Finland Trip: In Search of My Family

We typically like to hang around Madison in summer – like most Wisconsinites these few months of magnificent weather and being outdoors are cherished, and often I am busy updating my hiking, biking, paddling and brewery touring books. But Summer 2016 was almost entirely on the road. For over three weeks we packed up the Chevy Lumina and headed out west across America, hitting some choice national parks and a few breweries, visiting cousins and old friends, and reuniting with the Marianne Flemming Band for several gigs in the Portland area. Posts about that trip are coming up. We weren’t back home for even a week before we were off again, this time on a 37-day European journey that included Estonia, Poland, Germany, and France. But this trip was built around something more than a general desire to visit places I haven’t been. The root of the trip lay in family and began with two weeks in Finland.

I am a descendant of a Väisänen family, a common surname in Finland. Some Väisänens changed their name to avoid confusion, and in my family a few chose to take on the name of where they had settled. My great grandmother Johanna (“Hanna”) was born in 1883 along the shore of Lake Iijärvi near the town of Teeriranta only a few miles from the border with Russia and 40 miles/66 km south of Kuusamo. At some point she, and perhaps a few others, took the surname Teeriniemi from a nearby peninsula. Hanna’s mother Rita died and her father John remarried. Hanna already had a sister and four brothersm, and it looked like more siblings were on the way. She didn’t want to have to take care of more babies, so she packed up and left to start a new life in America. She had an uncle in Upper Peninsula Michigan, and so she set sail and landed at Ellis Island, where she shortened her surname to Niemi and set off for mining country.

She joined a significant population of Finns in that region, and took a job cooking and cleaning in a sort of boarding house or dorm where the miners lived. One of those miners, Emil John Salonen, would become my grandfather. (In fact, his first name was John and his middle name Emil, but he figured there were fewer Emils, so he swapped them. While I see so many Anns, Johns, Steves, and Marys in my family tree, only the Finn ancestors seemed to play so loosely with their names.) As soon as Emil had the resources, he bought a small farm near some marshland and spring-fed lakes in northern Wisconsin, not far from a place that today is still known as the Finn Settlement. Emil and Hanna had two children: my grandmother Eeva (who would change the spelling to Eva) and her sister Esther.

Hanna and Eva on the farm in Wisconsin
Hanna and Eva on the farm in Wisconsin

I knew my great-grandmother “Hanna.” She died when she was 96 and I was about to turn 10. She had spent over 70 years in the US and got by speaking Finnish the whole time. The story goes that though she was surrounded by Finns and then isolated on a farm she had been picking up a bit of English. But one day her kids came home from school and her daughter Esther laughed at her mother’s English. Hanna refused to speak another word outside of Finnish. We are a stubborn lot and don’t take kindly to mockery, apparently. Eva and Esther didn’t learn English until they went to school, and for the rest of her life Grandma Eva could still speak and write letters in Finnish. She passed a couple of years ago, a few weeks shy of a century.

Hanna kept in touch with her siblings over the years, including her brother Ville. Eva in turn kept in touch with her cousins, including Ville’s daugher Hilma. They send letters to each other in Finnish, greetings around Christmas. Eva even went to Finland a couple times in the 80s to visit Hilma and her family. Over the years I would write down details and stories or even record interviews with my grandmother, and once when she was showing me recent letters, I wondered aloud if perhaps one of these cousins had email. Grandma Eva wrote them and so it was that I too started sending the occasional missive, Christmas wishes, each year to Irene, Hilma’s daughter. This would be Grandma’s second cousin, and thus (I think) my second cousin twice removed. That, I suppose, is pretty distant cousin, and not just in miles. But when I sent the sad news of Grandma (Aunt) Eva’s passing, Irene and I started discussing the possibility of a visit. In March 2016 we settled on some dates during summer when Irene, a teacher, would be on holiday. After months of planning, Tip and I flew to Finland on July 26th. We’d go on to Estonia, Poland, Germany, and France during our 37-day trip, but the first couple weeks were an amazing Finnish cultural and outdoors experience guided by family.


Enjoy my blog posts and galleries about our Finland trip, and watch for stories about our time in Estonia, Poland, Germany and France. See also how we managed to put together a 37-day trip for two for less than $3500!

Kevin Revolinski

Author, travel writer/photographer, world traveler. Writes about travel, hiking, camping, paddling, and craft beer.

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