Minnesota Memories: Finland, Minn.: My birth was a big surpriseFinland, Minn., is not a city, not a town — more like a way-station to the wilderness of Northeastern Minnesota.
By: Paul Slayback, for the News Tribune
Finland, Minn., is not a city, not a town — more like a way-station to the wilderness of Northeastern Minnesota.
Officially, Finland is a small, unincorporated community located within the Finland State Forest in Lake County, settled mainly by Finnish immigrants about 1895. Several of these immigrants came to northern Minnesota looking for adventure, looking for land to homestead, looking for a place to put down roots and raise a family, looking for land that reminded them of their native country. In Finland, they found what they were looking for.
When I lived there 70 years ago, there was a Lutheran church, a general store, a one-room school, two bars, a Finnish souvenir store, a gas station and a post office.
The Baptism River flows south through town. Pick up a smooth rock near the water’s edge, stand on the bridge and throw it as far as you can to the right and it will land near the cabin where I was born.
I came on Oct. 16, 1937, the eighth and last child of George Slayback and Maggie Johnson, who said I was a big surprise. My father was 50 and my mother 44.
As a 2-year-old, my first remembrance of Finland is the yeasty smell of freshly baked bread floating from my mother’s country kitchen. I recall the crisp tangy smell of cinnamon rolls, the warmth of the large iron stove, and sound of rustling skirts worn by of a cluster of local women. They moved around, talking Swedish and Finnish, laughing and drinking strong, sweet, creamy coffee.
In 1939 when I was 2, the men in town were more likely to be in Gunnar Palm’s general store, one of the few buildings in town with electric lights. I remember sitting around a roaring stove and a 50-gallon pickle barrel, listening to tales told by my father and other men.
The pickle barrel, next to the black iron stove, was about 4 feet high. It had a round, removable wood top with a prong attached to the barrel. Pickles cost 3 cents each. Men used this prong to clamp and withdraw a pickle from the barrel. I still remember the sour taste of those salt-water dills floating in the tub of brine — tangy.
My father was born in a farming community called Beaverlick in Boone County, Ky., in 1887. He still spoke with a slight southern accent in a rich melodious voice that rose and fell with the mood of his tale, at times soothing like a gentle breeze, at others roaring like the waves on a stormy night. It was a voice that inspired one’s imagination to take flight. Even though I was firmly grounded on the floor, I felt I was soaring to mysterious places in faraway lands.
Fights at father’s tavern
My father owned a beer and dance hall that served beer for 5 cents a glass, a regular hangout for men from the local Civilian Conservation Corps and lumberjack camps. He built the tavern from rough-sawn lumber. It had a long bar, an area for local musicians and sawdust on the floors, which gave the whole place a fresh, woodsy smell.
On one wall was a 10-by-6-foot stone fireplace, a large chunk of pine for a mantel. A huge moose head poked out from the wall. An old rifle rested on the rack. Almost in the center of the dance floor stood a large black woodstove made from an old 55-gallon oil drum. It poured out an amazing amount of heat.
With so many men, local girls, beer and music, there were occasional fist-fights.
Tired of these fights, my father approached Bill Tikkanen, one of the most frequent brawlers, and made him an offer. “Bill,” he said, “these fights ain’t so good for business. Would you be interested in working for me on Friday and Saturday nights say for 50 cents an hour as a bouncer who will keep the peace and see that these fighting hoodlums stay in line?” There was a long silence and then my father added, “Of course, you’ll have a deputy badge so you look official.”
At that, a big smile lit up Bill’s face and he replied, “Sure George, I’d be glad to help you out.” Thereafter, when a fight broke out, Bill Tikkanen, wearing that big, shiny deputy badge pinned to his shirt, stepped in and said, “Hold it boys, let’s take that outside.”
And, that’s how George Slayback brought peace and calm to his tavern.
My mother, Maggie Johnson, was born in Staples, Minn., in 1893. Both her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Sweden in 1889.
She met my dad after he was discharged from the Army in 1919. He was looking for farm land in Cambridge, Minn.
I don’t know much else about my mother, but I’m getting ahead of my story.
The terrible twos
Most folks think of all the mischief 2-year-olds cause … crawling up stairs, lurching around the room, opening drawers and making a delightful nuisance of themselves. For me, the Terrible Twos were different. The Terrible Twos weren’t amusing. The Terrible Twos weren’t cute. The Terrible Twos were terrible.
Late in the evening of Nov. 28, 1939, my father and mother were in the cab of my dad’s old Ford flatbed truck, heading home from Two Harbors. The passenger door was stuck shut, so passengers had to exit on the driver’s side.
On Highway 61, near Gull Rock, a truck coming in the opposite direction and probably loaded with fish began to weave and cross into my father’s lane. My father swerved to avoid a collision, struck a boulder and rolled over on the passenger side. The stuck door sprang open, throwing my mother out. The truck rolled over her, killing her instantly. She left a husband and seven children. I was the youngest.
I’ve always felt cheated I never had the chance to know my mother. She is buried in Two Harbors.