The ever popular Irish holiday, St Patrick’s Day fell on a Saturday this year, an even bigger reason to wear green, drink green beer and wish you were Irish. It was a beautiful day to be outside and celebrate the coming of spring. I even put on a shamrock scarf and pretended I was Irish for the day.
In the 1950’s not everyone wanted to be Irish. To one up the Irish who teased them for not having any fun holidays of their own, the Finns of Northern Minnesota created their own Patron Saint. Instead of driving out the snakes, their Saint chased the grasshoppers out of ancient Finland, saving the grape crop. Thus began the legend of St. Urho and his celebration on May 16, one day before St. Patrick’s Day. In honor of St. Urho, Finnish-Americans around the country wear Royal Purple and Nile Green, for the grapes he saved and the grasshoppers he expelled. St. Urho’s popularity has even spread to Canada and Finland.
Finnish-American communities still celebrate the feast of the mythical St Urho with parades and potlucks. One community is Brantwood, Wisconsin located 45 miles west of Rhinelander on Highway 8, in southern Price County. I asked Kevin Wollemann, President of Knox Creek Heritage Center in Brantwood what the Finnish population of Brantwood was. “If you go back 50 years it was probably 98% Finns and 2% other!” Today it’s not as much but you can see the Finnish ties are still strong.
Along Highway 8, Brantwood consists of a handful of buildings, including a Post Office, Credit Union and Community Center. According to the 2000 US Census there were only 399 people in the Town of Knox, where Brantwood is located within. I’m sure there is less than that today.
I found half of Brantwood’s residents (almost 100 people) inside the Community Center feasting on an International soup buffet with homemade Finnish bread, mint ice cream and warm chocolate chip cookies.
“We have always had a corned beef and cabbage dinner but three years ago we decided to do a soup buffet because everyone has corned beef and cabbage” Keven Wollemann told me.
According to Kevin this feast is one of four annual fundraisers for the Knox Creek Heritage Center, a settlement of 9 buildings that contain artifacts and displays from the late 1800’s to date that represent the history and heritage of the Brantwood area. The 9 buildings include an original Finnish sauna and a 2 hole outhouse complete with a Sears and Roebuck catalog. This September I plan to visit Brantwood again for a full story on the heritage site.
Out of the 6 soup varieties available there were only 2 left by the time I was done chatting with Kevin. Brantwood resident Bill Hoffman tried 3 of the soups (salmon chowder, pea soup, corned beef and cabbage stew) and he said each were delicious. I was sorely disappointed I missed the salmon chowder. If you go next year I advise you show up a half hour early!
I also met Bill “Caddy” Heikkinen, the main presenter of the evening, who spoke about his recent Honor Flight experience to Washington D.C. Bill was drafted in 1969 and served in Vietnam until 1972.
I’m glad I took a little drive on this warm, sunny St. Patrick’s Day to meet some of those keeping Finnish-American traditions alive. This feast in Brantwood was their 28th annual, in honor of both St. Urho and St. Patrick, celebrating the blending of cultures in even the smallest of communities.
Kristin Ojaniemi is a Finnish-American filmmaker, video creator and proud Yooper full of sisu.