Mother’s Day: My grandmother Alma

For the upcoming Mother’s Day and our week 19 of 52 Ancestors, I am choosing to tell the story of my extraordinary maternal grandmother, Alma Elsabeth Tusa.  Alma married my grandfather,  John Olli Richard Knihtila, in 1913 and they lived in Bessemer, Michigan, near my family.  52ancestors-sidebar-1

Alma died when I was but 6 years old and so I knew her only briefly.  I always wanted to know more and through family stories, personal experiences and extensive genealogical research, I found out how very extraordinary she was!

Alma was born in Alavus, Vaasan Laani, Finland on August 22, 1886, one of seven known children.  She was the daughter of Heikki Erkinpoika Tusa and Susanna (Sanna) Catharina Juhontytar Puirola.   It seems her family may have been fairly well off as they had portraits taken, not a common thing in those days, and the headstones of the parents in the graveyard are quite ornate.  I do know they lived on a lake but their home no longer exists and another home is built on the land.   When Alma was 22 years old in 1909, she chose to go to America and start a new life – a life much different than that in her homeland, a very brave decision!  She must have known that there was a slim chance she would ever see her parents and two sister, Hulda and Hilja, again.  Alma already had 2 brothers who immigrated to a little town in Upper Michigan called Amasa.  Family stories have it that her two brothers in Michigan, Victor and Edward, sent her money to come to America.

Below is a picture taken in Finland in about 1908 before Alma left for America.  Seated on the left is her mother, Sanna Tusa and on the right seated is Alma.  Standing are Alma’s two sisters both who stayed in Finland – Hilja on the left and Hulda on the right.  It must have been difficult for Alma to leave her parents and sisters!

Grandma K with mother an 2 sisters 001


Alma and her brother, Arne Tusa who was 24, first traveled about 255 miles from Alavus to the southernmost point in Finland, a city called Hanko.  Hanko was the port of choice for emigrants leaving Finland for America.  From Hanko, they sailed to Liverpool, England on a ship named Polaris on 17 July 1909.  They left Liverpool on a ship Mauretania to cross the Atlantic on the 24th of July.   After 6 days at sea, they arrived at Ellis Island in New York on 30th of July.  Arriving at Ellis Island, they had to be registered as aliens and inspected for physical and mental health, waiting in long lines sometimes for days before they could be cleared.   They somehow found their way to Amasa, Michigan perhaps by train and must have had a joyful reunion with the two brothers after a long, hard journey!  The price of each ticket to come to America was 70 U. S. Dollars, which would be about $1880.00 dollars today!


Arne Tusa 001
Arne Tusa, brother of Alma


Alma and Arne got jobs in Amasa and although they lived among finnish-speaking people, they had to learn English, too.   Alma worked in a rooming house and Arne got a job in the mine.  Sometime around 1912, Alma moved from Amasa to Bessemer, Michigan  and worked as a cook in a rooming house.  Most of the roomers were iron ore miners and one roomer caught her eye – Richard Knihtila.   They married on August 18th of 1913 and on their marriage license, Alma was listed as a domestic and Richard as a miner.  They were married at St. Paul’s Finnish Lutheran Church in nearby Ironwood, Michigan.  They were both 27 years old.  My grandfather’s real name was Johan Olli Rikkard Knihtila but he used the name Richard.  He was born in Simo, Lappi, Finland and had immigrated in 1905.  His story is also interesting but I will save that story for later!


Alma Richard Marriage cert 001
Marriage license of Richard Knihtila and Alma Tusa, Aug. 23, 1



Alma and Richard Wed Pic 001
Alma and Richards Wedding picture


Around 1912, Alma’s younger brother, Richard Tusa Hendrickson, also came to America and stayed in Amasa for a few years before moving to Superior, Wisconsin.  He chose to use the surname Hendrickson instead of Tusa as he was the “son of Hendric”.  Hendric was another form of Heikki, their father’s name.  On the last day of 1913, my mother, Elma Marie Knihtila, was born and in 1917, her brother, Arthur Richard Knihtila, was born.  Alma and Richard purchased a small house in Bessemer, MI. and raised their family.  Alma worked at one time as a seamstress (Is this where I got my love of sewing from?) and Richard worked in the mines and in the woods hauling logs with his horse.  Alma went to night school to become a citizen and in 1939, she became naturalized!

Alma naturalization cert 001

I remember my grandmother taking my brother and I when we were little to the sauna each week and scrubbing us down Finnish style and then buying us an orange soda.  She made sure we went to the Finnish Church in Bessemer, too!  She had a large room-sized weaving loom in her barn on which she would spend hours laboring over making “rag rugs”.  I would sit on the floor and have to wind the strips of rags into balls to be fed into the loom.  The loom was noisy and hard work to operate.

Grandma had soft brown eyes and very long hair that she would braid and wind around her head.  She also had type 1 diabetes and had to give herself insulin shots everyday.   She was always so happy to see us and would laugh and smile when we came.   In June of 1952, she passed away in a diabetic coma and I missed her so much.  She had a very strong faith and told my mom that “Jesus was in the doorway” just before she  passed away.

I think my grandmother was extraordinary because she was so brave to journey to a far off land and start a new life without knowing what was ahead.   She adapted to her new country and was so proud to become a citizen!  She worked hard and loved her family and had many friends.   There is so much more I could write about her, but I just wanted to honor her memory on this Mother’s Day of 2018.


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