August Halme (birth name lkonen) and his wife Aina Maria (nee Puranen) first came to America in 1902 to preach the word of God to the immigrants. Unfortunately, it appears that the streets were not paved in gold as many were led to believe, nor was the demand for Finnish preaching in Gloucester, Massachusetts as great as may have been expected.
The young couple reconsidered their American experiment, and soon sailed back to Finland with a souvenir: an American-born baby named Omar Gideon Halme.
August preached a circuit from central Finland to St. Petersburg, Russia. Aino supported the family by working in Vyborg, and gave birth to three more boys and a daughter. August’s second attempt at America was more cautious—he came alone. Entering the U.S. via Windsor, Canada in 1924, he went on to a congregation on Drummond Island, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Three years later, he landed in Maine, where he purchased a small apple farm in West Sumner, and sent for his family. The property’s down payment was courtesy of a loan from his brother-in-law, Eino Puranen, who labored as a floor-stripper in New York City.
Aino arrived in Toronto in 1927 with Martta, their youngest child, and Omar, who had been working as merchant seaman on the Baltic Sea. Kaleb remained in Finland as a soon-to-be warrant officer in the army, while Matti and Hannes escaped Finland’s military by stowing away in the coal bin of a Swedish stream ship.
In Toronto, Martta enrolled in school, and Aino and Omar found work to help support the family in the New World, while also responding to the unending and desperate pleas for funds from Matti and Hannes, hopelessly adrift in Europe. When the Great Depression hit Toronto, Aino and Omar joined August in rural Maine, where the couple started a health spa with sauna, massage and water bath treatments at their lakeside property. They primarily served the local Finnish community, but also treated people between Maine and New York City. Ironically, August’s own health soon began to fail, and after a few short years he no longer could treat clients.
In 1930 Omar returned to Toronto to marry his fiancée, Saimi Airaksinen. The couple found work as a cook and chauffer in New York, yet Omar felt the calling to follow in his father August’s footsteps as a minister to the Finnish community. In 1931 he was admitted to the Union Theological College in Chicago, which had a Congregational Church-sponsored Finnish missionary section. While in school Omar worked as a janitor at the local church, and Saimi worked as a serving maid at private dinners and catered events.
Omar finished the four-year program in three, and was hired in 1934 by the Palo Church in Aurora, Minnesota. The next three eventful years would see the birth of their first child, Martta; aiding with a devastating forest fire; helping build “laskiainen” sled runs; and constructing the Bassett Lakes Congregational Church, which still stands. As rewarding and all-consuming as the work was, a part of the minister’s income was still in the form of farm produce donated during home visits. In 1937 Omar was hired by the California congregations in Reedley and Los Angeles. The couple was able to purchase relatively inexpensive properties in LA, which they partitioned into rooms to rent to Finns looking for low cost housing. Saimi ran the business and Omar did the repairs. Finally, prosperity was coming into sight.
August Halme died in 1942 after a decade of poor health. Aina died in 1947, but lived long enough to see her son, Omar, and daughter, Martta, achieve some degree of financial stability. Kaleb Halme survived the Finnish Winter War, but was hunted by the communists because of his anti-Russian wartime articles. He escaped to the U.S. where he and his wife, Martta, took over the West Sumner family property and continued the sauna and massage business. They had two daughters, Myra and Aina.
Matti Halme jumped ship illegally in New York and came to Hollywood to work as a chauffeur. When the Winter War broke out, he volunteered to join the fight but upon his arrival in Finland the fighting had temporarily ended. He tried to return to the U.S. aboard a Finnish freighter, but the ship only made it as far as Japan when war in the Pacific broke out. Matti made his way to China where he had to survive on his own until the war’s end. It was another half-decade before he could return to the U.S, where he passed away in 1956.
Hannes Halme sailed the world as merchant marine until he was able to enter the U.S. legally just prior to WWII. After spending most of his adult life avoiding Finnish military service, he joined the U.S. Army in 1943 and was sent to Burma, where he died at the age of 32.
Martta Halme married Niilo Grondahl, a New York Finnish-American who owned a housing construction business. They had two children, Eric and Julia. Rev. Omar Halme died in 1995, after 61 years of pastoring the Finnish community. Saimi passed away in 2003 at age 95 in Solvang, California. They had three children, Martta, Paul, and Kalervo.
The American Dream promised ready success to immigrants. But, as most understood, the real goal was to improve the family’s long term “lot in life.” It was opportunity that was sought and eventually achieved in very many cases. Among the Halme/Grondahl children and grandchildren living in Maine, New Hampshire, Florida, Nevada, and California, are two lawyers, two civil engineers, a nurse, a social worker, a family bakery owner, a catering business owner, an executive of an international footwear brand, and the founders of a nation-wide chain of franchised fitness gyms.