On Thursday, December 6th, Finns around the world celebrated Finland’s Independence Day. The day marks Finland’s declaration of independence from Russia in 1917. It’s a holiday that we also celebrate here in the Northwoods, because of how much Finnish heritage we have.
At Ponsse North America in Rhinelander they celebrated the day as well, since Ponsse was started in Finland. Mackenzie Martin has the story.
Between 1870 and 1930, most Finns migrating to the U.S. landed in an area known as the Finn Hook, which includes northeastern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Today, the Finn Hook has the highest population of Americans of Finnish ancestry of any region in the U.S.
Ponsse is a company that manufactures and markets a range of forestry vehicles and machinery. It was originally started in rural Finland, but their North American headquarters has been right here in Rhinelander since 1997.
They celebrated Finland's Independence Day with a traditional meal onsite. A group from Knox Creek Heritage Center in Brantwood showed up at 7:30 a.m. to start cooking.
It was a chilly December morning in Rhinelander, but Kevin Wollemann cooked the traditional Finnish beef stew called Mojakka outside in a big cast iron pot over a wood fire. Traditional flatbread and creamy rice accompanied the stew.
“We do it because it’s tradition!" says Wollemann.
Mojakka is one of those recipes that differs from kitchen to kitchen and recipes are often passed down for generations. Wollemann made it with potatoes, rutabagas, and other vegetables, but sometimes it’s made with fish.
Wollemann says employees from Ponsse have come to their events at the Knox Creek Heritage Center in the past, so he was happy to come to Ponsse and return the favor.
“It’s celebrating my heritage too because I am 51% Finn,” he says. “Both of my grandparents came from Finland and settled in the Brantwood area, so my mom is 100% first generation Finnish American.”
Like Kevin Wollemann, Ponsse North America President Pekka Ruuskanen says it’s important to celebrate the Finnish Independence Day because many of the workers at Ponsse also have Finnish heritage.
“Maybe grandpa or grandma came over,” he says. “We’ve been independent now for 101 years so it’s a big thing for all the Finnish people.”
Ruuskanen says there are a lot of geographic similarities between Finland and northern Wisconsin. The forest isn't the same, but the lakes, fishing, and hunting are very similar. The difference between the two? Laughing, he says the timber is much nicer in Finland.
They don’t eat traditional Finnish food and celebrate Finland’s independence from Russia every day at Ponsse, but part of working at Ponsse for many includes the opportunity to go to Finland and other countries for work. Bart Tegen has traveled to Finland four times since starting work at Ponsse and he says he feels it’s a unique opportunity.
“Traveling to Finland is in a way a small vacation because once you get there, we’re treated very well and we have a lot of coworkers there,” says Tegen. “I do some things with people that I know there on the side or have dinner with their families."
He says not in his wildest dreams did he expect to have a job based in Rhinelander that allowed him to travel internationally.
Reijo Huttunen is a business controller at Ponsse. You wouldn’t know it from his thick Finnish accent, but he’s lived in Rhinelander for 16 years. He moved in 2002 for a job with Ponsse, but he grew up in southeastern Finland, not far from where the Ponsse factory is located.
“I came back to my roots. I was born and grown on a farm so logging is very close to my heart,” he says. “My wife says we traveled half the world and we came to the same place as where we left.”
Something Huttunen likes about working at Ponsse is the work-life balance, something that comes with many jobs up here in the Northwoods.
“People like the nature, they like to go out,” he says. “In this kind of logging industry, people are kind of enjoying. You work with the loggers in the woods. You meet them in there. This kind of helps. You don’t even feel like you’re working all the time when you work because you do something that you love.”
Huttunen says he likes how many Finns live in the Northwoods. Since moving to Rhinelander, he has done some genealogy studies and he found out that he even has some relatives here, making the Northwoods feel even more like home.
“That is exciting, it makes me feel more connected,” he says. “We hope we have been bringing here the same thing as the early Finnish settlers did… I have the same feeling still in here that I would have back in Finland. There are the same things like this sisu, this perseverance, and standing behind your word. What you promise, you will deliver.”
This story is part of our We Live Up Here series, where we tell the stories of the people and culture of northern Wisconsin. Music for this story came from Blue Dot Sessions: Pedalrider by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue).
This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.