Book looks at Finnish settlement of New York Mills

In 1933 Ralph Smith, the man for whom the football field in New York Mills is named for, wrote his masters thesis on the greater NY Mills Finnish community, now known as the Finnish triangle. The following information is taken directly from a rev...

In 1933 Ralph Smith, the man for whom the football field in New York Mills is named for, wrote his masters thesis on the greater NY Mills Finnish community, now known as the Finnish triangle. The following information is taken directly from a revised book of Smiths thesis compiled by Darrel Nicholson, who has family ties to the area.

I have concluded that the book published is a snapshot of any Finnish American community of the time with intense political, religious and similar cultural customs.

The book is entitled, A Sociological Survey of the Finnish Settlement of New York Mills, Minnesota and its Adjacent Territory (Revised).

In 1929 Smith began his six-year tenure as junior high principal in NY Mills a community with one of the largest contingents of rural Finns in the United States. Smith quickly recognized the Finns as a distinctive ethnic group, and a splendid subject for a sociological investigation.

Once Finnish immigrants settled the area around NY Mills the social life of the community varied with the weather. During the winter seasons the social life of the community differed radically from its social life during the summer, spring, or fall seasons. In the spring, Smiths thesis lists sports and entertainment as hall dancing, baseball, basketball, theater, plays, fishing, picnics and car riding. Many of the same activities took place in the summer and fall, with the addition of swimming, camping, golfing and football. In the winter, as it does today, things changed. There were still hall dances and basketball but people turned to fish house fishing, ice hockey, skating, sliding, skiing, card playing, tobogganing, sleigh rides and parties to keep entertained during the winter months.


In 1930 the average family of this area consisted of father, mother and six children. A family of eight was considered a large family, and a family of five was considered large enough to keep the race alive and allow for a fair amount of increase. The average family in the U.S. at the time was a family of four.

Smith notes it is evident that the families of this community are twice as large as the average American family. An average of eight would imply many still larger and in his survey Smith found many such large families. Yet, it was noted, these very large families were well cared for. The children received plenty to eat and were kept warm and comfortable. In one family there were 17 children, in another 12, and still another there was 11. Photographs of these families showed their excellent physical appearance.

Smiths research showed the typical Finnish person of NY Mills was satisfied here. The average length of residence of the first generation of Finnish persons of this community is 44 years. These people were asked whether or not they were satisfied being in Minnesota and the length of time they lived in the U.S., the state, community, and their present dwelling. The following results were noted: Satisfied 232; Dissatisfied 10; Indifferent 8. Some comments of the time included:

I liked Dakota better after I bought this land but could not move away very well. But now I like it very well here.

We have been perfectly satisfied since we lived here.

At present could not move. I really believe this community is as good as others. The only thing lacking here is money. Guess same condition exists in all other rural communities. Moving from this community would not do any good.

We have been satisfied very well. We like this community. We live here because our parents were left alone so we felt that we were responsible to take care of them.

I am perfectly satisfied in this part of the country but it has its faults.


No wish to move. Dad promised to live on this place a hundred years when he proved up on his homestead. It was his wish to have his descendants fulfill his promise.

I am desirous of moving, due to severe winters here in Minnesota.

As far as work is concerned I am satisfied.

I would like to move.

This community is all right except that I do not like the climate.

We did not have a chance to go anywhere else so lived here.

The book mentions there were 1,165 Finnish landholders in the community at the time, and these landholders were the owners of 792 square miles of territory, or 506,880 acres of land. The median farm was about 90 acres. One half of the landholders had more than 90 acres.

The inside of the houses was most interesting. In 90 percent of all the Finnish homes of this locality the cleanliness of the home was its outstanding characteristic. In Smiths investigation most of the homes were visited on Saturdays. This found the house somewhat upset by the Saturday cleaning. However, the fact that many women were found in the act of scrubbing and cleaning made it clear that an impression of extreme cleanliness was not misleading.


The barns were rather ordinary but like the homes were very well kept. Harnesses were hung in their places, stalls were cleared of manures and trampled hay. There were cases here and there of the extreme opposite but such cases did not number 10.

Perhaps the most interesting building on the Finnish farm was the bathhouse. Invariably, the Finn would build his bathhouse immediately after he finished the construction of his home. Cases have been noted where the bathhouse was built first and the home second. In such cases they lived in the bathhouse while they were building their home. However, it was used as a home and not a bathhouse during such times.

The Finnish people are by nature very religious. In the study the Finnish people were questioned as to the part that religion played in their lives. Some of their responses:

The church is very important. I like an active part in church life.

Church is important. We have a Finnish Bible and go to church.

I think that the teachings of religion are very important.

Religion is very important. I have a Bible and other religious literature. I have read the Bible eight times.

Religion is very important. Children should be taught religion early in life.


Religion is very important to us. The church is the most important thing in our life.

Yes, everything is good when you stay and pray to God.

Religion is very important. All entertainment and social gatherings are sin.

(The book is available at the NY Mills Regional Cultural Center, East Otter Tail County Historical Society and the Otter Tail County Historical Society. Proceeds from book sales go to the Timo Riippa Fund for Finnish American Studies at the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota.)

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