The Coastal Star

FINNISH CENTENNIAL: Independence celebration puts nation’s long heritage in county on spirited display

Arlene Tervakoski (in apron), Jean Lindblad, Anja Laurik and Anja Vikkila attend ceremonies at Finland House to mark the centennial of Finland’s independence from Russia. Finland House’s location in Lantana merits a special street sign. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

By Ron Hayes

In May 1913, a young man sailed past the Statue of Liberty with $50 in his pocket and a name that was bound to cause trouble.

Kustaa Eemeli Hosiokoski was a native of Turku, Finland, and had come to America to seek his fortune.

At the customs table on Ellis Island, an inspector studied his identification and wrote on a piece of paper, “Gus Emil Koski.”

On that day in 1913, Gus Koski was 21 years old, and the independent country of Finland had not yet been born.

On Dec. 6, 1917, four years after young Koski had settled in Duluth, Minn., Finland’s parliament voted to break from Russian rule in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. An independent Finland was born.

On Dec. 6, 2017, the Finnish-Americans of Palm Beach County celebrated the 100th birthday of their homeland’s independence with flag-raisings, speeches, folk songs, banquets, and a cardamom flavored coffee cake called pulla.

“Gus Koski was my great-uncle,” Peter Makila said proudly, a few days before the festivities. “My mother’s uncle.”

Peter Makila, honorary consul of Finland. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

Makila, 72, is the honorary consul of Finland, a part-time liaison with the Finnish government and full-time Allstate agent in Lake Worth. On Independence Day, he would be busy, speaking at the 10 a.m. flag-raising ceremony at the American Finnish Tourist Club’s Finland House in Lantana, then at the Finnish-American Village, a rest home off High Ridge Road, and then again at the smaller American Finnish Club in suburban Lake Worth. That night there would be banquets at both clubs.

“Gus Koski began wintering in Lake Worth in 1957,” Makila added, “and he died at JFK Medical Center in 1986 at 94.

Koski’s journey from Finland to Florida was replicated thousands of times.

Modern Finnish immigration began with the California gold rush of 1849 and peaked in 1902, when more than 23,000 Finns left for America. By 1930, when the Great Depression ended the mass migration, about 300,000 Finns had arrived in the U.S.

Like Koski, many settled in the Midwest. Some farmed, then headed to Florida. Others worked as servants up North and followed their wealthy employers to Palm Beach estates. In the early 1930s, only about 1,000 Finns called Palm Beach County home, but they spread the word, and by 2000 the number had grown fivefold.

A crowd gathers for a movie at Finland House in Lantana in the late 1950s. Photos provided

The 2000 census found 623,500 Americans who claimed Finnish ancestry, including 25,723 in Florida, 4,879 in Palm Beach County and 1,026 in Lake Worth.

But that was a 10 percent drop from the county census of 1990, and a 24 percent decrease in Lake Worth.

In 2010, the U.S. Census began using survey estimates rather than a strict “real count,” so more recent comparisons are both problematic and further complicated because the numbers are so small the margin of error is large.

Still, all agree the county’s Finnish-Americans are dwindling in number.

Makila is generous. He believes seasonal residents and those with green cards put the county’s population at about 10,000 full-time residents of Finnish descent in the county, and another 3,000 seasonal. But even he agrees the population is shrinking.

“The elderly are passing away,” he said. “My late uncle died in 2002 at 82, and Great Aunt Helen earlier this year at 96. And the young are moving away.”

Today, Makila has 28 family members in the U.S. and Canada, including six in Palm Beach County. His son and daughter-in-law, Miike and Sanna Makila, live in Atlantis with their children, Ville, 7, and Anniina, 6.

“They’re Finnish,” he says. “They spend a lot of time with us, and the country is in our hearts. They look forward to visiting Finland at Christmas.”

When Makila came to Lake Worth at 19 in 1965, the area’s Finnish population was about 20,000. Motels catering to Finns were common on Federal Highway, and it was not uncommon to hear the language spoken in stores and restaurants.

“We were the dominant ethnic group from the 1950s to the 1980s,” he said “In those days, all the alphabet streets in Lake Worth were Finnish. And then the Haitians and Guatemalans began to arrive.”

The local Finnish population has indeed dwindled since the 1980s, but you wouldn’t have thought so outside Finland House on Independence Day morning.

“We’re always prompt,” Makila promised, and they were.

Shortly before 10 a.m., a crowd of about 250 had gathered in front of Finland House. Some are dressed in traditional Finnish garb. Up front, the 24-member Finnish Male Choir of Florida is assembling on the porch, framed by a flag pole to either side, beneath a sign above the door that says: Tervetuloa — Welcome.

But Peter Makila was not there.

“He’s had an illness,” Dr. Sirpa Aho, the club’s president, confided. “I don’t know. It’s not like him not to be here.”

Promptly at 10 a.m., they began.

The choir sang The Star-Spangled Banner as an American flag was raised to the left of the porch. Then they sang, Maamme — Our Land —as the blue cross on a white field rose on the right.

Then Dr. Sirpa Aho stepped forward, speaking first in Finnish, then translating.

“The big day has dawned,” she said, “as beautiful as always here in Florida. Our independence was a big miracle. Our fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers helped us get through the hard times after the war, and today Finland is a modern country with a high standard of living after 100 years.”

Pastor Mia Hagman of St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Lake Worth read Peter Makila’s brief remarks and asked for prayers.

Later, Makila called to say he was fine, and on Dec. 14, he and his family flew home to Turku, the city his great uncle Gus Koski had left in 1913 and he in 1965, for Christmas.

Lantana Mayor David Stewart said, “Thank you on behalf of all our citizens for your great involvement and contributions to our community.”

And finally, a representative from the old country spoke.

Kari Kallonen is a journalist and military historian, the author most recently of The Star-Spangled Banner in the Winter War, an account of the 450 Finnish Americans and Canadians who volunteered to fight for Finland during World War II.

“I bring you greetings from the Finnish government,” Kallonen told them as smartphones recorded him. “We fought and worked hard to build our nation, and we’re thankful for the support we got from America.

“We like Mickey Mouse, and we have McDonald’s and Burger King. Finland is America’s most eastern state.”

And so they went inside the clubhouse, to chat in both English and Finnish while snacking on coffee and pulla, the traditional coffee cake.

Before long, the club will mark another anniversary. In February 1948, the original clubhouse was dedicated. In February 2018, they will celebrate its 70th birthday.

Meanwhile, as the six-member Finnish Accordion Club serenaded the crowd with My Roots In Finland, a man named Harry Manner, 80, waited on the floor above to greet visitors to his Price of Freedom Museum, an impressively large collection of Finnish military memorabilia. 

Harry Manner holds a knife that belonged to his father at his Price of Freedom Museum, a collection of Finnish military memorabilia. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

The small room is full of carefully displayed cases full of badges and ribbons, mannequins modeling army uniforms, patriotic posters and wartime newspapers, a Wall of Honor and a 9mm Suomi machine pistol.

“That’s the pistol that saved Finland in World War II because it was so accurate,” Manner boasted.

The collection, which opened in 2005, had once belonged to a fellow named Dwyer Wedvick in Connecticut. Wedvick was ready to offer it for sale on eBay when Manner bought it.

“I came to the United States aboard the RMS Mauritania,” Manner said. “We came to New York and I saw the Statue of Liberty. I was 14, and it was Dec. 6, 1951. So this is the 100th anniversary of Finnish independence, and the 66th anniversary of my arrival in America.” 

Finland House’s location in Lantana merits a special street sign. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

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