Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

The Finnish Brotherhood of Astoria

BvShjKnCEAAXseLThere is very little someone can do to prepare for a bilingual American town in which the second language is Finnish. All you can really do is surrender to a Finnish steam bath.

Astoria, Oregon was effectively bilingual when I showed up as news editor of The Daily Astorian in 1972. It must have been somewhere between 15 to 30 minutes after I arrived that I realized Astoria wasn’t just another small town. I was standing at a store counter ready to make a purchase, when the clerk addressed me in a strange language. I was in the Uniontown part of Astoria and the language turned out to be Finnish.

As days went by, I came to realize why Finnish was spoken. A big chunk of the city’s residents emigrated from Finland to fish, work in fish packing plants or manage saunas. Nobody expected the new guy at the newspaper to speak or understand Finnish. But they did expect me to wise up quickly on Finnish ways.

The route to wisdom for me came via Astoria School Superintendent Roy Seeborg, a native son who returned home to coach and educate his fellow Finns and enjoy the laurels of his basketball career, which included lettering three years – both before and after World War II – at the University of Oregon. Seeborg’s font of wisdom was his home sauna, where I learned important lessons, such as how to pronounce Finnish names with lots of syllables and double Ks.

Finns escaping their homeland apparently found Astoria a home away from home. Emigres included Red Finns and White Finns. They carried their political antipathies across the waters of the world and quickly resumed them in Astoria. The Red Finns were viewed, at least by the FBI, as especially problematic. As a result, the FBI posted an agent to Astoria, a position that remained in place into the 1970s even though the Red Finn scare seemingly had passed.

At one point, the Red Finn Menace was judged combustible enough that the U.S. government deported the printing press used to publish communist polemics in fiery Finnish. Not surprisingly, that didn’t stop the Red Finns from publishing.

One of the more curious byproducts of the Finnish concentration in Astoria could be found in Lutheran churches. There were lots of them offering services in native languages. There was a Lutheran church for Norwegians, Swedes, Germans and, of course, Finns. There may have even been one for people who spoke English, but I don’t recall.

Scandy Midsummer FestivalAstoria celebrates its Nordic affinity annually with a Scandinavian Midsummer Festival that features princesses (and junior princesses) representing Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. There has been tension surrounding selection of the queen, as Finnish folks felt a vague inferiority in appearance to their Swedish and Norwegian counterparts. This invariably sparks heated coffee klatch conversations about the actual lineage of Finns. I only got dribs and drabs of the discussion since they were mostly carried on in Finnish.

The center of social life for Finns was at Suomi Hall, which dates back to 1886. In my days in Astoria, and maybe even now, if you weren’t Finnish, you weren’t invited. For ambitious politicians, Suomi Hall was an important entrance into the hearts of the Finnish Brotherhood.

Astoria was an amazingly diverse community for such a small town. It assimilated Chinese, Indian, Italian and Slovic immigrants. While I lived in Astoria, it had a Jewish mayor (the town pharmacist) followed by a Chinese mayor (a Toyota car dealer). One of Oregon’s foremost Asian art collectors lived nearby to one of the town’s most curious families, the Flavels, descendants of one of the first Columbia River Bar pilots.

But nothing topped an evening at the Little League ballpark when the announcer rattled off a succession of names from the families of Finland. It was tongue-twisting poetry at its best.

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