Palo celebrates Finnish culture, community during Laskiainen
PALO — Outside the Loon Lake Community Center on Sunday afternoon, children and their parents lined up and readied their toboggans and sleds for a speedy trip down an icy track.
Inside, vendors sold all manner of Nordic goods. Volunteers ladled pea soup and mojakka (beef stew). A renowned brass ensemble played traditional music, and a one-man band sang about catching his heart in a bear trap. Visitors browsed decades of history inside a museum. A newly crowned festival queen mingled with the crowd.
In the distance, a team of dogs pulled riders along a loop on the lake. Two horses gave carriage rides around the building.
This is Laskiainen — say "LUSS-kee-eye-nen" — the Finnish sliding festival that's been held in this very Finnish hamlet for more than eight decades.
Out on the hill, Daniel Radtke, 4, jumped on a wooden toboggan with his great-aunt, Tamara Paine of Hoyt Lakes, as they prepared to slide down the hill. Daniel's mom, Doris Radtke of Hoyt Lakes, watched from behind.
"He went once already," Paine said, looking at Daniel. "I asked him, 'Did you have fun?' and he said, 'Yes. I closed my eyes.'"
A moment of hesitation — Daniel's fear hadn't faded just yet — and they were off. Another few moments, and they were down. The next in line got on their marks.
Laskiainen grew from pre-Christian customs in Finland and now is a pre-Lenten tradition. The name comes from the Finnish word laskea, meaning "to slide." Tradition said that the farther one slides down the hill, the better the year's flax crop would be.
The festivals in St. Louis County began during the Great Depression as part of a federal leisure education program under President Franklin Roosevelt. Sally Hydukovich, then the county schools social-center director, brought Laskiainen to rural schools countywide as a midwinter celebration for schoolchildren. They evolved into community celebrations after World War II.
Palo's, held since 1937, is the only one left.
Queen of Palo
Paine moved to Palo as a child and has been going for decades. She was the 1980 Laskiainen Queen, back when you had to sell tickets to be eligible.
"Whoever sold the most tickets got to be the queen," she said. Today, prospective royalty have interviews with judges, write reports and attend luncheons, she said.
Briar Baudek, 15, of Palo is this year's Laskiainen Queen. The sophomore at Mesabi East High School in Aurora was chosen over one other contender.
"Laskiainen has always been a part of my life," Briar said after one of many slides down the hill.
Briar, whose sister was queen three years ago, will act as an ambassador, participating in local parades and helping out at other events before presenting the crown to a new queen next year.
Vivian Williams is a Palo native — "although I'm not entirely Finnish" — and has been involved with organizing Laskiainen here for about 25 years.
"My grandparents were some of the few non-Finns who settled here in the early 1900s," she said. "At one time, the population here was 99 percent Finnish immigrants, and the rest were Norwegians and Swedes. There wasn't a Catholic among us."
Williams said that starting in the 1950s, people from other backgrounds moved to or married into the area, and Laskiainen has diversified somewhat since then.
"We have a lot of newer, younger people coming in," she said. "The atmosphere is changing a little bit. What we're trying to do now is to incorporate some of the newer people into Laskiainen."
The festival itself continues to evolve, as well. This is the first time in 82 years that the queen's coronation didn't include a dance, Williams said.
"We would have kept going, but no one dances anymore," she said. "The older generation does, but they're getting too old to come out late at night, and especially if it's 20 below outside."
Instead, the queen's coronation this year was at 4 p.m. on Saturday, after mojakka and before the "old timers" basketball game.
Raising the bar
As the dances dwindled in popularity and were plagued with problems related to alcohol consumption in the 1990s, organizers began searching for new ways to celebrate the festival and bring the community together, said Gerry Kangas, volunteer at the Loon Lake Museum — and 1953's Laskiainen Queen.
They added basketball games and other events, and they reached out to Ameriikan Poijat — "Boys of America" — a Finnish-American brass septet based in Northfield, Minn., to perform, all to community acclaim.
Kangas singled out Williams for her role.
Williams and her daughter, Beth, began having weekly, then monthly Friday coffee sessions at the community center. They raised money through Laskiainen for the community center and museum.
"Vivian came on board, and they helped to raise the bar," Kangas said. "(The organizers) got more particular, spent more money, got better things."
Today, Laskiainen is one of the largest and longest-running Finnish-American events in the nation, prompting attention from the likes of the Smithsonian Institution, which produced a film about the festival and the Palo community in 1980, the year Paine was crowned queen.
And perhaps Paine, now the great-aunt out on the sliding hill, best summed up the community with Laskiainen mantra.
"Everyone's a Finn in Palo, Minn.!"