From Finland, with love
It all started with a letter to the Pine Journal.
"Since 1995 I have searched for information about my mother's uncle who went to America in 1911 from Finland," Marja-Liisa Niinimaki wrote from her home in Kemi, Finland. "At last he was found in the register of the burials and deaths of Minnesota by my husband. Now I would be very grateful if you could help me by writing about my search in your newspaper."
Niinimaki went on to note that her great-uncle's name was Jack Abel Rautio (known in Finland as Jaakko Abel Rautiainen). He was born July 19, 1881, in Oulu, Finland and died March 24, 1946, in Cloquet. He was married to Lizzie (Elizabeth) and they had two children, Lilja, born about 1917, and Olli, born about 1920.
The day after the letter appeared in the Pine Journal, Niinimaki got her first e-mail.
Esko resident Willard Maki told her that he grew up with Olli, whom he met at the age of 7, shortly after the Rautio family moved into a log home in Brevator Township, not far from where the Maki family lived.
"Olli told me it took them a week to get here from Frankfort, Illinois, in a Model T," said Maki, who will be 91 on March 30. "They added a big kitchen to that little log house, built a barn and raised cattle and dairy cows."
The day after Maki sent his e-mail to Finland, Wendy Rautio read the letter in the Pine Journal.
"I had read the paper the day before, but missed that section," said Wendy. "My friend called me and told me to look at the letters to the editor. I read it, got goose bumps and started bawling."
Wendy e-mailed Niinimaki the same day. Niinimaki responded the next day, telling Wendy how happy she - and her 93-year-old mother Maila (Rautiainen) Karikoski - was when she read Wendy's e-mail.
"I must say that it is a miracle that I found you," Niinimaki wrote back. "I have tried and tried, but always got nothing from Jack Rautio."
Since then, Niinimaki has also heard from another cousin, Karl (and wife Janet) Dean, whose mother was Lilja Rautio, Olli's sister. They live in Kansas, but read the letter online after Wendy called and told them.
Sadly, Olli Rautio doesn't know about the renewed family connection because he has dementia, Wendy said.
Maki remembers Olli's father, Jack, as a short man, about 5-foot-4, while his son Olli grew up to be over 6-foot.
Maki would stop and warm up at the Rautio home on his way to school on cold winter days. When he visited with the family, they would talk in a mixture of Finnish and English. He remained good friends with Olli through the years, and even now visits him at Sunnyside Health Care Center.
"I lived about three-fourths of a mile off the main road," Maki recalled. "I remember walking to the main road, then west about a quarter mile to where the Rautios lived. One time I told Jack it was so cold that I had to run backward to stay warm. After that, he'd always ask me if I had to run backwards again."
Although she was born 11 years after Jack Rautio died, Wendy said she had always wanted to know more about her father's side of the family but her father was mum on the subject and her mother didn't know anything either.
"Just the week before [all this happened], I was thinking I have to find family for my dad, because I want to start writing a book about him," Wendy said. "But there was this missing information. It was like a black hole, a big void. Like [Marja-Liisa Niinimaki] said, it's a miracle. Every time I see a picture I start tearing up and I get goose bumps. It's very exciting."
Wendy said she noticed her father resembles a Finnish cousin, Risto Rautiainen, when she got photos from Niinimaki.
The timing of Niinimaki's letter was especially fortuitous, because Wendy moved back to Cloquet in 2007. Her father has lived at Sunnyside since 2004 and her mother, Mae, died three years ago. She has one brother, Joel. Had Wendy not lived here, there's a chance she never would have found out about the letter because Maki didn't know where she lived or how to contact her.
Niinimaki has e-mailed several photographs as well as a family tree dating back to 1742. She also told Wendy about Jack's brothers Henry and Emil, and the contacts she has with their grandchildren in Vermont and Florida.
Wendy intends to keep the Cloquet-Finland connection going.
"I told her that I feel very close to her," Wendy said. "She signs her e-mails 'Love.' I sign 'Love to you," and I sign both my name and my dad's."
Niinimaki had kind words for the Pine Journal as well, in her latest e-mail updating the paper on her search for relatives.
"I am so grateful for the new start of communications between me and Jack Rautio's grandchildren after the silence of 90 years," she wrote. "Many, many thanks also to the editorial staff of the Pine Journal! You all made impossible to be possible."