Arvid Konu has stories to tellWhen Arvid Konu says “there’s a story behind that....” he really means it. Konu is one of a handful of local folks who are piecing together the history of Thomson Township – one footnote at a time – for a book to be published by the Esko Historical Society. He is the first to admit that he is far from the most-educated of the group but, at the age of 95, he’s lived through more history than most.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
When Arvid Konu says “there’s a story behind that....” he really means it.
Konu is one of a handful of local folks who are piecing together the history of Thomson Township – one footnote at a time – for a book to be published by the Esko Historical Society. He is the first to admit that he is far from the most-educated of the group but, at the age of 95, he’s lived through more history than most.
“I’m not educated,” he admitted, “but we have one who has his doctorate and about five of them have college degrees and they’re computer smart. I got through the eighth grade, but even by that time, I
couldn’t actually read.”
Konu came from a family of five children and raised on the family dairy farm on Erickson Road.
“I grew up with cow manure between my toes!” he declared with a grin. “I’m a farm boy from Esko with a Norwegian-German wife who was a city slicker,” he added with a chuckle.
As the son of Finnish immigrants, he spoke only Finn at home, so going to school presented a bit of a challenge.
“There’s a story behind that....” he said. “When I went to school, I couldn’t speak English so I had to have an interpreter. If I had to go piddle, I would say to my interpreter that I had to go and he’d tell the teacher for me. One girl didn’t have an interpreter and she made a puddle on the floor and started crying. It was hard on the kids who couldn’t speak English.”
His dad came to this country from Finland in 1892.
“He’s the stingiest man in the state of Minnesota!” declared Konu with the sort of twinkle in his eye that tells you “there’s a story behind that....”
It seems that in 1922, his dad and a buddy used to drive around in a 1922 Model T touring car and their idea of a hot date was to drive girls up and down the dusty roads of Thomson Township. When Arvid once encountered a man who knew his dad and his tendency toward cheap dates, the man told Arvid, “Your dad was the stingiest man in the state of Minnesota!”
Konu’s mother came to Minnesota from Finland 12 years after his father did. She had found out from some friends that there was a family in Esko by the name of Juntti who raised dairy cattle and who were looking for a young woman at least 20 years of age, in good health and willing to come to America and work.
“My mother jumped on that,” he said. “The arrangement was that she would work for the Junttis for at least two years to pay off the $60 cost of her transportation from Finland to Minnesota. One day, when she was working in the barn and my dad was working for the railroad, he saw this young woman with a wheelbarrow that had gone off the ramp into the manure pile and she’d fallen in herself. The first time my dad saw her in the manure pile, he didn’t stop to talk to her because she was pretty agitated. Two days later he came back along the railroad and she was on the other side of the ramp. She’d fallen in again. He came up and introduced himself, and as they got to talking, he said he had come over from the old country with matrimony on his mind but he hadn’t found anyone to marry yet. She replied, ‘Well, anything would have to be better than this....’ Thirty days later they were married! She had only been over here for two months so she’d only worked off $20 of the amount she owed. My dad had to pay off the other $40.”
Arvid was born in 1916 and was part of the very first class to attend Washington School north of Esko, riding to school in a horse-drawn school bus. He went to school there for eight years – though not always full time.
“Sometimes I’d only go for 40 or 50 days a year once I was old enough to help out on the farm,” he explained.
It wasn’t until he began to go out on the milk route with his brother that he began to learn English.
When he got to the age when he began to be interested in getting married, he realized that the family farm wasn’t big enough to support two brothers and their families. Since he was the youngest, he
decided he should be the one to move out.
“That was the first time I ever saw my dad cry,” he said.
He moved to Duluth and was working at a small gas station when a friend there said to him, “We’ll never get ahead working by the hour. Let’s borrow as much as we can and open up a Gambles store.”
It sounded pretty good, so Konu went to the Gambles store in West Duluth and asked how a person would go about starting their own Gambles store.
“They told me to go in the office, and the girl there would take my application to start up a Gambles franchise,” related Konu. “The girl in the office was named Meredith, and she was fresh out of business college. She helped me out and I asked if I could pay her for her efforts and she said no, so I asked her if I could take her out to dinner instead. We went out and had dinner – and she’s been stuck with me ever since! I’ve been married to the same woman for 71 years.”
As it turned out, Konu never did open up that Gambles store because he and his buddy found they didn’t have enough money for it, so he and Meredith moved to Esko two years later where they built a home, started farming and had three
Meredith went to work at the loan company in Esko after their children were all out of diapers.
Konu also served as the Thomson Township assessor for 13 years – 12 years on his own and one year helping out his predecessor. After that he went to work for U.S. Steel in Gary for 15 years.
In the meantime, Konu was asked to serve on the Esko School Board and defeated the incumbent by a vote of two to one. He had served on the board for some four years when the superintendent asked him to consider going to work for the school district as head custodian. Though Konu said he would need some training first, they agreed and he accepted the position. He stayed there for the next 17 years.
At one point, some of his constituents in the school district asked him to consider running for county board, so he did and was elected to the position. After two years, three of the other commissioners lost their respective elections, so he ended up as chairman.
“When I got elected,” he said, “I spent the first year going from one office to the other, explaining I didn’t know anything about running the county and asking them if they would help me. Every one of them helped me and said they’d never had a commissioner come in and want to learn about it before.”
He and Meredith retired in 1970 and they immediately bought a three-quarter-ton pickup and a camper, and from there on they made up for the years they “didn’t have any fun at all,” he said. “We went all over the country, and we had some really good times.”
They sold the farm three years ago and moved to Evergreen Knoll in Cloquet. Arvid still drives his own car and belongs to the Esko senior citizens group and the historical
“Three years ago,” he said, “they got the bright idea that they wanted to write a book, and that’s how I got tangled up with doing what I’m doing.”
In developing stories about the history of the area, he said he has made countless telephone calls and many trips all over the area to verify facts and information. Konu alone has written some 25 articles about the early days in Thomson Township, the people who came there, and some of the stories they told. They’re all in the historical archives at the Esko Historical Society and many of them will be included in the upcoming book.
“There’s enough history there for two books at least,” he said. “Some of it even goes as far back as the Indian days. They had some villages in Thomson Township but we don’t even know where they were buried. It’s so hard to reach back into history that’s a hundred years old.”
Konu said he is proud and humbled to have been a part of this effort and the group contributing to it.
“These guys have worked so hard to dig deep and gone to many lengths to unearth the stories of the early loggers, the early roads.....” he said. “Usually they’ve found the story, but sometimes it takes as long as a year or more to find out the answer to one question, it’s that hard. In those early days, they didn’t have good communication. Everything that goes into the book has to be validated, and a lot of the stories that I wrote, I couldn’t validate so they won’t go into print.”
Over the years, Konu has written about farming, people in general, immigrants coming into this country and the hardships they endured.
“I’ve made a lot of friends doing it because I go out and visit with them and dig back into the history of what their families knew,” he
While doing the interviews, Konu takes notes and then writes it all up in longhand for one of the book’s editors to translate into
“The beauty of it is that you don’t have to know the correct spelling because the computer corrects it for you!” he declared.
And so, sit back and enjoy a tantalizing bit of the early history of Thomson Township, because, in Arvid Konu’s words, “there’s a story behind that....”
“The Juntti Brothers’ store made history so profound in merchandising that it should be recorded on the printed page even in 2011,” wrote Konu in a piece about the decade after World War I ended. “They were such hard workers that both Edward and Eino Juntti took only one day off work to get married.....
The store and warehouse were filled with goods that every farmer needed, and money was not a problem in the boom times of the 1920s. If credit was needed, farmers got all they needed from Juntti’s store. The Junttis simply told their customers to ‘pay when you can’......
By 1929, the fact that 10 years
of fast growth were coming to an end with the crash of the stock market became the headline in every newspaper.....
President Herbert Hoover and the ruling Republican Party had their hands full trying to calm the nation’s people, as hunger became very real in all of the major cities....
One of the effects of factory layoffs was the return to the farms of some farmers’ grown-up boys who had left the farms for good-paying jobs in industry....
However, the parents of these young people had plenty of food and shelter, so they escaped the poverty of cities and returned home to the farm of their younger years. One unwritten rule their parents made was that, ‘You can come home but you cannot come and go. You either farm or not. There is land for all our children.’ Many came home and started their own farms, building a home and raising their food. Thus, another little piece of ‘Thomson Country’ became home to an
independent family that never left again.”