Superior history: Why history matters?

Fredrik Tuominen, 1917

Editor’s note: Mr. Emppu Siltaloppi, from Tampere, Finland, spent the academic year of 2015-16 at the archives of Finlandia University pursuing his master’s thesis in history. He was researching the life experiences of Finnish immigrant Fredrik Tuominen, who was a resident miner in Republic, Michigan from 1906-1908. During his stay in the Upper Peninsula, Mr. Siltaloppi visited the Republic Area Historical Society twice seeking historical information. His story presents an unusual case for “why history matters” -internationally. A version of the following article was originally published in the Finnish American Reporter. It is reprinted with permission of both parties.

Few years ago I came across a collection of immigrant letters at the Institute of Migration archive in Turku, Finland. Collection contained letters written by a young Finn named Fredrik Tuominen, who after arriving to the United States in 1903 lived nine years in the Upper Peninsula before moving to Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, in 1912. For an immigrant letters served many purposes. Migration severely challenged the continuity of family relationships by making face-to-face communication between the migrant and those left behind impossible. Letter writing allowed migrants to re-establish the connection, and through correspondence important relationships could be maintained for years to come. As immigrants were writing their letters, millions of historical documents were also being created. Fredrik’s younger brother who remained in Finland carefully saved almost every letter he received from his brother. Decades later this letter collection ended up in an archive, and now sheds light on the immigrant experience in the Upper Peninsula during the peak of mass migrations. The collection also sparked my interest to travel to the UP in search of more information about the immigrant communities of the early 1900s.

The mining boom that started in Northern Michigan around 1840s transformed the sparsely populated wilderness of Upper Peninsula into a wilderness littered with booming mining towns. Towards the end of the century these communities had grown and become lucrative destinations for newcomers. The dangerous and relatively low paying work in the mines was mostly overlooked by American citizens, but for the poor, often low-skilled immigrants, becoming a miner was one of the few ways to get started in the new country. At the beginning of the twentieth century masses of immigrants from Southern and Easter Europe were flowing to these UP mining communities. Among the new arrivals were thousands of Finns. They were in search of opportunities that their home country troubled by severe lack of work opportunities, unequal class society and somewhat unstable political situation was not offering. One of the mining centers attracting newcomers was Republic, a small community south of Humboldt, where Fredrik landed in the spring of 1903 along with many other Finnish immigrants.

Republic in 1903 was a growing mining town with a multi-ethnic population of around two thousand. Dominating ethnicities were migrants with Finnish, Italian, Hungarian, Irish, and Scandinavian ancestries. The ethnic groups often had their own associations and groups, like Finns with their Evangelical Lutheran Church, temperance society Onnen Aika (Fortunate Times), and a cornet band which attracted especially the younger people. Now, over 110 years later, the heydays of Republic have long passed, and the once busy township that maintained thousands of workers and passers-by has become a quiet community of a hundred or so people. In the late 1920s the underground mining ceased leaving tunnels beneath Republic abandoned, while the 600 feet deep open pit mine that remained operational until the early 1980s now lies underneath a lake surface. However, bits and pieces of the past still remain.

Long influence of mining industry is visible in the somewhat scarred landscape, while few old buildings dating back to early days of Republic still stand here and there. Traces of Republic’s history is not only scattered amongst the landscape, since The Republic Historical Society, held up by local old-timers and history enthusiasts, works to preserve the heritage of the township. Their collections include a respectable amount of photos, books, artifacts, and few documents, some of which date all the way back to 1890s. LaVerne Antilla, Jim Kippola, Ken Salo and other members of the society also have much knowledge and recollection of the township’s past, and for me their help proved crucial as I was searching information about the Finnish community that lived in the area during the early 1900s. The historical society also upholds the Pascoe house museum in South Republic, which is open to visitors during the summer.

In 1907 Fredrik moved from Republic to Mass City, Ontonagon County. Like Republic, Mass City was one of the many small mining communities in Upper Peninsula, that lost much of its population once the mining industry plummeted. Again I faced the tedious task of trying to find documents that would tell something about the communities who lived in the township in the early 1900s. I was lucky enough to get in touch with Rick McKay, an expert in auto mechanics and local history (also a mine guide, part-time), who in turn introduced me to Lukkarila’s, a family with respectable mini archive full of local history.

With small communities like Republic and Mass City it is quite obvious, that without the efforts of local people huge amounts of the townships’ past would have been permanently lost. One might ask why does the history of these small communities’ matter? History of the Upper Peninsula is inextricably connected to the history of its mining communities and to the history immigrants who built and populated these centers. Historywise much attention has been given to the significance of larger centers like Calumet, Houghton and Negaunee. But there were also many smaller communities that attracted newcomers like Fredrik, who found their first foothold in the new world from the mines, temperance societies, churches, cornet bands and socialist halls of townships like Republic and Mass City. Studying the experiences of individuals and the everyday life of these communities from grassroots level brings new kind of understanding on what the immigrant experience and everyday life was like in the UP during early 1900s.

Even the humblest looking document can contain important information, and the most ordinary looking old group photo with some name information written on it can offer researcher with significant clues. I would strongly encourage any community, family or an individual with historical artifacts, documents or photos to consider donating these collections to local historical association, museum or archive, where their preservation would be assured.