Like its Southern Ostrobothnian “neighbour” at Lapinkaivo (over 100km walk by the most direct route…), the memorial at Lakaluoma, about 20km east of Lapua, represents a tragic individual story that we can only presume was replicated around Finland in 1867-68.
In an earlier edition (1988) of Lapuan Sanomat, it was explained that the white cross had the text “1868” and a small plaque saying “Maria Lapinsaari on tähän vaipunu” [“Maria Lapinsaari has fallen here”]. My friend and colleague Dr. Eliza Kraatari, currently based in Seinäjoki, went to investigate and sent me these haunting photos, which I reproduce below with her permission.
I found an even earlier article – coincidentally from just over a century ago – which demonstrates the long heritage of this memorial, whether or not the current cross is the original (the plaque certainly seems to be new). In Vaasa (20 Aug. 1920), we can read the following short article:
Interestingly, the article explains that mention of the year “1868” brings contrasting emotions to Finns’ minds: of course, there was the terrible famine year, but on the other hand, there was also the terrific harvest of that summer, which finally brought to an end the long series of harvest failures and heralded better times. It concludes: ‘one of the “memorial statues” of those times is still to be found along the narrow village road that meanders through the forest from Lapua’s Lakaluoma to the village of Kotajärvi in the same parish. “Here Maria Lapinsaari fell in 1868”. – This sentence does not need further explanation.’
Dr. Eliza Kraatari‘s photos (10 Oct. 2020) are added below. Please do not reproduce these without Dr. Kraatari’s explicit permission:
Vaasa 19 Aug. 1920 (also e.g. Karjalan Maa, 26 Aug. 1920).
The municipality of Siikalatva has at least three famine memorials (as it is was formed in 2009 from a collection of smaller towns): Rantsila, Piippola and Pulkkila. This part of Northern Ostrobothnia suffered terribly in the 1860s (the fourth town of Siikalatva, Kestilä, also featured regularly in harrowing newspaper reports). In 1866, it was reported from Pulkkila that it felt like war-time, as hunger and disease fought violently against the local population. [Oulun Wiikko-Sanomia, 30 Jun. 1866). In his speech to the Pulkkila Society’s “Museum Picnic” in July 2018, Matti Leiviskä described how over six hundred (of fewer than two thousand) people from the Pulkkila chapel parish died between 1866-68.
As with other sites in Northern Ostrobothnia, the Kirjastovirma website was my original source of information. In the entry for Pulkkila Church, it notes that in spinney behind the church is a white wooden cross, which was the graveyard of those who fell in the Battle of Pulkkila (in May 1808, during the Finnish War between Sweden and Russia), as well as those who perished in the Great Hunger Years (1866-68).
Another site in Northern Ostrobothnia (n.b. when I started this project, Vaala was in Kainuu) which I’ve not yet had the chance to visit. In August 1985, newspapers printed a syndicated report from the STT (Finnish Information Bureau) newsagency:
MEMORIALS AT TWO MASS GRAVES IN VAALA: This Sunday, two memorials will be unveiled at the old cemetery in Säräisniemi, Vaala, in connection with two mass graves from over a century ago. Both of these granite memorials have plaques attached, on which are engraved details of these events from the mid-nineteenth century.
At the shipwreck-victims’ graveyard fifteen bodies are buried. These people were lost when a church boat sank on Oulujärvi on the 6th October 1856.
Nearby, at a second mass grave, are buried people were were lost to dysentery at the Pelsonsuo Canal worksite during the hunger years of the 1850s and 1860s.
The works at Pelsonsuo might be considered more of a mass drainage / drying of the bog, with canals being a part of this process.
A site visit will follow in Spring 2019, and details of the precise location etc will be included on this entry.
Note:although not of direct relevance to this blog, the wikipedia entry for “Church Boats” in Finnish indicates that there were sixteen, rather than fifteen, people from Vuolijoki who drowned on the way back from church in 1856.
The stone at Kortesjärvi’s late-eighteenth-century wooden church is one of a small number of Finnish famine memorials that were inaugurated during the general “sesquicentennial” commemoration period. The stone itself is a simple dark grannite gravestone, with the common motif of drooping rye stems, and an inscription which does not includes dates, but simply remembers those who died of hunger.
Acknowledgements: I am very grateful to Dr. Eliza Kraatari for sending me these images for the new memorial at Kortesjärvi, and for allowing me to use them on this blog. Please do not reproduce them without express permission.
Among the many poignant stories to be found in the Finnish Literature Society’s collection of oral testimonies from the 1930s, is the tale of “Jaakko of the Willows”, who worked on a public relief scheme in Perho during the Great Hunger Years. Although a short extract, Jaakko’s story exposes many important themes from the 1860s, and hints at the conditions on the work sites, as well as some of the human cruelty which emerges during crisis periods. Moreover, the story ends with a comment about famine memorialization, and specifically mentions the churchyard at Jänkäharju – where the Perho church stands.
Jaakko of The Willows’ Final Roll (A Memory From Winter 1867-68)
Väinö Laajala, SKS 5, 1932, Perho*
The twelve kilometre road from the church to Salamajärvi was being built as an emergency employment scheme during the hunger winter of 1867-68. The workers were paid a pound of flour a day. That payment was miserably small to those who had a family to feed. One pound of flour didn’t make the pine-bark dough much more pale. Like gloomy ghosts, the family fathers felled snowy trees along the road with their feeble strikes, or pounded a ditch into the frosty ground. When the lunchtime arrived, that sad crowd sat themselves down on rocks and tree stumps. They dug out the dark, fragile pine-bark bread from their rucksacks. The fortunate ones had also butter, the golden offering of a cow, or meat. Nobody had fish, because thick ice covered the mistress of water’s game grounds, and the last summer’s salted was all eaten too long ago to extinguish the gnawing hunger.
Some didn’t have even enough of that disgusting bark-bread. Someone like Jaakko of The Willows, a dweller of a distant woodland cabin. When eating his chilly lunch on the snowy ground on a cold and gloomy winter day he saw Aapo Lampuoti – the manager of the work-site and a local landowner – chomping bread between his teeth. Bread made from God’s pure white grains. Jaakko couldn’t resist asking: “Dear brother, wouldn’t you spare me a few pieces of bread – you see, I’m really dying here – I’m so hungry”. Aapo’s wide and bearded mouth contorted into a nasty grin. Being so well-off himself, he couldn’t understand the distress of a fellow man. Calmly he took another bite of his sweet butter bread. Jaakko stood pale and shivering in front of him, staring passionately at that golden “clear bread”, which so rarely was an everyday “feast” during those times. Aapo swallowed his bite and started joking with his mouth stretched in a dog-like smirk: ” If you’ll do me a forward roll there in the snow, then you’ll get your bread.” Poor Jaakko felt like crying when a richer man made fun of him like that. His fellow workers saw this, and told the story to future generations.
Aapo continued teasing: “No come on, come on, do me a roll and you’ll have some bread”. A drowning man grabs a stick, and a starving man grabs a piece of bread, no matter what cheap tricks one has to do to get it. So poor Jaakko, with his thin lips twisted, tumbled on his head into a bank of snow in order to accomplish the demanded roll. But the bloke’s feet didn’t rise up that easily. He fell down many times on his side into the snow, but always tried again. At last he managed, burying himself in the thick snow, so that he could only just get up. Aapo Lampuoti almost dropped his bread, for he couldn’t stop laughing: “Alright, you’ll get the bread now”, he cackled, and actually made the man a real bread. Jaakko started to gorge it with a frightening gluttony. The works started again. Jaakko of The Willows started to complain about severe stomach-ache, and the foreman Lampuoti mocked him: “It’s just God’s grain squeezing your belly. Just let the bad air out, and all will be well.” Of course those kind of tricks weren’t much of help for poor Jaakko. The pain got worse and the guy writhed in the snow, groaning and moaning. Finally he settled down.
By the time his comrades noticed him, he had forever forgotten the torturing pain of hunger, as well as his family far away at the cabin in The Willows, where the father would never anymore appear with his small bag of flour to ease the distress of his loved ones. In the evening dusk of that harsh hunger winter, his comrades took Jaakko to the lower chamber of the church’s bell tower to await his burial. Many of Jaakko’s comrades followed him in to frosty soil of churchyard during the next troublesome weeks, but death had lost its meaning in minds of the living. No one was afraid of it when it revealed its ruthless grin, not to mention when it caressed someone else. Life was grim and hopeless. Forever gnawing hunger numbed the most sensitive of feelings. Death was the only liberator from the apparently endless misery. That is why people weren’t afraid of it. I dedicate these few incomplete rows as some kind of a monument for this victim of the hunger winter, whose final resting place at Jänkäharju cemetery was never marked even with a simple wooden cross.
There is, in fact, a memorial stone at Jänkäharju. Perho was one of the first sites that I encountered – and the first image I saw was of a crudely-hewn stone in the church graveyard. I have since visited Perho on several occasions – including during the filming of the short documentary On The Famine Road (2017) with Ronan Browne, and in 2018 with Eliza Kraatari as part of our memorial wreath initiative. Moss now covers the stone to a large extent, and so the older image of the “bald” stone (from 2007-8) in the Vartiainen family history newsletter was a tremendous value.
Perho’s current church dates from the early twentieth century, but the belltower is the same one in which the bodies of Jaakko from the Willows and his unfortunate workmates would have been stored awaiting burial. Turpeinen (1986, 51) notes the disease which had struck Perho in the period 1865-67, which increased vulnerability when the crop failed again so disastrously in the autumn of 1867. The local chaplain, and his wife – Adolf and Lydia Wegelius – organised relief work: Lydia (Särkiö, 2000) recalled the heartache that she felt as she prepared meagre meals for those who got work. They were also the local contacts for donations which came from elsewhere in the country: for example, in April 1868 Vasabladet (18 Apr. 1868) printed a notice from Leontine Gumerus, describing the sale of various items of gold- and silverware, the proceeds from which were sent to Wegelius in Perho.
Another poignant element of Perho’s famine history, however, is that Pastor Wegelius would never have received these donations. After tending to so many sick and distressed parishioners, he had also contracted disease and died on April 12th (Hufvudstadsbladet, 20 Apr. 1868).
A second, rather heartbreaking, story from Perho was recounted by Maija Kivelä about her ageing grandmother – again told to the Finnish Literature Society in the 1930s. Although there are no specifics, it seems quite plausible that the “hoijakka”, or temporary workroom, referred to in this story, would have been the scheme established by Adolf and Lydia Wegelius.
A memory from the spring of hunger
Väinö Laajala, SKS 4, Perho. Interviewee: Maija Kivelä, 1932.*
I was twelve years old during that hunger spring. People were dying in extraordinary numbers compared to normal, either to hunger or to the fever that vagrants were spreading. In any case, there wasn’t any great trouble as far as food was concerned at my home in Haasiosalmi (a forest ranger’s croft in the woods, east from Salamajärvi). My grandmother Liisa was over 90 years old but an extremely active nana, as well as very irksome by nature. She got in a quarrel with the folks back home, and around the same time she heard that a “hoijakka” [an emergency shelter for the malnourished] was being established at the sexton’s house at the church. Our granny thought that the conditions in that shelter would be like paradise, and she muttered: “I’m going to the shelter – to the texton’s – I don’t want to be eating your food”. My parents tried to stop her, telling her how terrible the conditions were there at the workhouse, but granny remained steadfast in her decision. She gathered her belongings in a bundle. I saw her packing her religious book, “Armojärjestys” [The Order of Salvation], which she used to read a lot. So off she went, walking the road to that sexton’s “hoijakka” of such bad reputation.
Two weeks went by and we heard nothing of her in our distant cottage in the woods, thirty kilometers away from the church. My parents became agitated, and so they sent me to the shelter at the church to see our granny, and to take some food to her. My mother packed me some bread, butter, cheese and a big salted bream in a bundle. And so off I went. The springtime floods were high at the time, so it wasn’t exactly child’s play for a twelve-year-old to travel that distance by foot with a heavy load. At last I arrived at the parish. Pale human figures in their rags staggered around in the yard of the sexton’s house, that had been made into a shelter. I went inside, leaving my package at the entrance because my child-like modesty prevented me taking it further. Inside, I was confronted with a miserable sight. The sexton’s room, which had dark, bare, walls, was filled with beds, and in those beds there were poor skeleton-like whining people lying among rags, and some even on bare straw. Some were crying for food in their raving fever, with their eyes locked in a terrible glassy stare, skinny cheekbones purpled by fever. Some were praying, and in turn cursing. There wasn’t very much space on the floor, yet straw was spread there where the same unfortunates lay.
I asked somebody – I don’t remember who anymore – where my granny was. I tried looking for her, but couldn’t see her anywhere. Someone answered blithely: “She died yesterday, and was dragged to the grave”. Tears started running from my eyes. After all , she was my nana, my grandmother. When I gazed upon that nest of death I saw a book lying by a window. I sneaked closer to take a better look, for it looked so familiar to me – there it was, my nana’s dearest book: “Armojärjestys”. Tears rolled down my cheeks even more rapidly – for I had seen my granny reading the book so meditatively so many times – and now she had left it there forever, and it seemed like it was left untouched by those others too – for it wasn’t any use for eating. The hunger of the body extinguished the hunger of the spirit. I grabbed the book and stepped out from that stale nest of disease and death. When I was about to pick up my bundle at the entrance I noticed that only the scarf was left. All the food draped in it was gone. Some starving people still able to stagger about had stolen them. When I came to the yard I saw that the sauna was also filled with those ghosts gnawed by hunger and mauled by disease. I stayed overnight on my way, and when I got happily back home to Haasiosalmi I told my parents what kind of destiny my granny suffered.
*Acknowledgement: I am very grateful for the hard work done by my research assistant, Juuso Koskinen, in finding a wide variety of interesting and moving stories from the Finnish Literature Society’s folklore collection.
All is all, but at the same time all is not all… And so it is that the flood of beggars has reached such an extent that the end is nigh for both the feeders and the fed. The year’s harvest took everything… there are lots of thefts, a large amount of reindeer thefts since the last assizes.
Oulun Wiikko-Sanomia, 8 Feb. 1868.
I can see that I used an image of the famine memorial at Pudasjärvi for a lecture that I gave at Lund University, Sweden, in 2013, so I seem to have been aware of the stone long before I incorporated famine memory and memorialisation into my project. To date, this is the most northerly 1860s memorial that I have found, and the only one I’ve visited so far that lies within Finland’s reindeer husbandry zone.
Along with some of the other memorials in Northern Ostrobothnia, I obviously “discovered” the Pudasjärvi memorial via the Kirjastovirma website – and finally visited in person in the late summer of 2019, during a trip to Oulu. The church is situated a few kilometres from the centre of this vast municipality, on the north bank of Pudasjärvi lake.
The church building dates from the later part of the eighteenth century, and contains some impressive paintings . The belltower is slightly older than the current church building (dating from 1761), and paintings from 1765 by Mikael Toppelius remain above its front door.
The famine period hit Pudasjärvi hard, and deaths outnumbered births in the parish in 1866, 1867 and 1868. As early as January 1866, a letter from Oulu in the Hufvudstadsbladet newspaper noted large numbers of people arriving into the town from the “upland areas” such as Pudasjärvi, Hyrynsalmi and Sotkamo, “in search of life’s sustenance”. The famine memorial is next to the church, on the south-eastern side. The plaque on the memorial features rye stems, and records the 962 parishioners who perished between 1866 and 1868. It also (quoting Matthew 6:11) uses the common “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread” petition.
Apologies for the pause in these blog entries – I have been away from Finland for a while and was thwarted in my hope to visit all of the remaining sites before the winter set in. In the next couple of weeks, though (i.e. over the Christmas holidays), I plan to complete the blog entries for all of the sites I have found so far – even ones I’ve not yet been able to visit in person. This will allow me to make a website (rather than a blog) from the entries, hopefully more user-friendly, and then add information in the spring when I get to go up north again to e.g. Suomussalmi, Lentiira, Kuhmo, Pudasjärvi, etc. I will denote sites I’ve not yet visited in person with [*], and I am only going to make short entries – this is because I do not have my own photos to use, nor precise GPS information about the site.
The memorial at Väinöntalo Lake Region Museum, I read about in the multi-volume Finland’s Memorials series, and is the second memorial in Evijärvi. It is said to be one of those memorials which is a contemporary stone, and has the engraving 18 1/6 67. I have not yet worked out why 1st June 1867 might have been particularly worthy of note – although Evijärvi became an independent parish in 1867 and it might originally have had something to do with that? However, this is mere speculation and I will try to find out more next year. The stone was inaugurated as a famine memorial, according to the book, in 1967 – another of the “centenary” memorials.
The founder of Väinöntalo, Väino Tuomaala, published many interesting articles over the years, and I illustrate here two of them from the same edition of Ilkka (29 May 1936) – one on the Great Hunger Years and the other on the local nineteenth-century sculptor “Pitti-Poika” (Erkki Annanpoika Lahti) – who has a memorial at Väinöntalo.
In 1867-68, many rural workers were forced to resort to menial work and head towards Vaasa in order to find food. In Vaasa some of them died of starvation, and some from the typhoid epidemic that was spreading through the entire country… Mortality among Vaasa folk increased and the Kappelinmäki Graveyard started to fill up. Vaasa parish proposed to Mustasaari parish the establishment of a common graveyard for vagrants near Kappelinmäki Cemetery. The common graveyard got the assent of the governor, and bodies were buried in the mass grave at the northern end of Kappelinmäki Cemetery, outside the stone gates. The numbers and names of the victims are unknown.
Pohjalainen, 18 Aug. 2006.
The wooden cross at Kappelinmäki Old Graveyard in Vaasa is one of the more recent additions to the Finnish Famine Memorials (inaugurated 2008), and to date is the most westerly memorial site that I have come across. The cross is erected at a 1860s mass-grave site, which had been forgotten but which was rediscovered quite accidentally during construction work in the 1950s. [Luukkanen, 2006]. While fetching gravel for pathway construction, two workers started to dig up human remains – “more with every shovelful”. After this discovery, the site was re-covered and “forgotten again for decades”. The history of the site was discussed by Aimo Wuorinen in his 1969 book on Vaasa parish.
The memorial was planned from 2006, and erected by Ostrobothnia Historical Society (Pohjanmaan Historiallinen Seura) in collaboration with Vaasa and Mustasaari Parish at an inauguration ceremony in October 2008. At the ceremony, the cross was carried to its plot by Väinö Pollari, of Isokyrö. A trumpet solo was performed by Jussi Jussila, and a historical account was provided by Antti Kanto, of the Pohjanmaan Historiallinen Seura. Afterwards, Aaro Harjunpää recited a poem written by Matti Kuusi, and Leo Malinen of the Peräseinäjoki Society lay fifty white roses in front of the memorial. Afterwards, the discussions continued at the house of Irma Siljala in Vaasa, where committee members of the historical society shared, for example, bark-bread.
Postscript:in September 2019, Aimo Nyberg included a post about the memorial in his Vaasa: Ennen ja Nyt / Vasa förr och nublog. Among several photos is one of a new interpretative board for this memorial, which is a welcome development.
For the people of Ilmajoki, the tempered optimism of autumn 1867 had been short-lived. As elsewhere in Finland, the frosts of early September proved to be the final trigger for disaster. By the end of the next spring, Finland’s official newspaper reported as follows:
The town doctor of Kristinestad announced the following, amongst other things, on March 29th: that the distress in Ilmajoki is terrible, as seven consecutive years of failed harvests have completely consumed all the previous stores [of grain]. Those who are fit to work will probably go away, and on some days, up to thirty travel permissions are given out; children and the old are forced to survive on inappropriate nutrition, which gives rise to disease and death. He also testifies to the following statistics: there are about 8,000 people living in the parish, of whom 1,000 people live at the expense of the municipality, and at least 2,000 are suffering destitution. From the beginning of the year to March 24th, there are about 1,500 people sick from typhus, of whom 500 still lie ill, and 132 have died. 10 are reported to have died from dysentery, and 23 from croup. Only 50 births have been recorded during the same period. There is a sickroom in the locality, where there are up to 70 people, but when funds and proper inspections are lacking, it is in a very bad state.
Suomalainen Wirallinen Lehti, 18 Apr. 1868
Like Sonkajärvi, Haapavesi, and Evijärvi, the famine memorial at Ilmajoki incorporates a millstone – both a symbolic and a durable connection to the 1860s. The broken millstone, with metal Christian cross was designed by Pentti Haapamäki, and prepared by Otto Talvitie (1914-2007, indeed this was his “final work”). It sits in the grounds of Ilmajoki’s wooden church, which dates from 1766. As I recall, I became aware of this memorial quite early on – it was certainly one of the first that I made a specific trip to visit – via the useful “Museum and Memorial Trail” webpage provided by the local museum board. The website also adds that this is the most recent memorial in the churchyard, and (slightly confusingly) notes that the worst famine years were 1866-67, when 848 people died in Ilmajoki. According to the official statistics, though, there was an increase in mortality rates in 1868 shocking even by the standards of the day: 1866 – 242 deaths; 1867 – 391 deaths; 1868 – 1008 deaths. The excess mortality overall for 1866-68 saw a population decrease of 833.
The memorial at Evijärvi was inaugurated in 1986, having been organised and funded by the local Lions Club (it was also a local Lions Club which organised the Kivijärvi memorial the previous year). The millstone was taken from Erkki Paalanen’s cottage at Kivijärvenkylä and inscribed by Aleksi Kultalahti. It is situated in the part of the graveyard where, according to local tradition, the victims of the hunger years were buried.