Kultalahti: A vanishing piece of history gets preserved
By JIM KURTTI
Special to the Journal
MARQUETTE — Autumn brings out nostalgia in many with its ever-shortening days, the fallen leaves, and the like. With winter already at the door I long to make a few last-of-the-season walks — on terra firma — to my favorite forest places, or one last visit to the cemetery.
Apparently, I’m not the only one.
“We love to visit cemeteries,” Ruth Lund of Rock said with a laugh under her protective face mask. “I’ve hardly been anywhere this summer, but we did pack a lunch and made a cemetery run.”
I met Ruth and her cousin Joan Tuoriniemi of Uusi Suomi, which is more commonly called Suomi or Suomi Location these days — in the parking lot of a local restaurant. Suomi Location is located 10 miles south of Negaunee. And there, in the parking lot the three of us, conforming to the new normal — face masks covering our smiles, and checking ourselves against the instinctual handshake — were passing off a five-foot grave marker! After all, how else does one make a donation to the museum collection of the Finnish American Heritage Center these days?
This more-than-a-century-old, weathered grave marker still has some readable text, and when examined it closely one can see that it was originally painted white with black lettering. At the base is a relief-carved cross. The shape, the decorative features and the finely detailed fracture lettering in Finnish reads:
Tassa alla lepaa
Eeva Aliina Ranta
syntynyt helmik. 5 p. 1911
kuoli syskyk. 15 p. 1912
(Here below lies Eeva Aliina Ranta, born February 5, 1911 — died September 1912)
Every aspect of the grave marker is indicative of those once found in Finland. Today only a few remain, and are mostly stored in community museums. The rest have been replaced with granite stones, or more likely, the graves have been reappointed to others.
At the time of this writing, I’m not familiar with any similar markers in North America. Ruth Lund’s donation of her aunt’s grave marker to the FAHC assures that at least one North American artifact representing this Finnish vernacular folk art form is preserved.
One of the early pioneers to Uusi Suomi was Henry (Heikki) Peltomaa, who in 1902 arrived to the iron ore mines of Negaunee via Halifax, Canada, and consequently, found a wife — Vilma Makinen. Together they began a family and saved money from Henry’s working man’s wages until they could purchase their own place — their own place in New Finland — Uusi Suomi.
The Peltomaas lent their hands at building a community, as well. Henry, skilled in carpentry and painting, was instrumental in the building of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church of Uusi Suomi. He was also called upon to build and letter traditional grave markers. According to a publication by the Marquette County Genealogical Society, “Peltomaa constructed the markers from white pine lumber and hand lettered and painted the inscriptions in old Finnish script.”
Kudos to the Marquette County Genealogical Society and their cemetery survey in 1992, which was able to record much of the text from Peltomaa’s markers and the tombstones located in the cemetery before weather and time erased them. Today, almost nothing remains.
A grandson of Henry Peltomaa, Don Pelto, of Cedarburg, Wisconsin, remembers his grandfather as a jolly, happy fellow “although he didn’t speak English, and I couldn’t talk Finn,” Pelto recalls.
“One day I was hunting and I came across this cemetery in the woods.” Pelto continued. “It was kinda creepy to happen across this cemetery with these old wooden markers. I told my father about it and he said his little sister was buried there. She died during the flu epidemic. I never knew that cemetery was there before.”
Although the small community already had the Pakkila Cemetery, when the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church established a congregation in Uusi Suomi, one of the founding members, Antti Kultalahti, a saw mill owner, donated an acre of land on a small bluff overlooking Schweitzer Creek to serve the burial needs of the congregation.
Located more than a mile from the church, which was erected in 1912, the cemetery served the congregation from 1911 until the last burial in 1935.
“There’s a lot of sad stories buried in that cemetery,” Joan Tuoriniemi remarked.
Of the 44 known burials, 15 were 20 years old or younger, seven died of pneumonia, including four resulting from the Spanish Influenza, three stillbirths, as well as three women who died in childbirth, one suicide and three died by gunshot.
One shooting victim, Eeva Ranta, was less than 2 years old. It was the 14th of September — a Sunday morning. Her parents Oskari and Sanna Kujanpaa, later Ranta, immigrants from Peraseinajoki, were attending the dedication service of their new Suomi Synod church at Uusi Suomi. The congregation formed in 1910 but the church building was completed and dedicated in September of 1912.
While the parents were away, their teenage son William took down the family shotgun, and while he was examining it, the loaded gun accidentally discharged with the shot passing through a wall and striking his baby sister in the leg. Leaving younger siblings with the wounded child, the frantic 13-year-old ran miles to the church to alert the unsuspecting parents. Before they could get her to a doctor, the toddler Eeva bled to death.
In 1923 the young shooter William Ranta, now 22 years old, also met a tragic end. While working in the Stephenson Mine (in Princeton) his pickaxe hit an unexploded piece of dynamite. Shrapnel tore through his left eye entering his brain. He was laid to rest near his sister. Two years later their father was killed in a murder-suicide incident. He, too was buried near little Eeva’s hand-crafted marker.
Lest we forget
In 1992 the Marquette County Genealogical Society did a grave marker survey of Kultalahti, the first and only record of Kultalahti Cemetery burials, and created the booklet, “Cemetery Recordings in Kultalahti Cemetery.” When cousins Joan Tuoriniemi and Ruth Lund saw the book regarding a cemetery, a place they often visited and where family members were buried, they were inspired to take the project a bit further.
“We collected everything we could about the people buried there,” Joan explained. “Years ago, we used to go there by crossing the creek on hand bridges, but they often got washed away in the spring.”
Now it’s a considerable hike through the forest.
“We walked into the cemetery every year, but it’s getting too hard to get in there anymore.” Ruth said.
There is no road, not even a trail anymore.
“The last time it looked really nice was during our church’s centennial (2012),” Tuoriniemi said. “We had Finnish flags on all the graves.”
Lund and Tuoriniemi scoured the funeral home records of the Perala Funeral Home of Negaunee, seeking any entry which included internment at the Kultalahti Cemetery; their efforts roughly doubled the known burials.
“Joan and I continued our yearly walks to the cemetery for about 20 years, until a couple of years ago when the trail through the woods became over-grown and hard to traverse,” Ruth said. “After seeing Eeva’s wooden grave marker rotted at the ground and leaning on an old stump, I thought it would be a good idea to take it with us and preserve it. That was about 10 years ago.”
“I guess we were the last two to go out there anymore,” Joan sighed.
Editor’s note: Ironically, the November 2000 FAR, the second issue for which I was editor, had as its cover a photo of the Kultalahti Cemetery, in which the recently donated marker is seen.