chief of the town, elected at either the annual Town meeting or by ballot box, I can’t recall which. I can recall two police chiefs in my childhood. Harold Towle, Sr., was one. He had a large family and his son Calvin was in my grade in school. He drove a dump truck for the Town. The other was Bob Battles whose kids were also in school with me.

But after I left Westminster, a Finnish police chief was elected for the first time, Toivo Tuominen, a Westminster farm family who were Coop members. His father was deceased, and Toivo continued on the farm with his mother, wife and son. He ran a auto body shop in the farmyard as his day job, since as police chief he was paid so little. There was no patrolling but he would answer the phone and go to intervene in a domestic altercation, or pick up a drunk who was creating a nuisance. When there’d be a car wreck on one of the town roads he’d respond. The State Police would cover the State Highway #2 between Fitchburg and Gardner.


I can recall a couple of times during the Depression years when an unemployed middle-aged Finnish guy would come by the farm and ask for a night’s lodging and meals in exchange for cutting wood or cleaning a henhouse. My mother would bed him down in the sauna. He’d do the chores and my mother would feed him well and would pack him a sizeable lunch to go when he leave the next morning walking down the road.

My father would come home late Friday nights from Connecticut and the next day we’d go to Fitchburg to do our weekly shopping at the Coop or Fennia Market and do other purchases. I’d have a nickel allowance and I’d use it to by a preview edition of the Sunday New York Daily News for the comics.

Often we would go to plays at Saima Hall in Fitchburg, the Ash Street Hall in Gardner or the Belmont Hall in Worcester, as all of these Socialist halls had dramatic societies. We kids would sit in the first two rows on the left in the audience, which was a tradition at these halls. There’d be some plays with Socialist themes, others with no political content. Musicals were quite popular. “Iloinen leski“, or “The Merry Widow“ was frequently done by all of these drama groups.

We’d always go to the Finnish Socialist summer festivals (Kesäjuhlat) Saima Park in Fitchburg, usually toward the end of June. There would be track and field events. In fact, these are still being held at Saima Park as the oldest athletic event of its kind in New England. Not many Finnish names can be seen among

The participants now. These track events were influential in bringing a lifelong love of track and field athletics for me. Whereas most Americans are into football and baseball, it’s T&F for me!

Other things would happen at these Festivals. There’d be chicken dinners on Sunday at the Park, all prepared by volunteers. Concerts with wind and brass instrument bands. Choral groups and soloists. Then there’d be the speeches. Frequently we’d hear Oskari Tokoi. A Raivaaja editor, who had been the first prime minister of Finland, as a member of the Senate when it had had its first Social Democratic majority.

He had also been in the Socialist government when it had seized power in the events leading up to the Finnish Civil War. He had fled to the fledgling Soviet Union with all the other leaders of the Red Government when the Whites won the war. He turned against the Bolshevik Government for its political ruthlessness and its establishment of a one-party dictatorship. He eventually left the country and ended up in the United States where he became a Raivaaja editor about 1921. He was under a death sentence by both the conservative Finnish government and the Bolshevik regime in the USSR.

The Summer Festivals would also include plays and dances as pat of a grand weekend package.


There was also a sizeable number of Finnish Communists in New England. Their summer festivals were held at Holmes Park at the north end of Westminster near the Gardner line in a wooded park with a summer dance pavilion that they owned. Theatrical plays were also performed at the pavilion. These summer festivals would usually be held on the same weekend as the Socialist festivals in Fitchburg to rival them. Both would try to lure away the crowds from each other.

In the early 1930s the rivalry between these two movements was fierce. Both had daily newspapers on the East Coast. The Socialists had The Raivaaja in Fitchburg and the Communists had Eteenpäin (Forward) published then in Yonkers, New York. It had first been established in the 1920s in Worcester, planned deliberately to compete with Raivaaja , the only Socialist paper left in the country after the Second Schism over ten years before. Elis Sulkanen, a prominent early Finnish Communist had been its first editor. He was expelled from the CP in 1927 as a political “deviant” and later, sometime in the 1930s went into the democratic socialist camp and eventually became a Raivaaja editor. Other’s expelled “opportunists” as part of the Communist “Opposition” group, besides Sulkanen, included Wilho Boman, a respected leader among the CPers and Henry Askeli, who had been Secretary of the Finnish Socialist Federation when it left the SP-USA. Later Askeli became a Raivaaja columnist and operated a health resort on Cape Cod.

This Finnish Communist Opposition group was not he same as the Jay Lovestone-led Communist Opposition movement that was expelled by the CP in 1928, reflecting the rivalry between Bukharin and Stalin in the Soviet Union. The year before, 1927, when the CP had expelled the Trotskyists James P. Cannon, Max Schachtman, Maurice Spector, and others, the Lovestoneites had been among the most enthusiastic purgers. But the Finnish “opposition” group had been targeted in the internal politics of the Finnish-American Communists.

My cousin Lempi, years later when she was either a Musteite or a Trotskyist, I don’t recall which, tried to recruit Wilho Boman into her Party. She spent the evening at the Boman’s place in New York City She told me about this meeting many years later. She said Boman was polite, offered coffee, but basically said “no thanks”, that he was done with politics. Reportedly he later made his living as a masseur.


In 1929 and 1930, the rivalry between the Communist and Socialists grew even more intense and acrimonious. This was the Communist “Third Period”, hatched in the Kremlin, and all the member parties around the world followed its dictates. With the economic crisis in world capitalism, the Communists misread the signals and thought the time for a proletarian world revolution was ripe. So all the CPs around the world went into a hyper-revolutionary mode. They considered the greatest impediment to revolution were the Socialists and Social Democrats and alternate left groups of any sort., whey they promptly label as “social fascist’. (Fascism had reared it ugly head when Mussolini took power in Italy in the early 1920s.

So the Communists viciously attacked Social Democratic Parties around the world as “Social Fascists” and urged their rank and file members to desert their foul leaders and join the Communists. The same developments took place in all the subordinate member Communist parties including the United States and Finland. In Finland, the underground CP, which had been made illegal by conservative capitalist governments attacked the Tannerite Social Democrats with a vengeance, also the “left opportunist” Niilo Wälläri who had been a Wobbly in the United States before he was deported in the early 1920s Red Scare. Eventually, after breaking with the CP he had become the militant head of the Finnish Seamen’s Union for 30 years.

But the worst damage was done in Germany where the CP made light of the growth of Nazism and spent great energies attacking the Social Democrats. “The Nazis now, then we’re next”, was their bizarre call. This division they fomented between the two great working class movements served to weaken them all and helped facilitate the victory of Hitler and his Nazis.

In the United States this Third Period vehemence was reflected, too, as the Eteenpäin and its sister paper Työmies in Superior, Wisconsin, attacked Raivaaja with even shriller impact. Raivaaja gave as good as it got, labeling the Communists as “Ryssän kätyrit”, (“Russian henchmen”) and worse. So these efforts on the part of both groupings to attract the ranks of the Finnish-American workers and farmers to their own festivities developed a really acrid tone which hardly encouraged “working class solidarity“..

The Finnish Wobblies also had their own federation which also had their own summer festivals. The only sizeable IWW grouping I knew of in New England was in Northeastern Connecticut where they had a hall in the town of Brooklyn for a number of years. Of course there was the historic Tarmo Club in Finnish Harlem which was a Wobbly center, sometimes patronized by “T-Bone Slim” (a Finn named Matt Valentin Huhta) who was a noted IWW songwriter and a columnist for the English language IWW newspaper, The Industrial Worker.

Uncle August, who was a staunch Social Democrat, was also a businessman whose bakery goods customers were mostly fellow Finns who belonged to all of these political factions. Consequently, when it came time for paid greetings from merchants, associations, and individuals in these papers for May Day, and Christmas time, August would have paid greetings in all of them, Raivaaja, Eteenpäin and Industrialisti. But he’d never go to Communist halls or picnics.

At Summer festival times, radical families simply would be loyal to their own political groups. But this was not true of all second-generation youth, teenagers and 20 something’s. They would go to dances at all of these halls regardless of faction, wherever their favorite bands played. Bands like that of the legendary Finnish-American accordionist Viola Turpeinen would play at any and all of them around the country.


In the early days, Church Finns around the country would have their Sunday schools for children where they could socialize, learn to read and write in Finnish and of course get their Lutheran Church indoctrination. They would have their aapinens, or primers or ABC books which would have religious stories as a means of indoctrinating them into the dogmas of the Protestant Christianity.

The secularist Finnish-American labor movement also wanted their children to learn to read and write Finnish as much as the church parents, but wanted their children to become familiar with their own Socialist values. While some of the Socialist parents had their children baptized and go through the confirmation ritual later, a great many like my parents were atheists and non-believers and did not want their children brainwashed into religion.

So the Finnish workers’ movements had their counterparts to the Lutheran Sunday schools. They were called Ihanneliitto or “idealistic leagues”, which would also meet on Sunday mornings like the Lutherans, probably at the same time. Only they would meet at the workers’ halls, not in the churches. The left wing Finns would have their own aapinens but they weren’t written on religious themes. They were lessons on basic Marxist principles, on the evils and injustices of capitalism and of the desirability of the labor movement and of Socialism.


All the left groups functioned on the same format with their Ihanneliitto. The Socialist Party had their own and used the standard aapinens, written in the early 20th century. Later in the case of the SP Finns, there’d be Finnish-American circles of the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL), the traditional youth organization of the Socialist Party. They were often called “Yipsels”. They were teenagers to their early 20s in age who conducted their meetings in English although they knew Finnish. They would work with the non-Finnish Yipsels.

A number of the New England Finnish Dispels became prominent in the general non-ethnic Yipsels. The best known is Sävele Syrjälä, the son of Frans E. Syrjälä, the early Raivaaja editor who was the leader of the Social Democratic Finns who died in 1925.Sävele Syrjälä was chairperson of the entire New England YPSL at one time. Others were the Hannula brothers from Gardner, Tarmo and Reino. Their brother Toivo was the chief organizer bringing the unions into the chair factories of Gardner. All of the Ihanneliitto children did not necessarily become YPSLs. The pre-YPSL children’s organization of the SP was called the Young Falcons, but I never knew if any of the Finn kids were involved with them.

My greatest regret was that I was too young to be able to have the Ihanneliitto or YPSL experiences in the early 1930s. By the time I was old enough to be eligible, the Ihanneliittos were a thing of the past. They were at their strongest from the teens to the twenties of the past century. I became a Yipsel much later, long after the Finns had left the SP-USA in 1936, and there were no more Finnish ethnic YPSL circles.


The Finnish Communists also had their Ihanneliittos which continued after the Second Schism. But their slant was toward Marxism-Leninism and the uncritical adulation of the Soviet Union. They had their summer Pioneer camps for young people and some later joined the Young Communist league or YCL, the CP’s counterpart to the Socialist YPSL. These were more prominent in the Midwest and West Coast rather than in New England. These may have existed in CP strongholds such as in Gardner and Norwood.


Finnish Wobblies also had their Ihanneliittos and youth groups. Tie Vapauteen ( Road to Freedom), the Finnish IWW monthly magazine, once had an article about the young Finnish Wobbly summer camp around Brooklyn, CT where they had their hall. The regular English-speaking IWW have had a category of membership called “Junior Wobblies” but I don’t know to what extent the Finns were involved with that.

Of course, a lot of Finnish wobbly youth attended special summer classes in the 1930s at Work Peoples College, with an emphasis on industrial unionism as a philosophy contrasted to the positions of the political party leftists. I’d never hear of WPC and their summer youth camps, growing up in the Raivaaja Social Democratic milieu because they were mildly hostile to the IWW.


We did have one of the Finnish workers’ aapinens at home and I used to practice my Finnish reading it. I’d read passages out loud about a hungry, unemployed worker making the rounds of factories all day long to look for work but with no luck. He would return home to his wife and children in their shabby but clean tenement with no food in the cupboard in the evening. His wife would say; “Saitko työtä?” (“Did you find work?)” The father would say: “En saanut.” (“No I didn’t.”) I would read it very gravely but with full poignancy and drama to emphasize the seriousness of their situation. My parents would love their heads off at my presentation.

Although my parents never tried to proselytize us on politics and religion I developed my socialist and secularist attitudes in good part from such early experiences. I learned to read and write Finnish on my own by not only reading the workers’ aapinen, but by struggling to read my parents’ Raivaaja every day, which paper was often called the Finnish workers’ university in our sector of the American Finnish labor movement as most of the immigrants had limited education in Finland or the United States but learned to understand politics and the world situation from reading it as the paper did not appeal in these matters to people’s credulity but to their intelligence.

My political education was also formed by observing the immediate world around us. As this was the period of the Great Depression, and although I didn’t fully comprehend all that was going on, without realizing it this helped contribute my education on social and political issues.


Part of this education came from hearing my parents and their friends talking about a phenomenon known as “Karjalan Kuume” or “The Karelian Fever”. Edward Gylling, the Finnish leader of the nominally autonomous Republic of Karelia in Eastern Russia between Lake Ladoga to the west and Lake Onega to the east, initiated a recruiting drive to bring skilled Finnish-American and Finnish-Canadian workers and their families to Soviet Karelia to help develop its economy, particularly in the forestry and logging area.

Lenin had granted Gylling, finance minister of the Finnish Red Government during the Finnish Civil War and who had fled to Sweden after the Whites’ victory with a death sentence over his head, the right to develop a Finnish-speaking enclave in Karelia, which had a multi-ethnic population of Russians, Karelians, Finns, Veps, Maris, and other Finno-Ugric ethnicities.

It was to be a bi-lingual state with Russian and Finnish as the official languages, operating and developing state-owned industrial and agricultural complexes. Gylling and his friend Gustav Rovio, a former Red police chief of Helsinki, had a dream of setting up a Finnish-speaking and predominantly governed model socialist government which would inspire the Finnish working class across the border to bring about a Socialist Finland, now under a right-wing White rule since the Civil War.

Gylling had been an economics professor at Helsinki University before the war, a brilliant scholar of landed aristocratic origins who had turned to Socialism with his research specialty the plight of the Finnish rural crofter. He was a sincere person who was converted to Bolshevism from his Social Democratic origins along with a number of other prominent Finnish Red government leaders in their new Russian exile. But he was incredibly naïve in trusting a Bolshevik regime.

Lenin’s minority policies did encourage some measure of autonomy within what the Bolsheviks called a socialist society, which was authoritarian even then, commanded top-down. No other independent socialist or anarchist movement was allowed to exist under Bolshevism. But I suspect one of Lenin’s reasons for being supportive of Gylling’s proposal for an autonomous Karelia was that it would serve as a strong military and political buffer against the very real threat of a White Finn expansionist program following their Civil War triumph. There were rightist elements in Finnish society including the Finnish military jaeger officers who had received their training in Imperial Germany and had fought for the Whites in the Civil War. These elements had the dream of a Greater Finland to establish a regime of Finno-Ugric peoples all the way to the Urals. General Carl Gustav Mannerheim supported that position essentially and dreamed of a counter-revolutionary capture of Petrograd.


Since there were now many capable Finnish Red leaders exiled in Soviet Russia and thousands of Finnish Red Guard soldiers who had escaped over the border to the traditionally Russian part of Karelia in the spring of 1918, Lenin probably saw the advantage of deploying these elements as an important deterrent against the expansion of the White Finn expansionist into Eastern Karelian turf. So if they had their own “autonomous republic”, it would be the Finno-Ugrians, backed by the Soviet Union defending their homes and villages against an invading White foreign force. Lenin was a realist and his motives weren’t necessarily those of a “nice guy” although he had a soft spot for the Finns who had hidden and protected him while he was hiding in Finland in the last years of the Czarist regime. And it worked as the Finnish sub rosa military forces which conducted several incursions into that territory from 1918-1922 were eventually thrown back before fierce resistance and insubstantial support of them as “liberators” among the Karelian people.

But this “privileged” state of the Karelian Commune did not last long after the death of its protector Lenin in 1924. Stalin did not like this Fenno-oriented enclave and saw it as a threat to his regime which was increasingly being centralized under his command. In the 1920s he began a deliberate policy of moving more and more Russian settlers into that area to strengthen the Russian majority. Gylling saw his power diminishing and his dream of a Fenno-Karelian Republic threatened. The new Russian immigrants did not have the skills either to develop a modern forestry industry and he knew that Finnish-American and Canadians did have those skills. So recruiters were hired in the early 1930s in North America to recruit thousands of these workers to come and help build a new Socialist Karelia.


Among thousands of the North American Finnish working class and small farmers there was a lot of sympathy for socialism and large numbers saw in the Soviet Union the great hope for building such a society. They believed the pro-CP Finnish-American press, Tyomies, Eteenpain and Toveri newspapers and their Canadian counterparts, which incessantly praised the Soviet Union as a true workers; republic. The world capitalist World Depression was in full swing and both the United States and Canada new mass unemployment and hunger. So the grass looked a helluva lot greener in that new pasture of the trumpeted workers’ mecca.

Perhaps up to 10,000 Canadian and American Finns heeded the recruiter’s calls who were paid $25 a head for every person recruited, and went to Karelia. Many sold all they had, farms and houses, and quit their jobs if they had one, took their families often with young children and went.


The Finnish-American labor movement was not entirely enamored with the rosy glow of the Karelia project. Both the Socialist Raivaaja and the IWW Industrialisti saw the increasing tyranny of Stalin growing in the USSR and thought the emigrants were foolish in going. But those who left went with missionary zeal. Neighbors warned neighbors not to go but to little avail.

It wasn’t long before some of those who could drifted back, seeing the impossibility of working in the primitive hardships they had to face and came home. Many lost all their possessions and savings swindled by the Soviet bureaucrats. In later years the Työmies newspaper said it had written right along that it would be a hard life and those who couldn’t take it shouldn’t go, but that eventually a bounteous socialist society would develop if everyone worked hard enough. Those who returned in the 30s were called slackers, lazy opportunists, and even traitors to the cause and were treated with contempt by the American communists who stayed and believed only the propaganda they’d been fed. Yet these disillusioned returnees were the lucky ones, as when the Great Terror hit the USSR particularly in 1937-38, many of the loyal Communists who stuck it out, disappeared in the purges, hundreds shot by firing squads, even Edward Gylling and Gustav Rovio, two main leaders of the Karelian Republic.


Many Finnish leftists from Finland also went to the Soviet Union in the 1930s period, mostly Red survivors of the Finnish Civil War who were persecuted, beaten and even murdered during the period of the Lapua Movement in Finland. This was a fascist movement that got it start around the northern Finnish town of Lapua, and led by a rightist demagogue Victor Kosola. So those who tried to escape the wrath of the Lapuans fleeing over the border to Russia were called the loikkarit or border jumpers.

The Lapua Movement came within reach of taking power in Finland but their brutal and totalitarian excesses even frightened the conservative government in power when the Lapuans attempted an armed uprising at the town of Mäntsälä in Southern Finland between Lahti and Helsinki, and the army which was White and right-wing itself backed the constitutional government and the Lapua advance was stopped.

But this whole reactionary atmosphere had a frightening impact on Finnish civil liberties and the labor and left movements. The Finnish Communist Party had been outlawed since its inception following the Civil War, but even a surrogate front group which had won a bloc of seats in Parliament in a legal election were outlawed and some of its members of Parliament jailed. A CP-controlled trade union federation was outlawed as well as newspapers. The Social Democratic trade union movement was too frightened at this onslaught and did very little to try to stem it. Communists who belonged to the illegal underground party were arrested by the thousands. This included my uncle Toivo Saikkonen, one of my mother’s younger brothers, who was a young metal worker who believed in the party. He spent 2 ½ years in the early 1930s in prison cited for “treason”. His treasonable acts? Mere membership in the outlawed CP, subscribing to its newspaper, having in possession CP literature and circulating pamphlets, all considered treasonable under the draconian fascistic laws of the time. Today, this is all legal. In 2003 I was able to obtain Uncle Toivo’s Valpo (political police dossier) from the Finnish National Archives which I plan to write more about later in these Memoirs.

While the surviving trade union federation was practically paralyzed by this police state atmosphere, only Niilo Wälläri and his independent Seaman’s Union dared to make demands on employers and go on the attack. The IKL, or the Fatherland People’s League, a semi-fascistic right populist movement elected a sizeable bloc to Parliament. The SDP did manage to survive and was the only left force in the Parliament, but with the exception of party leaders like Väinö Tanner and the right and K.H. Wick on the left, few others showed any kind of courage in opposing the ultra right and the conservatives.

But eventually the Finnish people themselves who were basically democratic got tired of this bullying and rejected the right and in ensuing elections strongly supported the Social Democrats as well as to rebuild the demoralized labor movement and bring it back to life to try to meet the challenges of the Great Depression.

By the eve of the Winter war of 1939, the Finns had elected a left center Red/Brown government coalition of the Social Democratic and Agrarian Parties to form the Parliamentary majority with Agrarian Kyösti Kallio as President, and some popular pro-labor legislation was adopted.

Rise of the CIO

After the election of Franklin Roosevelt and the coming of the New Deal in the United States there was an upsurge of militant unionism here. Rank and file militancy began to stir and move beyond the cautious conservatism of the American Federation of Labor. The IWW tried to organize in the Detroit automobile industry and stimulated a series of wildcat strikes, but didn’t succeed in establishing a permanent base in the industry. But the IWW did succeed in organizing a number of stove manufacturing plants in Cleveland and secured some of the first signed contracts in IWW history. Fred Thompson, a class war prisoner at San Quentin during the 1920s and an instructor at Work Peoples College who had a Finnish wife Aino, was a capable organizer who helped bring about a successful IWW organizing drive among the Cleveland stove factories.

But the main thrust came through the great organizational drives through the 1930s through industry wide instead of craft organization that culminated in the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations or the C.I.O. They organized in auto, steel, rubber, mining, maritime, dock work, transportation, meatpacking, retail, trucking and trucking and many other industries. The brunt of the organizing was by ordinary rank and file talent with no left political orientation, but the whole spectrum of the American left was involved in the new labor movement. These included people from the Socialist Party, Wobblies, Trotskyists, Musteites, Lovestoneites and Anarchists, as well as from the Communist Party, which had become the major force on the Left during the 1930s with the relative decline of the Socialist Party as a near-mass organization.


My cousin Lempi was in the thick of this organizing, mostly operating out of New York. Her marriage to Larry was a “movement marriage” marked by long periods of separation as she went about organizing workers. The Musteite American Workers Party wasn’t a large group but was quite successful in union organizing. Lempi at that time was a “Musteite”. Its spokesperson, the Rev. A.J. Muste, a noted anti-war pacifist before and after, was an important factor at Brookwood Labor College in New York State which was SP-influenced as well as by democratic revolutionaries to the left of the SP like Muste. Lempi herself took classes at Brookwood. Other Finnish Socialists who at times attended Brookwood were two new England Finns: Tarmo Hannula of Gardner, Mass. Who around that time was a Socialist Party organizer, and Peter Wartiainen, Jr., the Westminster dairy farmer who ran for Massachusetts Secretary of State on the Socialist Party ticket.

Tarmo Hannula’s brother Toivo had been a key organizer in unionizing the chair factories in Gardner, and his brother Reino, a YPSL member, became a conscientious objector in World War II and did time in the C.O. camps, and later worked in the consumer cooperative movement. Tarmo became a significant spokesperson in later years in the New England Finnish ethnic community particularly during the 1970s and 80s.


Lempi also attended the women’s summer schools at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, which focused on summer school for blue collar women workers from the urban areas to give them a broader, university-level look at society and its issues. It became a hotbed of working class women’s radicalism with Lempi in the middle of it. Their support of a nearby labor strike got the summer school administration in trouble with the more conservative board of trustees, which wanted the school to bring middle class refinement to these young women instead of radical militancy.

Lempi once told me of getting involved with FDR’s daughter Anna, who came to teach these Bryn Mawr summer proles some nice societal manners by teaching them the game of bridge. Lempi ended up skunking Ms Roosevelt in the game.

One of Lempi’s good friends from her Bryn Mawr days was a young working class woman from the streets of New York, a spunky Italian called Freddie (later married name was Payne) who was also a Musteite at the time. They were later comrades in the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party although in the 1950s? Freddie went with a Trotskyist splinter group, the Johnson-Forest Tendency, led by Johnson (C.L.R. James) and Freddie Forest (Raya Dunayevskaya).


Lempi went on the road to organize for the Musteites, hitchhiking to the Midwest. I don’t know where her use of “party names” started , perhaps in her Trotskyist period in which pseudonyms were common, but she didn’t use her original name Lempi Rauha Siitonen or even Cohen. During this period she was alternately Cecilia Gamble (our paternal grandmother‘s name and her mother‘s second married name),Jane Clark, Jane Ogden, and finally Jane C. Arenz when she married a non-political German immigrant baker named Martin Arenz in New York City during World War II. I don‘t know what “party name“ she used as a Musteite, if any, in case some researcher might want to seek her out in archival material on the Muste movement..

She did tell me about organizing among coal miners along the Ohio River, with workers from both the Ohio and Kentucky sides. She was an effective public speaker with charismatic appeal. She was then a tiny, slender slip of a girl and beautiful. Her sincerity and passion came through and when she’d get through speaking, these rough and gruff hill folk would call: “When do we strike? Let’s go!”


She went to take part in the first of the great sit-down strikes at the Auto-Lite Spark Plug plant in Toledo, Ohio in 1935, which was one of the great events in the organizing of the CIO. Many more sit-down strikes were to follow, particularly in the auto industry – in Detroit, Flint, elsewhere, which sparked the successful organizing of the United Auto Workers Union. This led to the industrial organization of most of the basic mass production facilities in the United States. The formation of the CIO was the greatest achievement of the American working class to that point. The ancient dream of the IWW seemed on its way to be realized. Yet, as is the nature of trade unions and political parties to bureaucratize in their administration, soon the CIO fell into the top-down business union patterns which characterizes the AFL-CIO today. Hardly a key to labor’s “emancipation from wage slavery.”

I don’t exactly know what role Lempi played in the Auto-Lite strike, as I never had a chance to discuss it in any detail during her lifetime, so it will always remain a mystery to me. But I’ll always love and admire her for her great idealism, passion, dedication and sense of justice and fairness. I’ve always compared her to two of my famous noted woman revolutionaries as fearless, honest and principled, the anarchist Emma Goldman and the martyred European Marxist revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg.

End of Installment 3