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Historically speaking

Finnish Labor Temple recalled

The Finnish Labor Temple in Negaunee was an important building for many years. (Photo courtesy of the Negaunee Historical Society)

NEGAUNEE — Akseli Jarnefelt, a Finnish journalist who visited Negaunee around 1896, noted that there were over a thousand Finns living in the city when he stopped there on his tour to America. The Temperance Society had already gained several hundred members and that was enough to support its own Finn Hall.

But what impressed Jarnefelt the most was the number of Finnish-American business people in the city, all very prosperous. In his writing, he stated that Negaunee had the largest Finnish bakery in the United States at the time. The owner, J.E. Hogbergin, shipped his baked goods all over the United States. At that time the Finnish-American labor movement did not exist.

But not long after Jarnefelt published his story about his trip to America, the Negaunee Finnish miners organized the Finnish Socialist Federation in 1905. The group had its first meeting in the Kansan Koti, which was the Finnish community center.

Hostilities soon developed between the conservative leaders of the Temperance Society and the Socialists. The Socialists had a phenomenal growth and they decided to build their own hall on the corner of Bluff and Tobin streets.

It was built with the funds contributed by wage earners and was named the Finnish Labor Temple. The play, “Daniel Hort,” was staged for the opening celebration. The play was completely sold out even though the tickets were rather expensive, $10 for seats in the first three rows and $5 for the other seats.

The completion of the hall generated an unheard of interest in the labor movement. Matti Tenhunen, who was a leader in the Finnish Socialist Federation wrote, “It is a building that will bring sweat to the brows of the exploiters when they look at the hall, but honest working men can enter the hall as if they were going home.”

Little did Tenhunen and the others realize that the hall would be lost because of the discord that almost destroyed the Finnish Federation in 1912.

The Socialist Party was growing and it decided that they might gain more respectability and middle class support if it got rid of the members who also belonged to the Industrial Workers of the World. This decision raised a problem for the Finnish Socialist Federation.

A lot of first-generation Finnish Americans belonged to the IWW and they refused to give up their membership. The “wobblies,” as the IWW members were called, departed from the English-speaking socialist movement without a lot of hullabaloo and the separation would have been peaceful among the Finns, except one important question arose, who owned the local Finn hall? The majority of the members of the Negaunee Finnish Labor Temple were ardent “wobblies,” led by a dynamic first generation Finn, William Risto.

They won the vote to give them ownership of the hall but the Michigan State Socialist Party, urged by the minority group, obtained an injunction against the Finnish IWW members. The Michigan court forbade the IWW members to even frequent the hall. The minority group never gained a tremendous support from the Finnish community necessary to hold on to the hall. After a couple of decades, the hall became the property of the county for failure to pay taxes.

It was sold to the Cleveland Cliffs Mining Company and was razed in 1947.

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