Week 20 of 52 Ancestors is about “another language” .” It immediately reminded me of my maternal grandparents, both who immigrated from Finland and had to learn English in their new country. Last week I wrote my “Mother’s Day” blog on my Finnish grandmother who came to America in 1909. She met and married my grandfather, Richard Knihtila, in Michigan. This week, I would like to share a bit of his history in coming to America, which was quite different than my grandmother’s story. My grandfather had “Sisu”! Read on and see what I mean!
Johan Olli Rikkard Knihtila, or in English, John Olli Richard, was born on the 26th of February, 1886 in Simo, Lappi, Finland. He was the first son of Johan Augusti Knihtila and Maria Kaisa Paakkari. His mother’s name is listed as “Kestola” in another source and she was possibly from a town near Simo called Kuivaniemi. The family appeared to be quite well-to-do and lived on a huge farm with many buildings and just up the hill from a prominent fishing harbor and marina in Simo. It was located on upper tip of the Bay of Bothnia which divides Finland and Sweden about 79 miles from the Arctic Circle. You could look across the bay and see Sweden. The Knihtila home was built by Richard’s grandfather or great-grandfather. It seems, Richard (as he chose to be called) had a good home and childhood, but that was to change.
On March 23, 1901, when Richard was only 13 years old, his mother, Maria Kaisa Knihtila, died. His father remarried somewhere between 1902 and 1904 to Maria Evaliina Hepola, 18, who was 22 years younger than himself! She was only 5 years older than Richard! There had to be conflict between Richard and his new step-mother as he sometimes spoke of it in later years. Could she have been one of the reasons that he decided to immigrant to America? If his mother had not died, would he have stayed in Finland where he would have been fairly well off and inherited a rich property as the first born son? Of course, we will never know. But lucky for me, he did emigrate and become my grandfather. His father and new wife had 7 more children, half brothers and sisters to Richard, three died young and the rest remained in Finland.
Richard didn’t stick around long after his father remarried, and at age 19, he and a friend, whose name I haven’t yet discovered, made their plan to get to America in 1905. First they had to travel from Simo which was near the Arctic Circle to Hanko, the southernmost port in Finland. This entailed a trip of about 495 miles. From Hanko, they boarded a ship named Polaris on Feb. 22, 1905 to get to Liverpool, England. A few days later, on March 2nd, they were on their way across the Atlantic Ocean on a ship named “Canada” bound for Portland, Maine, a trip of over 3,000 nautical miles! It was challenging to find this information as Richard’s name was so misspelled on the passenger list and came up as “Kucktela”. My grandfather often told the story of how his father bought him a pair of brand new boots for his journey and the boots were stolen along the way on the ship.
After landing in Portland they had to travel to Hancock in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, around 1300 miles, where they heard of jobs. I am not sure how they got to Michigan as it could have been by train or boat on the St. Lawrence Seaway or both. From Hancock they went 12 miles to Calumet, Michigan where they got jobs in the mines in the area. However, they worked in different mines. Richard’s friend had some bad luck as the mine he was at had a fire and all the timbers were burned and the mine had to close. Four miners from Australia were killed in that mining disaster. It was winter and his friend heard of work in the iron ore mines in Bessemer, Michigan. Not having any other transportation, his friend skied all the way from Calumet to Bessemer, about 120 miles, to get a job! Hardy Finnlanders!
Richard’s friend later sent Richard a letter telling him to come to Bessemer as there were lots of jobs in the mines and in the woods. The next summer, Richard moved to Bessemer and stayed in the same boarding house as his friend and got a job in the Colby Mine in Bessemer. My grandmother, Alma worked as a cook in this boarding house and that is how they met! They married in 1913. While working in the mines, Richards learned some English and the mining company helped with his naturalization. Although they lived among other Finnish immigrants, they had to learn their new language in order to get along in the new country.
Conditions in the mines were dangerous and unsafe with no electricity. They wore candles on their hats for lights. My grandfather Richard told stories of how mules were used for hauling the ore cars underground. The mules were born, lived and died underground and eventually became blind never seeing the light of day. Once, Richard had an accident in the mine and broke his leg. He had to stay underground and wait until the end of the shift to be hauled up on top of a load of ore on the ore skip. The skip was a cage to haul ore to the surface. After they got Richard home, Dr. Pinkerton, the mining company doctor, came and set his leg at home. Actually, Richard was never in a hospital his whole life until a few weeks before his death in 1979 at age 93!
One of Richard’s brothers, Kalle Arthur, also immigrated to America in March of 1906 and went by the name of Arthur. Kalle Arthur traveled to New York with 2 of his friends when he was 18 years old.
The records state Arthur had $12.00 when he arrived and he was traveling to Republic, Michigan to meet his brother, Richard. I am sure Richard was happy to have one of his family with him. Arthur lived in Ironwood, MI, near Bessemer, and worked in the mines in 1910 and later worked at the Colby Mine in Bessemer. Before 1919, Arthur had moved to Duluth, Minnesota to work in a mine there. Then, sadly, Arthur needed an appendix operation in Duluth but died during the operation at age 31 in May of 1919. . Richard had his body brought to Bessemer for burial in the Hillcrest Cemetery in the Knihtila plot. Richard kept his brother’s appendix in a jar in his cupboard for years and would bring it out to show us at times. Richard and Alma named their son Arthur and eventually, his grandson and a great-grandson bore the name of Arthur. Richard’s other brother, Emil Arvid , stayed in Finland, married Fanni Katariina Siira and raised a family of 6 children.
Recently, I came into a photo postcard that my grandfather Richard sent to his brother Arthur on July 8, 1909. It was from Bismarck, North Dakota and the photo is of Richard and Antry Kauppi, a friend. The message on the back is in Finnish but translates to “Greetings from Dakotas. We are now in Bismarck but we will be going somewhere else and I don’t have time to write an address but I will when we meet. Best wishes, Richard.” Evidentally, my grandfather did travel around! Maybe lookin for work?
It must have been difficult for my grandfather to leave Finland, family and a comfortable life behind to face a new life, learn a new language, and have to work so hard for a living. It took a lot of stamina and courage to do so. My grandfather had a word in his language for it – SISU – pronounced See-Sue, which means “guts” or courage! Grandpa Richard had Sisu!
Stories from conversation with Arthur L Lyons as told to him by Richard Knihtila. 12/23/2016.
Information from heir list of Juho August Knihtila as transcribed by Elma Knihtila Lyons
Finland, Select Baptisms, 1657-1890, Ancestry.com, Provo UT. FHL 55,686.
Passenger Records of Finland Steamship Co., Book 39, page 20, Library of Ebo Akademi, Turku, Finland.
Ancestry.com. UK, Outward Passenger Lists, 1890-1960.
Ancestry.com, New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957.