The exhibition tells about late 19th century migration from Finland to the United States. It is also a journey from the village of my youth, Maalahti (Malax), in Swedish-speaking Ostrobothnia, to California and Colorado. The exhibition is about dreams of a better life somewhere else, about memory and how very soon the history of ordinary people passes into oblivion… The past is so much like the present and contemporary immigration.
Between 1821 and 1929, a total of 350,000 people emigrated from Finland to the US. Among them, 1,600 were from Maalahti. Some of them were adventurers, but most left because they had no choice. Many immigrant Finns arrived in the United States at a time when the best lands had already been settled, and often ended up working in regions where work was hard and life was difficult. With its supply of European immigrants, the conquest of the American continent continued towards the west as railway lines were laid and cities grew; labour was in demand, and the conditions of workers varied.
Finns’ skill with the axe and their inventive method of felling gigantic trees uphill to prevent them from splitting were appreciated on the West Coast. By contrast, in some mining areas in the Rocky Mountains, Finns were discriminated against and even forbidden to work; one of the reasons cited was race.
I began my search for the all but forgotten story in my father’s grandmother’s decaying cottage in Maalahti. The few photos, letters and documents I found there led me to follow in the possible footsteps of my father’s grandparents. The journey took me first to libraries and archives in New York and then on to similar places in San Francisco. From there it continued to the north towards redwood forests on the West Coast, and then turned east to the Rocky Mountain mining areas and back across the continent to New York and to Maalahti.