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Finnish socialism in the Northland: Descendants share history of Co-op Point on Eagles Nest Lake I

Keith Vandervort
Posted 5/16/19

ELY – Co-op Point on Eagles Nest Lake I was an intentional community developed in the early 1930s by Finnish immigrants to the Iron Range who believed in the unique philosophy of “co-operative …

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Finnish socialism in the Northland: Descendants share history of Co-op Point on Eagles Nest Lake I

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ELY – Co-op Point on Eagles Nest Lake I was an intentional community developed in the early 1930s by Finnish immigrants to the Iron Range who believed in the unique philosophy of “co-operative socialism.”

The Iron Range was home to several of these special Finnish communities, according to Ely residents Sally Koski and Valerie Myntti, both descendents of Co-op Point residents.

They told their story this week at the Tuesday Group gathering at the Grand Ely Lodge. Tuesday Group meets almost every Tuesday at the Ely-area facility. The public is invited to listen to the varied programs.

Sally and Valerie both had grandfathers who were among the original members on Eagles Nest Lake I. They purchased land for approximately 15 cabins and created a large park open to any Finnish family to enjoy, to picnic and camp, and together the original members began a summer camp for the children of the early Minnesota “co-operators.”

“It was crucially important to them to teach this unique philosophy of a cooperative Finnish socialism, that they so highly valued, to the next generation each summer.” Valerie said. 

Many of the cabins on Co-op Point continue to be owned by the descendants of the original co-operators. Sally still has the original Koski cabin. Valerie has a cabin on Eagles Nest Lake III.

Their respective grandfathers, Don Myntti of Duluth, and Clarence Ivonen of Virginia, are both in their mid-90’s, and are the sole surviving children of the original co-operators “As children they summered on Co-op Point and attended the annual Co-op Point camp, Sally said. “They attribute their longevity to frequent saunas and swimming in cold northern Minnesota lakes.”

As Valerie and Sally shared their family stories about this special place right down the road from Ely and this special period of Finnish-American history, Tuesday Group attendees were treated to a piece of traditional Finnish Cardamom Bread.

“This is not necessarily a wholly accurate history, but a rather a story through the eyes of grandparents and great-grandparents,” Valerie said. “These are family stories and deeply personal that we wish to share.”

She presented a brief history of the Finnish culture, and especially touched on the tidal wave of Finnish immigrants who flooded the United States from the 1880s to the 1920s.

“Way back in the 12th century, Finland was a province of Sweden,” Valerie said. “Russia became the regional power in the Baltic states by the early 1800s:” Finland was considered an autonomous part of Russia until 1917. They were initially treated very well by Russia and were able to live by their own customs and traditions. Starting around 1890, the Finnish people were oppressed by Russia. It was a period of displacement and turmoil.”

Finnish immigrants traveled to America in search of a better life. “My grandparents fleeing Finland were really no different from the Central Americans today at our country’s southern border,” Valerie said. “Immigrants today, like a hundred years ago, saw economic opportunity for themselves and their children.”

Fast-forward to the early 1900s and the iron mines in northern Minnesota. “Finns created co-ops on the Iron Range out of necessity and self-determination,” she said. “There creation was directly related to discrimination directed at them for the actions by the Finnish trade unionists. Local merchants all sympathized with the local mining companies during the long, hard labor strikes that were led by Finns.”

Refusing to be victims, the Finns created consumer retail cooperatives who were owned by the workers. “Fins banded together and rendered mutual aid,” she added.

Out of this need to cooperate with each other was born the Vermilion Co-op Park Association. “During hard economic times, cooperatives tended to be more prevalent throughout the U.S.” Sally said.

The Eagles Nest Lake I Co-Op Point was established in the early 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression. “One of the big components of the co-op was educational work,” she said. “The women’s cooperative guild, a subset of the association, had a major function of conducting summer camps and recreational activities for the youth.”

The Eagles Nest Lake I Co-op Point land actually stretched around about one-third of the northeast shore of the lake, according to Koski. By 1934, there were about two dozen 50-foot lots owned by 18 members and were used for camping. There was a pavilion and cook shack area, located across the road of the current Eagles Nest Township fire hall. “None of the common buildings stand anymore, but there are several original cabins still there,” she said. “At the time, each lot sold for $250 with a $100 deposit required, and they being Finns the deposit was to be paid in cash only.”

Swimming in the cold, deep lake was a favorite part of the summer activities for the campers. “One of the more notorious stories was the diving tower on the shore of the lake,” Sally said. “We know that the base of the tower can still be located underwater. When I think of a diving tower, I think of a diving platform they use in the Olympics. This wasn’t quite up to that standard, but it was apparently the source of a lot of amusement and a lot of fun for the teenagers on Co-op Point.”

Sally related her first memory of “sitting in a washtub on the floor of the sauna” when she was about three or four years old. “That was just something that everybody did,” she said.

Four properties on Co-op Point are retained by the original owners, she said. Her next step in her research project is to talk to those family members.

Sally and Valerie will present an updated history of Co-op Point on July 31 as part of the Ely-Winton Historical Society’s Summer History Nights program.

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