SideLines: Treasures hidden in plain sight

As they say, you’re never too old to learn.

I did a story in this week’s paper about the old Majakka Hall at 1021 State St. in DeKalb being granted historical status by the city of DeKalb. In researching the story, I came upon an article written by Joan Metzger, university archives assistant of the Northern Illinois University Regional History Center, concerning not only the hall but the Finnish population in the Barb City, which was once referred to as Finn Town.

Like Diane Rodgers, the NIU professor in charge of the Majakka Hall project, I didn’t know there was such a thing as Finn Town. I was vaguely aware of an old Finnish sauna on Pleasant Street, but that was all. I knew there was a large population of Swedes, Germans, English and Hispanics in this area, but not Finns.

In her article, which can be found online, Metzger wrote that Finns from the province of Vassa, known as Ostra Bothnia, along the west coast on the gulf of Bothnia, settled in DeKalb in the 1890s. It was mainly in the Third Ward, the industrial and ethnic heart of the city at the time.

Most of the first Finnish settlers, Metzger wrote, were single men who lived in boarding houses or with relatives. They were most likely drawn here for jobs in the factories and mills that popped up following the invention of barbed wire in 1874. Finnish girls eventually arrived, finding work as “domestics, cooks and seamstresses in the homes of some of DeKalb’s most prosperous families,” as well as in factories.

Being new in a foreign country, it was natural they bonded together in the same area. At the time, the Third Ward ran from Seventh Street on the west, Lincoln Highway on the south, Lewis Street on the north and the Chicago and Northwestern tracks on the east.

The number of Finns grew from 184, according to the 1900 census, to about 800 just three decades later.

In her research, Rodgers reported the Finns developed “a church, their own businesses, cooperatives, Temperance societies and workers’ societies.” Some of those businesses included a grocery store, a bakery, shoe repair shops, a clothing store, a beauty salon, a real estate agency and even a law office.

“These early immigrants contributed to DeKalb initially as workers in the steel mills and then as business owners and civic leaders,” Rodgers said. “Hugo J. Hakala is an excellent example of this, having worked at American Steel and Wire for 15 years and then, after serving as Third Ward alderman for five years, became mayor of the city of DeKalb from 1937-1949.”

One of the more prominent athletes was Reino Nori. Known as the “Flying Finn,” he earned 17 letters in five sports at NIU before playing pro football for three teams, including the Bears. Another Finn, Toimi Jarvi, starred at NIU before quarterbacking in the NFL.

Eventually, Finn Town broke up for a variety of reasons. Nearby factories closed, people became more accustomed to American life and those who survived World War II found other places to live.

Much of this history, including Majakka Hall, will be explored in a presentation from 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday, April 5 at the hall, now home to the DeKalb Area Women’s Center. Parking is available in the lot off 11th Street, one-half block south of the hall. A handicapped-accessible lift may be reached from the alley to the north.

What is just as interesting is that Rodgers and DeKalb Mayor Kris Povlsen both told me they used to walk by Majakka Hall and wonder what the building was. How often have we walked by something that drew our attention and had absolutely no idea what treasures laid within it?

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