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Preserving Finn Town history

Published: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 12:23 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 12:33 p.m. CDT

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DeKALB — In 2006, Diane Rodgers moved to the west side of DeKalb. During walks through her new neighborhood, she noticed “this grand old building” and wondered what it was.

The building turned out to be the old Majakka Hall, which was built in 1917 and has been the home of the DeKalb Area Women’s Center since 1993. It wasn’t until she attended an art show there that the Northern Illinois University professor discovered a stage, ticket booth and balcony inside the hall, which was a major gathering place for Finnish immigrants in what was once called Finn Town.

“I didn’t know there was a Finn Town anywhere, let alone in DeKalb,” Rodgers said. She was so intrigued, she began researching both the building and the community.

In 2011, when women’s center director Anna Marie Coveny asked her assistance in applying for landmark status for the old hall, Rodgers readily agreed.

“We’ve always been interested in the building and its story ever since the founding of the DAWC,” Coveny said, adding that her group felt a connection to the Finnish women who were deeply involved in the temperance movement. “As we renovated, some thought that we had made too many changes to qualify for historic landmark status, so that may have delayed our application. We were all busy in our projects, so we let it slide.”

Fortunately, Rodgers said, old photographs showed the building “had not been modified too much to lose its architectural integrity.”

It kept its integrity enough that this past Februrary, the DeKalb City Council – on the recommendation from the DeKalb Landmark Commission – passed a resolution granting historical status to the hall at 1021 State St.

“I’ve always admired that building,” DeKalb Mayor Kris Povlsen said. He also walked by it many times when he lived in the neighborhood. “I was very pleased to see it. We have a lot of nice buildings of historical interest.”

To get landmark status, Rodgers and a handful of NIU graduate students collected archival data from the NIU Regional History Center and the Joiner History Room in Sycamore, including pictures, newspaper articles, oral histories and records of local residents. They also interviewed area Finnish descendants, toured the hall and the neighborhood, relied heavily on an article written by Joan Metzger of the history center and watched a documentary on DeKalb by NIU Communication professor Jeffrey Chown, which featured a segment on Finn Town.

“There is a limited amount of secondary data available that is specific to DeKalb Finns,” Rodgers said, “but we researched whatever else we could find.”

After ascertaining that the building met the criteria of the DeKalb Landmark Commission, they proceeded with the application, which was carried out by Jamie Smirz at DeKalb City Hall.

“Diane made a presentation to us,” said Sally DeFauw, commission chair. “Diane did a spectacular job of research. This is exactly the type of site we want to recognize. It really had a great deal of historical signifiance to DeKalb and the Finnish people.”

DeFauw, who said most of the four-member commission was familiar with the hall, said some local buildings are recognized for their architecture while others are noted for their history and significance to the community.

“I got online and looked at other Finn temperance halls in the country,” she said. “It was interesting to see this temperance movement that started these halls.”

Some of the students who helped, Rodgers said, used it for college credit, while for others it was voluntary.

“The project overall is very fascinating and I think that once the students learned about it, they were hooked and eagerly gave of their time and effort,” she said. “We are working on several other aspects to this project beside the landmark status and so there have been many avenues for the students to become involved.”

One of those students, Jill Sanderson, interviewed a dozen former neighbors and did “lots and lots of combing through archieves to find gems.”

“It has been exciting,” the former Sycamore resident said. “We are trying to piece together a lot of bits of information and have been relying heavily on what we discover to fill in the missing pieces.”

Although she’s used to interviewing people, Sanderson said she’s “never been part of a project that has transformed into so many different opportunities, like the landmark status. Researching in academia you don’t often get to see the results of your research in your own community and that has been very rewarding.”

“The Majakka Hall of DeKalb is an important testament to the resiliency of Finnish heritage that is still visible today, and one of the few remaining Finnish temperance halls in the country,” Rodgers said.

“It is interesting to note that both old Finn halls in the Third Ward, originally built as community centers, are being used as community centers today – 96 and 99 years later,” Coveny said.

Coveny added that the women’s center, which has hosted various Finn nights at the hall, hasn’t decided if it will seek state and national historical status.

“I do think it has good chance for national recognition,” DeFauw said.

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