Connecticut Finnish Heritage
Fresh Finnish Beginnings
Lured by cheap land, Finnish immigrants found their way to Connecticut as early as the 1920s. Aided by sisu, many set about farming the rocky terrain in the area of Canterbury, in the heavily forested northeast corner of the state. The influx of Finns included those departing FinnTown in Brooklyn, which had been—along with the earlier FinnTown in Harlem—a first home for emigrating Finns who chose to stay in New York, where work in carpentry and the construction industry was plentiful.
A large number of those who left the city for Canterbury started poultry farms for egg production and broiler chickens. Soon, they established agricultural cooperatives and social halls, including the building that today is the home of the Finnish American Heritage Society (FAHS).
The Canterbury Finnish Hall
The Canterbury Finnish Hall was built by the Finnish American Education Association, and dedicated on Christmas day of 1925. A stage was soon added for theatrical and musical productions that were an important part of the tightly knit community’s social scene.
In 1963 the hall changed hands and the Sampo Club operated it until 1978. A Swedish organization was set to buy the building when local Finns rallied to raise enough money to save the property. When finances failed in 1987, FAHS was organized and assumed responsibility for the historic structure.
Major improvements at the hall by FAHS include construction of a sauna, memorial courtyard, and addition housing a gallery, library, museum exhibits and a climate-controlled archive and research room. Members catalog and care for a large collection of books, photos, records and artifacts Finnish-American culture and heritage, including materials from Imatra Society, which was founded in Brooklyn’s FinnTown in 1890 and closed in the 1990s.
Finnish American Heritage Society in the Modern Day
In traditional years, FAHS maintains a full schedule of activities, from an arts and crafts show to pulla baking, wine tasting and Finnish Independence Day events . Due to COVID-19 the hall was closed for social events in 2020, but in addition to archival work, volunteers completed several projects including interior painting and replacement of doors, windows and flooring. Meetings have been held via Zoom, and members are looking forward to a virtual version of the popular, annual Finnish Culinary Delights cooking program on March 13. This year’s theme is Finnish comfort foods.
Steve Bousquet, FAHS president, says they hope to return to in-person events with a September concert by Hannu Makipuro, followed by a Christmas party in December. He’s also looking forward to reviving the oral history project, to record the stories of older members such as Bill Aho, whose 103rd birthday was celebrated at the January membership meeting.
He’s enthused by the support and involvement of members. “We have a really great board,” says Steve. “They’re tremendously active and involved.” With the addition of new members, prospects for the future of FAHS look positive. “We call it late onset Finnishness. That’s when people get into their 50s and delve into their heritage,” he laughs. They are bringing initiatives like a new blog about Finland and Finnish-America, and “Finnish Finds,” a place to share discoveries such as a bargain on imported candy, or finding a trove of iittala glass at Goodwill.
Steve, who is of Irish-English-Welsh-French descent, knew little about Finland and Finnish traditions until he met his wife, Katrina, whose family immigrated from Finland and moved to the Canterbury area in 1932. Now, he’s invested in FAHS and preserving its heritage, and ensuring the health of the organization as it heads toward its 35th anniversary in 2022.