Strengthening roots - 100 years of Automba
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 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 will celebrate its centennial anniversary on Sunday, Aug. 10. 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 a dead giveaway of his Scandinavian heritage.
It’s a heritage he’s still discovering.
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 various sawmills and logging companies that used to dot 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 awhile 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,” said Reed. “And then Automba came to life.”
Main Street transformed—prior to the railroad, there had only been one store throughout the entire 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,” continued Reed. “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 over 1,500 people, virtually all of them from Scandinavia, 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.
Although Reed is the third generation of his family to live in the U.S.A., he still strives to keep in touch with relatives living in Finland.
“My great-grandma came to America in 1886,” said Reed. “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’ Scandinavian 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 is the first time the Kangasjarvelas have been to the U.S., they aren’t strangers to traveling.
“They’ve been everywhere,” said Kivimaki, “— 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 are 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!” added Kalervo 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,” continued Reed. “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,” said Reed. “There were more job opportunities in Cloquet and Duluth and the Iron Range.”
Automba’s population plummeted, and now roughly 150 people still remain in the quiet township.
Adding to the Pages
Dan Reed has been learning about the history of his township — and his family — for over three decades. Although Automba has had its rise, and its fall, Reed is proud of all it stands for, just like many of us find a burning pride for our own heritage.
As Reed’s bonds with his family and his Finnish roots strengthen, so begins a new chapter in his project. Reed will celebrate the 100th year of his township with his family this weekend.
100 years of logging, growing, burning, and rebuilding.
100 years of oldtimers’ stories amid the young Finnish laughter of a new generation.
100 years of the past and present, looking towards a new future.
100 years of Automba.