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‘Pelkie: 100 Years of Finnishness in Michigan’s North Woods’

Documentary features rural community

This barn is featured in a three-part documentary, “Pelkie: 100 Years of Finnishness in Michigan’s North Woods.” The project is the work of retired NMU Professor Michael Loukinen. (Photo courtesy of Alex Maier)

MARQUETTE — It was about 40 years in the making, but a retired Northern Michigan University professor finally has completed a project about about a unique Copper Country place.

The project is the three-episode documentary titled “Pelkie: 100 Years of Finnishness in Michigan’s North Woods.” The program will air on WNMU-TV Public TV 13 beginning at 8 p.m. Monday and on other Michigan PBS stations that choose to air it depending on their schedules. It’s also available on Amazon.

Michael Loukinen, a retired NMU sociology professor and documentary filmmaker, said he had studied the logging/farming community of Pelkie and Finnish America for four decades, and the film series is the result of a promise he made to Pelkie residents around 1972, when he was studying the area for his dissertation research, to create a history for them.

“It was a way to fulfill a promise, and I hope they considered it fulfilled — and it is,” Loukinen said. “When I was doing my doctorate dissertation research, I asked them to complete a survey that was about three times as thick as the Pelkie-Baraga-L’Anse telephone book. I said in return, ‘I’ll write the history.'”

He wrote a little on the subject, but it wasn’t exactly what he called “a history book.”

Michael Loukinen

Loukinen, 76, became a documentary filmmaker, founding Up North Films, a nonprofit film production company at NMU.

One eventual result was the three-part Pelkie program, which was edited by Alex Maier, an outdoors filmmaker.

“It’s the most in-depth historic oral history video of, certainly, any rural community in Michigan, and maybe with a couple of exceptions, the United States,” Loukinen said.

He provided a little background on the documentary.

Most of the Finnish immigrants in American settled in the western Lake Superior region. Many worked in the copper and iron range towns in the Upper Peninsula, northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Subsequently, many immigrants applied for homesteads or purchased land in the nearby cut-over pine forests.

While working as lumberjacks, they established family dairy farms, raising an average of seven children and creating “foreign language island” communities.

The first episode, “From Copper Miners to Farmers,” details the time when lumberjacks and farmers cleared land for farms and railroads, resulting in a thriving dairy farming and logging community.

The second episode, “Third Generation: Cows, Kids and Barns,” focuses on second- and third-generation Finns working on the farms and youngsters. As they matured, though, they migrated from the area to seek education and work.

The third episode, “A Farewell to Dairy Farming,” deals with the children and grandchildren of the Finnish immigrants moving away, with many finding work in Detroit. They married non-Finns outside of Pelkie, and many did not return, weakening the Finnish culture.

At the same time, milk prices bottomed out and big box stores outside of Pelkie outcompeted local business. Mennonites and others, though, moved in while some Finnish Americans remained.

Loukinen’s documentary most likely will fascinate people interested in Finnish-American history, and maybe even those with simply an interest in rural or natural history.

“The way I make films, I let people do the talking,” Loukinen said.

It might take some exploring to find Pelkie, which is located about 14 miles west of Baraga.

“That’s what it takes to find these Finnish-American rural communities like Pelkie and Tapiola,” Loukinen said.

A good filmmaker needs a good editor. In this case, Maier has worked with Loukinen since 2015.

“For the most part, it’s just him directing and me shooting and editing,” Maier said in an email. “We have built a really good professional relationship over the years and we kind of know what direction to take these projects before we even discuss them.”

He said the Pelkie project was interesting.

“I’m not Finnish at all and I never thought I would care about Finnish heritage, but the deeper we got into the project the more I found myself identifying with their outlook on life,” Maier said. “The Finns are very stoic and hard workers, they have that term sisu which doesn’t have a direct translation but I began to identify with that.

“Michael’s films usually have a historical element and I find that fascinating too. The way that we interview elderly people and record stories from their childhood is much more immersive than just reading a history textbook. It humanizes the history, and I enjoy living in the early 1900s vicariously through these people’s stories.”

Working on these projects, he said, has given him a wider perspective on the human experience and a deeper appreciation of the generations that came before him.

What is Pelkie like now?

“There’s still some logging activity, and all of the dairy farms are gone, and that’s true in the entire Copper Country,” Loukinen said.

However, he called the scenery “spectacular”

“In another lifetime, I’d like to have a farm up there and just hang out — a hobby farm,” Loukinen said. “But I’m 76 years old and I do not want one more thing to take care of.”

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net

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