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Author recounts 100 years of logging, fire, war and family in Automba

Gust Tikka hauls freight from the depot in Automba in 1920. Automba native Dan Reed has written a book about the history of the small town of the Northland. Photo courtesy of Dan Reed1 / 2
Denise Reed (from left) and Dan Reed are hosting their relatives from Finland, Sirkka Kangasjarvela, Kaija Kivimaki and Kalervo Kangasjarvela. Part of their visit has included participating in the Automba centennial celebrations. (Dylan Marvel / / 2

Dan Reed reaches across the kitchen table to retrieve the book. He shifts in his chair as he leafs through the thick paperback volume, smiling at the black-and-white pictures and reading the stories and excerpts within.

The pages in his hands are the product of a project over 35 years in the making. Ever since he graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1968, Reed has rediscovered and recorded the history of Automba, his native township. With each new picture and each oldtimer’s hazy memory, the book continues to grow. For over half his life Reed has been adding to the pages, rediscovering the history of his township and his heritage.

Northern Minnesotans often find strength in their roots and take pride in their rich heritage, listening to stories of how their grandparents and great-grandparents tended farms and worked in factories, ultimately building the communities that they live in yet today.

Automba is one such community, a small township of forest and farmland in Kettle River that celebrated its centennial anniversary on Sunday. Like so many other regions throughout northern Minnesota, its rich timber and forestry attracted European settlers, and established the foundations for logging companies and mills.

“Automba was almost entirely made up of the Finnish,” Reed recounted. And so is Reed — his blue eyes, light hair and fair skin are signs of his Finnish heritage.

It’s a heritage he’s still discovering.

Early Automba

Automba is one community in a fabric of many, but its story helps weave together Minnesota’s history. It shares a similar history with many other towns in the region such as Cloquet, Duluth and Ely. Automba’s rich timber and forestry attracted a number of settlers and laid the foundations for the sawmills and logging companies that once dotted Minnesota’s Northland.

Unlike the others, however, Automba bloomed late.

“When other major towns began their logging booms, Automba was cut off from the rest,” Reed explained. “The railroads connected the cities with Duluth and the rest, but everything west of Moose Lake didn’t have that option. Automba had no trains and poor roads, so it took a while for major logging to take place.”

But when the railroads finally connected Automba with the rest of the logging world, the small township soared.

“It took off around 20 or 30 years after the other towns had already boomed,” Reed said. “And then Automba came to life.”

Main Street transformed — before the railroad, there had been only one store in the township. With the sudden logging boom, new restaurants, stores and mills sprouted like weeds.

“There were three mills in town and seven in the surrounding area,” Reed said. “Automba was producing slats, barrels and there was an excelsior plant. Two hotels were built for workers and families; there were stores, restaurants, pool houses and blacksmiths. It was told that 600 teams of horses were hauling logs into the rail site during harvesting. A thousand people were working in the area during this time. Sixty rail cars a day were shipping product out of town.”

The town grew to more than 1,500 people, virtually all of them from Northern Europe, especially Finland.

“You’d have guys from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Poland, all talking and working and they could hardly even understand each other,” Reed said. “Automba was mainly Finnish, but Splitrock just south of us was a Polish settlement.

“Jack Niemi had one of the first cars in town. He owned a flourishing pool house, and he would drive through the muddy road and around the tree stumps in his shiny new Cadillac,” Reed said, laughing.

Finnish neighbors

Although Reed is the third generation of his family to live in the U.S., he still strives to keep in touch with relatives living in Finland.

“My great-grandma came to America in 1886,” Reed said. “But we’ve been in close contact with a few of our family members in Finland since the ’60s.”

Reed has also taken various trips to Scandinavia, searching for other family members whose ties have been lost through the generations.

It was on a summer trip to Finland last year that Reed and his sister Denise found Sirkka and Kalervo Kangasjarvela, and added two more pieces to the family puzzle. Now, less than a year later, the Finns have repaid Reed with a visit of their own. On a spur-of-the-moment decision, Sirkka and Kalervo decided to travel from their home in Pyhajoki, Finland, and stay with Reed during the Automba Centennial Celebration.

“It was wonderful for them to meet Dan and Denise,” said Kaija Kivimaki, another Finnish relative of Reed who helped translate for the Kangasjarvela couple. “They didn’t expect something like that to happen.”

“This place is really amazing,” said Kalervo (through Kivimaki). “It reminds me so much of home.”

This factor may have contributed to Automba’s rich Finnish background, as the heavy Minnesota timber and seasonal climate bears a strong resemblance to earlier settlers’ Finnish homes.

“We really appreciate the opportunity to experience this state,” Kalervo and Sirkka added. “Since we’ve been with Dan, we’ve had new visitors every day. It’s great to meet so many new people.”

Some of the visitors have caught them by surprise.

“We were all out shopping last week in Moose Lake,” Denise recounted, “and all of a sudden, I hear a voice calling my name. I turn around, and there’s my cousin Ricky waving at us. And so we introduced everyone and the Finns got to meet another relative they didn’t even know they had.”

Although this was the first time the Kangasjarvelas have been to the U.S., they aren’t strangers to traveling.

“They’ve been everywhere,” Kivimaki said, “Spain, Turkey, Hungary, Thailand, Russia, you name it. They also go to a resort in Crimea right on the Black Sea.”

When asked about how the recent events in Crimea affected their vacation, Kalervo responded with a chuckle, “Maybe we shouldn’t talk about that.”

The Reeds and their Finnish relatives almost mirror each other — they’re all quick to smile, love to laugh, and ever-ready to tell stories.

“When we first got to the U.S., we were stopped in customs because we didn’t know any English,” Sirkka related through Kivimaki. “We were pretty confused, and I think they were too. They must’ve been suspicious because of it, but we didn’t know what was going on.”

“It was a very interesting experience,” Kalervo added with another laugh.

Fire and war

“The 1918 Fire crippled logging in Automba,” Reed explained. “Matt Reed, a local businessman, recalled, ‘Automba burned clean . . . the highest thing left standing in town was Arvid Niemi’s sauna stove.’”

Twenty-three people died from the fire in Automba, many of them workers in the mills.

“Automba had some more warning than other towns,” Reed said. “But with all the sawdust and lumber, the town went up in flames quickly. And some people didn’t believe the fire would hit them. Because of ignorance there was more death than there needed to be.”

Reed’s grandmother experienced the fire firsthand, and lost many friends and relatives to it.

“She had been at a birthday party earlier that morning,” Reed recalled. “By the end of the day, two-fifths of the kids who she had been with were killed during the fire.”

Afterwards, Automba tried to rebuild from the ruins. Many of the dead timber was still salvageable, but the heydays were over. Soon after, the U.S. was plagued with massive droughts and later the Great Depression.

Automba suffered as many small towns did.

“After the droughts and the Depression, the younger people moved off to bigger cities to help with the war effort,” Reed said. “There were more job opportunities in Cloquet and Duluth and the Iron Range.”

Automba’s population plummeted, and now about 150 people still remain in the quiet township.