By Tricia Orr

My grandfather’s family left Finland for Lake Erie’s coal-rich shores at the dawn of the twentieth century. They settled in Ashtabula, a name which means “the River of Many Fish” in a dialect of an Algonquian language. Ashtabula had a considerable Finnish immigrant population at the time, as Finns fled the “Russification” of their country and a conscription law declaring that Finnish men could be draft and forced to fight anywhere in Russia.

Many Finns worked in Ashtabula laying railroad track, or shoveling coal and iron ore onto ships. An 1877 article in the Ashtabula News stated, “A person’s sympathies cannot but go out to the dock hands in their hard lot. It does seem to us that they are living a life of death by inches.”

But by the time my mother skipped rope down 8th Street, our Finnishness had been mostly buried, like the cardamom seeds in a loaf of nissu. Finnish Americans made an effort to assimilate themselves into the larger American white culture, and that effort often meant leaving the cultural trappings of Finnishness behind.

[blocktext align=”left”]But by the time my mother skipped rope down 8th Street, our Finnishness had been mostly buried[/blocktext]In fact, I didn’t even know until very recently (read: a few weeks ago) that a booming “Finn Town” was once located just up the hill from Ashtabula’s harbor. The northern edge of this area overlooks the Ashtabula River where the coal conveyor belt launches itself like a roller coaster just north of the famous lift bridge. That bridge has made its way into a variety of day-trip sightseeing articles, as well as children’s nightmares. I never knew of the six public Finnish saunas, the seven Finnish owned pubs lining Bridge Street, or the two Finnish churches that once lined the streets.

[blocktext align=”right”]First- and second-generation Finns were so busy surviving that there was no time to devote to cultural heritage.[/blocktext]Alongside blue-collar Finns were wealthier Italian business owners who were often elected to city government seats and school boards. My mother became a nanny for an Italian family when I was in my teens. One wealthy Italian business owner put on a Christmas light display that remains one of my fondest memories of growing up in Ashtabula. On the rare occasion our family would go out to eat, our choices were Italian or… Italian. First- and second-generation Finns were typically so busy surviving that there was no time to devote to cultural heritage and tradition, no time to think of what they’d left behind.

Naturally, I sometimes regret not having a deeper connection to my heritage beyond purchasing nissu, a braided sweet bread, and korpu, a hard, cinnamon-coated bread for dipping in coffee at the Squire Shoppe on Lake Avenue. How would it feel to wrap myself in a proud history, like a vining plant clinging to a sturdy structure? I’ll never know the answer to that question. I can’t help but wonder if the path I might have taken would have been very different than the one I chose.

[blocktext align=”left”]An immersion in world cultures was a pivotal point in my life.[/blocktext]I moved to Cleveland in 1993 to attend Cleveland State University. At the time, an old Holiday Inn at E. 22nd and Euclid served as the sole dormitory on campus. I lived on the “international floor,” and absorbed the sights and smells of other cultures like a mushroom absorbs water. My roommate, Leliwati, hailed from Jakarta. When she moved to California, Mei-Hsiu from Taipei became my roommate. I ate my meals with a group that was dubbed the U.N. Round Table, comprised of students from all over the world: Miaw from Taiwan, Kazim from Turkey, Walid from Egypt. I wanted to learn as much as possible about other cultures, traditions, food, and language.

[blocktext align=”right”]I’m grateful for the diversity I discovered on the eleventh floor of a dilapidated old hotel in downtown Cleveland.[/blocktext]This immersion in world cultures was a pivotal point in my life, and I believe it happened at least in part due to the cultural vacuum I was raised in. A seed was planted during this time for my future career as an ESL teacher. I was the maid of honor in Leliwati’s wedding six years after she left for California. If she hadn’t returned to Indonesia, she would have been mine when I married my husband, who happens to be from India, in 2000. I believe my curiosity was fueled by the near-total absence of ethnic culture in which I was raised. My hunger to know the intricate workings of other cultures taught me the flexibility required when two people of different cultures go beyond superficial pleasantries. The irony of my vivid and enriching multicultural experience in one of the most segregated cities in the United States is not lost on me.

[blocktext align=”left”]I no longer wish to take my roots for granted, meager and frayed as they may be.[/blocktext]So what am I saying? That if you are raised with a strong, proud cultural identity, you will be less curious about people who are different from yourself? No. I guess I’m just trying to find a silver lining to my own lack of cultural identity, and express gratitude for the diversity I discovered on the eleventh floor of a dilapidated old hotel in downtown Cleveland. That diversity lit the way to a future I could not have imagined as a child. Perhaps it is why upon returning to the Rust Belt after thirteen years in New England, I chose to settle in Cleveland rather than in Ashtabula.

I no longer wish to take my roots for granted, meager and frayed as they may be. It’s unfair to my ancestors who came to this area and toiled to make a life for their families. So I will be making the drive to Ashtabula to explore Finn Town and the Finnish-American Cultural Center that was erected in 2006 at the heart of the neighborhood on 8th Street, just a few blocks from where my grandparents lived. My mother tells me the old Finnish ladies still sell nissu at the Lutheran church. I will stop in and buy a couple of loaves. I may wander over to Bridge Street and sit at Harbor Perk, a little coffee shop that looks out on the lift bridge. I’ll try to conjure up a feeling of connection to where I’m from—Ashtabula, Ohio. Even in soaking up the city’s Finnish culture, I will still deeply identify with the Native American meaning of Ashtabula’s name: a river of many fish, each unique yet united by their struggle to swim upstream, always upstream.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Ken Winters.