A dual anniversary passed recently southeast of city.
It was a celebration of culture and faith for a unique group among our earliest settlers, yet it is one that most are probably not aware exists at all.
On Aug. 3, people gathered at St. John's Lutheran Church in the New Finland district to celebrate the church's 120th anniversary, and to commemorate 125 years since the first settlers from Finland arrived in the district.
What makes New Finland so unusual is that it is a settlement without a town, village, or hamlet as its anchor.
"New Finland is not on any modern map, and there are no signs announcing its boundaries; in fact, there are no exact boundaries. But the people who were born there, whether or not they still live there, need no directions, New Finland is part of their consciousness; it is in their bones," wrote Nancy Mattson Schelstraete, in the 1988 history book Life In the New Finland Woods.
"The boundaries of New Finland are invisible but none the less real. New Finlanders know where Uusi Suomi ends and the rest of the world begins; some who are reading this book, however, will need something more precise to locate it. New Finland measures about 12 miles north and south and 14 miles east and west within the municipalities of Willowdale and Rocanville. It is circled by five towns. To the south are Whitewood and Wapella on the Number 1 Highway; to the northeast is Tantallon on the Qu'Apelle River; to the east and northwest respectively are the potash towns of Rocanville and Esterhazy.
"But New Finland always ends a few miles shy of these towns, and New Finlanders have never felt any particular loyalty to any one of them. The townspeople bought cordwood from the Finns and sold them coffee and sugar but didn't understand their language or their preference for staying in the New Finland woods. Except for inevitable commercial transactions that had to be done in town, the New Finlanders kept to themselves, working to meet their homestead requirements and providing their own worship and entertainment."
A. 'Red' Lauttamus of Yorkton was among those attending the celebration in the New Finland District. He said his family roots are about as deep in the area as they can get.
"My great grandfather and family were the first family to arrive in 1890," he said.
Red Lauttamus said New Finland was clearly defined as an area in the minds of residents of Finnish descent, and they did build infrastructure to serve that community.
"There was a country store," he said, adding there was the church, two cemeteries and two schools (New Finland and Deerwood), "but no town."
Red's great grandfather was Gustaa Lauttamus, and he provided some insight into the arrival in the history book. In the 1950s Gustaa wrote an account of his arrival in the Toronto Finnish newspaper 'Vapaa Sana', and was translated to English by Hazel Lauttamus Birt and Martin Dorma.
In the account Gustaa Lauttamus wrote, "Johan K. Lauttamus made preparation for his trip to Canada. His passport was stamped in Vaasa 17th of February 1890, and he arrived in New Finland in March. In a letter to Finland he advised us to sell our property and pay off our debts. An auction sale was held May 20, 1890, when all our property was sold for next to nothing. I can well remember what it felt like to leave our home when even the strangers at our auction seemed to find we were in their way. Mother said, 'Let's go to my sister's.' That was the last time we stepped into our old home. I noticed how much mother had suffered …
"We arrived in Canada on the 24th of July 1890. We were the first family in the locality that was later named New Finland. Here were only D. J. Kautonen and J. K. Lauttamus. Albin Kervinen and Erik Erikson (two Swedes) arrived soon after. These men wrote a letter if inducement that was distributed all around. Real settlement commenced the following year, 1891. The year before we were the only family here. The family consisted of mother, Sanna Liisa (nee Iso Somppi). My sister Wilhelmiina, Kautaa, Kaarlo and Aukusti. I was the oldest of the boys, so whenever anything was needed I was the first one on call. Now I am the only living member of the family."
At its peak Red Lauttamus said there "was probably 200, or so Finlanders there," although today "there's maybe 40-50 that can actually trace their linage back."
In terms of keeping the community alive, and in recording its past Red said the New Finland Historical and Heritage Society has been a key.
The Society annually hosts a picnic which brings local descendants back together. The picnic is held each spring in June "to celebrate the longest day of the year," explained Red, and with the larger milestone this year the festivities attracted about 150 from all over.
"I saw one license plate from Texas," said Red Lauttamus, "and I had cousins from B.C., one from Winnipeg and one from Thunder Bay."
The history book includes information on when the area first garnered attention outside the local settlement.
"Probably the earliest reference to New Finland in print occurs in 1891 in the annual report of the federal Department of Agriculture, then responsible for immigration. It was written by C. K. Hendrickson, an immigration agent for the C.P.R. and later for the Dominion government. He lived first in Winnipeg, then in Whitewood, and finally north of Whitewood on his own homestead. He did not settle in New Finland, though apparently he was born in New Finland himself. Note that he did active recruitment among the Finns to increase their numbers in the 'colony' as he called it:
"New Finland is another colony which I located two years ago, while in employ of the Canadian Pacific Immigration Department in Winnipeg. This colony is situated north of Wapella, in Townships 17 and 18 in Range 1, and 17 and 18 in Range 33, and now has a population of about fifty souls, all Finns, the most part of whom have arrived from the United States, and only three families direct from Finland.
"Until this spring there were only three families, consisting of ten souls, in the colony, but by my special effort during the last winter and spring, when traveling in the neighbouring states of Minnesota and Dakota, on immigration business, on behalf of the C.P.R., I induced several of the families in those states to the new colony.
"This is the first and the only place in the North-West where there are any settlers of Finnish nationality, although several thousand of them have now settled in the neighbouring republic during the last 20 years. These people are particularly hard-working, saving, and industrious, and therefore they can not only get along, but even make a success of farming, with very limited means, where an English-speaking individual with a good-sized capital would starve."
New Finland might not have been the best homestead lands available, but it was an area which provided for the settler's needs well.
Florence Luhtala discussed the situation in the area's history book.
"The modern farmer shakes his head and often says, Why did David Jeremiah Kautonen, the first settler in New Finland, choose this forsaken area to settle? The only things here are trees and rocks! How true, but if we take a second look at the past, we can't help but see how the trees have helped all of us to prosper.
"During the very early days, when a settler moved into our Finnish district, he had little to begin with. If he didn't have an axe he could readily buy one, and that axe made his living for him. The first thing would be a roof over his head, and that was done with the trees at hand. The lack of coins jingling in his pocket made him realize how he needed staples to survive. The bush again provided for his need. He could make cordwood and take it into town to be shipped by train wherever it was needed. If a train wasn't available to load the wood onto, a merchant would willingly stockpile his load alongside the store or railway and give the man food in exchange. Wood could be hauled any time of the year; however, most was hauled in winter, when other jobs weren't pressing. 'Credit' was a shameful word, an no one would think of asking for it unless he was too ill to swing an axe. As the woodland was cleared, we gradually got some good fertile soils that have provided many bountiful harvests."