Heartland II: Where My People Lie Buried

If you trace your ancestors, how far back do you go? Great-greats? Where the four brothers married the four sisters? Pre-Civil War? Neanderthals? Perhaps I should start simply, just with my mother and my grandfather, a more manageable task.

Last week, I wrote about the inspiration of seeing the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota. This week, I am traveling the path of my own people, my mother’s family, whose lives were sprinkled across the northern plains of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. We are Finns, who emigrated from Lapplander landscapes with thin, tall trees, who journeyed from bleak places of chill and sleet to cross the American “west” until they reached an equally bleak landscape. Home!

Copper Harbor lighthouse, Michigan
Copper Harbor lighthouse on Lake Superior above the Upper Peninsula Michigan. Photo by kajmeister.

Not to worry. This is not a full genealogy review, not a list of begats and son ofs in biblical proportions. I did a Family Tree project in the fifth grade which had some of these details, but don’t have it with me. I may be misremembering or fictionalizing pieces (I think Grandpa Hugo was oldest of 11… I think there were four brothers and sisters intermarrying…) In point of fact, my aunt has also compiled some kind of detailed review, to the point where if you go into the Finnish-American Center in Hancock, Michigan and mention the surname Busse, they say, “Oh, Ainie!” even though she lives 350 miles away.

This is about the environment of my mom’s family. What was it like where she was born and grew up? Why did she always yearn to be near a city, preferring traffic over trees? Why did she enjoy the 108-degree heat of Sacramento? Why did her family have such a strange, biting sense of humor? What was all that SISU about?

Grist for the Mill

Grandpa Hugo Hillstrom worked as a laborer, either in the lumber mills or mines of the Upper Peninsula.  I still need to sift through the stories to tease out his full biography, but I know at some point he went to night school to earn an engineering degree. (Ironically enough, so did my paternal grandfather, who worked for Henry Ford.) At some point, he became a manager in a flour mill–Robin Hood flour–originally part of Moose Jaw Milling and now a product of Cargill, a massive $115 billion food conglomerate. As I traveled through Minneapolis this past week, I had a chance to walk through the intriguing Mills Museum which chronicles the history and process  of flour milling, that industry which created Minneapolis, city at the nexus of wheat and waterfalls.

Minneapolis mill waterfall
Waterfall on the Mississippi, Minneapolis Mill Museum. Photo by kajmeister.

I don’t want to give away all the secrets revealed by the museum tour, but one explains why here, and why then. The Minnesota town grew up around the only spot on the Mississippi that had a natural waterfall (there are several manmade ones now). The St. Anthony waterfall meant water power to turn water wheels, eventually turbines, power to grind the wheat that could pour in from the prairies for a thousand miles. The other key fact that emerged from the history of flour is that the stuff is highly combustible. Mills often seem to be exploding or burning down, which led to rebuilding, which led to opportunities for new technology.

Part of grandfather’s rise in the milling business was due to technology changes and  process improvements he provided. Again, the details are skimpy, but over dinner with a few cousins last week, one described how Grandpa found a way to move some of the grinding process closer to the rivers where the wheat was shipped in, which prevented spoilage.

The family moved frequently as part of the corporate mobility that followed. My  mother lived in Hancock (Mi), Marengo (Wis), Royal Oak (Mi), and New Prague (Minn) by the time she graduated from high school. Her sisters graduated from another small town, Cokato (Minn). It must have been like living with a father in the military. Certainly, Grandpa,  the industrial engineer who also named his children alphabetically, seemed part drill sergeant and part Clifton Webb in Cheaper by the Dozen. Strict and organized.

Minneapolis' sculpture garden
Modern Minneapolis’ Walker Sculpture Garden, the Claes Oldenburg giant Cherry with Spoon. Photo by kajmeister.

In Search of Pasties

Mom spent time in Minneapolis, too, studying Speech (it’s now called Rhetoric) at the University of Minnesota. I think she fell in love with the museums, the “modern art,” the culture, and the bustle, which is she always wanted to be close to the city. I wanted to keep searching for her hometown, at least the one she was born in. We continued her journey in reverse by trundling from the glass skyscrapers and abstract art of the Polis up through the highways into the back woods and the real north. I went up to see the Yoopers.

The Upper Peninsula in Michigan is remote; no interstates, two-lane state roads only. Why it’s not a part of Wisconsin is still a curious story, but I’ll save that for another time. Hancock, Michigan is a hamlet of 4500 people nestled in the hills, midway up the Keweenaw Peninsula, which extends like Michelangelo’s Adam’s finger up from the limp hand of the rest of the U.P.  Wikipedia says Hancock bears the distinction of being the second snowiest cities in the U.S., with an average of 212 inches per year. In 1978, Hancock got over 390 inches of snow; frequently, the snow doesn’t completely melt until June. Hancock is also designated as the “focal point for Finns in the U.S.” and, somehow, those things seem to go together.

Tervetuloa Yetavahi, Welcome Friends
Sign in Kaleva Bakery. Photo by kajmeister.

My mother told me that Finnish pasties were legendary, so part of my search was for Finnish bakeries. I have always been a little confused over that, especially after I traveled to Wales and Cornwall, since they claim to have invented the pasty, not the Finns. When I learned that the Keweenaw region is copper mining country–the site of the first copper boom in America–the pieces fell into place. Cornish miners made their way up into those mines and brought the pasty recipes with them.

By the way, it’s pasty, as in dastardly, not pasty, as in wasted.  That second pronunciation is reserved for something else. Also, it’s sauna, as in cow, not sauna as in raw. The best way to really annoy a Finn is to say “sawna.”

The Yooper Finns far outnumbered the Cornish up there so the pasty shops that pop up along every wide spot on the two-lane highway pay homage to that legacy. A pasty is a handheld pie–meat, potato, and carrot mix in a pie crust. Better with gravy, but easily eaten one-handed. The distant delicious ancestor of the Hot Pocket.

Kaleva Bakery
Sunday brunch, Kaleva bakery, Hancock, Michigan. Photo by kajmeister.

When we walked into the Kaleva Bakery on a Sunday morning in downtown Hancock, half the town seemed to be attacking their brunch in three long communal tables that ran straight down the center of the restaurant. Over the bang of forks against sturdy plates, we shouted an order for two pasties and some jam tarts. The paper bags were heavy; each pasty was  about the size of two fists, steaming hot. We warmed our hands in the still-chilly car as we drove and nibbled the topp, where the potatoes cluster, burning our tongue but warming our bellies.

OK Mom, I get it now.

Finnish pasty
Finnish Cornish pasties, Kaleva Bakery, Hancock,, Mich. Photo by kajmeister.

Copper Harbor, Flat Rocks

My brother tells me that he went up to Copper Harbor once and remembers climbing into some tower to see the curvature of the earth. It might have been one of the lighthouses that dot the rocky points; none were open now. He did request some flat rocks from Lake Superior. The rocks there are flat and broad, ideal for skipping and I searched out a few, while watching a young feller practice some skipping of his own.


Lake Superior
Skipping stones on Lake Superior, Copper Harbor, Michigan. Photo by kajmeister.

The drive up to the tip of the peninsula showed one quiet marvel after another. Beaches, tree-lined nature trails, waterfalls, lighthouses, rocky promontories. It’s called copper country from the mining, but on September 30, the canopy of trees across the winding highway were starting to turn gold.  Branches that reached to the road were often  bright red at the tip, yellow in the middle, and green at the core.

I thought of my mom–how old when she moved for the first of many times? –maybe two, or three. Even so, with snow until June, and with that never-ending low hush of water lapping on the rocks and wind up the hill, I can understand the craving for more. Jazz music, the hubbub of enthusiastic arguments over art and politics, the honking of horns, and the roar of laughter.  She preferred the city, always. I get it now.

It reminded me of Maya Angelou’s Inaugural poem from 1993, about the rocks and trees.  I thought of that poem now driving through landscape of stark basalt and lodge pole pine, so much wind moving through and shaping the countryside.

You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot …
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am the Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours–your Passages have been paid.
–from Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning”

Lake Superior, waterfall.
Waterfall near Eagle River, Michigan. Photo by kajmeister.

Generations in these Northern Woods

I hadn’t seen that set of cousins since 1994, since that big reunion in Minnesota that our parents A through I had arranged, the first time we cousins saw each other as adults.  The parents loved to have reunions, buying matching T-shirts, and squabbling like siblings still trying to compete for the attention of stern, silent parents. We cousins bonded instantly, realizing that we shared much more than the high forehead and big bones of these ancestors. We vowed to have our own meet-ups but, being busy with family-raising and work, haven’t really done it. We’re older now, though, and some (like me) might have time for arrangements. Without parents to make us wear matching outfits and take group photographs, maybe we’ll finally do it on our own.

I asked about finding the gravesite of Grandpa Hugo’s parents which my aunt Ellen told me was in Hancock. Cousin Jay said he found it, though it wasn’t so easy. He told a story of an afternoon tramping around in the rain, almost giving up, then finally finding a small marker. When I went to the Lakeside Cemetery, I had an easier time, thanks to technology. FindAGrave.com led to a website for the cemetery, which had an Excel spreadsheet, with marked numbers. Section 5, Lot 44, Site 5.

Grave in Hancock, MI cemetery.
Lakeside Cemetery, Hancock, Mi. Grave of my great-greats. Photo by kajmeister.

In amongst the rest of the Finns–the Kaakinens, the Lehtos, the Ahos, the Purelas–there were the Hillstroms.  My mother told me that her father’s surname was originally Hilleli, but changed on Ellis Island to Hillstrom. Cousin Julie…or maybe it was Heidi… said no, that it was always Hillstrom, which meant “Hill by the River/Stream.” More details to be clarified.  The Scandinavians liked to have last names based on where you were from. My grandmother’s family name was changed to Anderson at Ellis Island from its original Finnish reference to the island near their home–Kaarvasaari. You must roll the Rs to say that properly.

Hancock Harbor, Michigan
Sunrise on Hancock Harbor (Michigan). Photo by kajmeister.

The truth of the story is still hard to scrape away, but I have time yet. I could return to the waters of the north and dig around in the Finnish-American archives. Or page through Ainie’s records; cousin Nancy has it on a PDF. Even just a few days led to me to breathe in just a little of my ancestors. The waters, rocks, and trees will still be there whenever I want to come back.



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