Half Full/Mark Wilcox

With all the activity surrounding this week’s FinnFest USA 2013, it’s only natural that my thoughts go back to my home town. I wasn’t born in Finland, but there are times growing up that it sure felt like it.

I’m from the small Upper Peninsula town of Rock. Rock is located in northern Delta County near the Marquette county border. When I was growing up, Rock was the only predominately Finnish community in Delta County. Nearby Trenary and Eben were pretty Finnish as well, but they were located in Alger county.

Back in the 1950s and 60s many of the smaller communities in the U.P. were dominated by one nationality or another. Perkins, nine miles to the south, was settled by Belgians, Bark River was pretty Polish and so on. Now in Rock there was a one-two punch of Finns and French Canadians. My mother Mary Salmi Wilcox, was an example of this. Her father Frank Salmi was born in Finland and immigrated with his mother and older sister Ida (yes I believe both had the same name) when he was a toddler. Her mother, Nellie Trombly Salmi, is a descendent of Pierre Trombley who left France in the 1600s for Quebec. His descendents eventually made it south of the border and today you’ll find family members throughout the U.P. in particular Munising, Marquette and yes, still in Rock, although I don’t believe anyone with the Trombly surname still lives there.

But even with the near 50-50 split it seemed the Finnish influence was stronger in my little town. In the early 1970s I delivered the Grit newspaper (which today is owned by the parent company of The Daily Mining Gazette). There were several people on my route who spoke only Finnish. As a matter of fact, my great-uncle John Tauranen (Aunt Ida’s second husband) spoke no English. When we’d go there for a Saturday Night Sauna, we’d have to march into the “Front Room,” where Uncle John was watching “The Lawrence Welk Show.” We’d say our “hellos” and he’d respond only in Finnish, which neither my younger brother, sister nor I understood. To be honest I never thought he even knew our names, but we would also get a handful of those round mints that old people always seemed to have on hand back in those days.

As I said, the Finnish influence was pretty stong back in my youth, although we really didn’t know it. Many of the customs and practices, which I later learned were of Finnish origin, were just normal every day occurrences to us and certainly not anything akin to ethnic pride.

One of the things that really struck me when I moved to the Copper Country nearly 25 years ago was Finnish names for things I took for granted. For example, I’d never heard the word “nisu” untill I moved up here.

Now I’d been eating it (and according to my doctor, eating way too much of it) my entire life. As a matter of fact, the cooks at Rock High School, Tootie Carlson, Lizzy Peltonen and Bertha Halonen made it and served it with school lunches. But we didn’t call it nisu. It was called “biscuit” or sometimes “Finnish biscuit.”

I never heard the word juustoa till I came here, even though my grandmother was a renown maker of the stuff. Every once in a while a local farmer would call my grandmother with the news of a calf, and a supply of “new milk.” My grandmother would then go to work making what we called “Finn Cheese.” Who knew it had a complicated name.

Speaking of names, that was perhaps what I loved most about growing up in a Finnish community. People with names like Sulo and Impi Peltola, Waino and Alma Baaka and Maini and Signe Halmioja were as normal in Rock as John and Mary Smith would have been somewhere else. My friend Joyce Metor of Escanaba told me she would amuse herself and her children by opening up the phone book to the Rock section (each town had its own section back then) and marveling over the unusual names.

My parents owned the lone restaurant in Rock up until the time of their deaths. I remember visiting one time and seeing four elderly gentleman sitting at a table drinking coffee. There was my uncle Eino with three men all named Elmer. Where else but the U.P. would you have three Elmers and an Eino sitting at a table?

So as we wind down FinnFest today and tomorrow the thing I appreciate most is the chance to remember and share stories with both old and young about what it meant and what it continues to mean to be Finnish and to share this proud heritage.