Paved Paradise

Oh, good. There are some open spaces in the lot, so I won’t have to go rogue and park illegally next to the dumpster. With six garbage bags of clothes to donate, I’d been worrying I’d have to hoof them, biceps trembling during multiple trips, for a block or more.

I give an appreciative mental pat to the convenient parking lot with its open spaces. Well done, little lot. My lazy biceps thank you for your service.

Sliding into a space a hundred yards from the door, I turn off the car and sigh, bracing myself. Okay, now where do I go with these donations?


Jooseppi (Joseph) Edvard Pihlaja was born in Western Finland in 1882, the son of a tenant farmer in Jämijärvi parish, when the “country” was technically The Grand Duchy of Finland, an autonomous part of the Russian empire. For decades, Finland had experienced an uptick in landless agricultural workers — no doubt tired of subsisting on “hunger bread” made from ground birch bark — moving to industrial centers, only to find themselves underemployed in the cities meant to offer opportunity.

Just as Joseph neared age 18, Tsar Nikolai II adopted a policy of Russification aimed at limiting the Finnish Duchy’s self-governance and cultural expression. Even more painfully, the status of the Russian Orthodox Church was strengthened; Russian became the language of governmental administration and required in schools; governmental offices were relieved of Finnish staff and replaced with Russians; the rights of freedom of speech and assembly were suspended; the post office was taken over by Russians; the Finnish press was censored; and the Finnish military was subsumed into the imperial military, with Finnish males being drummed into Russian military service.

When Finns found ways to use collective passive resistance as protest, with more than half a million people signing a petition against the army bill and 15,000 of 25,000 Finnish conscripts refusing to show up for service, their efforts fed the ire of Russian authorities. As the empire leaned into crackdowns and aggression, Finns banded together in myriad forms of nonviolent protest, their infrangible socialist ethos pushing Russian authorities into increasingly toddleristic tantrums.

In the midst of limited opportunities and rising tensions with Russia stood my teenage great-grandfather, Joseph — but not for long.

According to records, Joseph left his mother, father, and six surviving siblings – other push factors behind Finnish emigration being domineering parents and systems of primogeniture — in southwestern Finland in 1898 or 1899, made his way to the departure port of Hanko (where, trying not to cough, he underwent a physical examination), and paid somewhere between $20-$40 for a ticket to England – four days on a ship to Hull (pinching his cheeks pink, he received a second physical examination), then a train to Liverpool (willing his eyesight to strength during another physical examination). Possibly, he spent a few nights in Liverpool in an emigrant hotel or sleeping rough on the docks, one grim face in an overwhelming mass of hungry humanity, waiting for an opening on a Red Line steamer and calm weather.

What is more certain is that he boarded the S.S. Rhynland on May 2nd, 1900. As a steerage passenger, he’d have been crammed into a porthole-lined room below deck with at least a hundred strangers, where, fighting to hold his gorge down when the ship hit the rolling waters of the Irish Channel, he likely found purchase on a “donkey’s breakfast” straw mattress, climbing the stanchions of an iron bunkbed to wiggle into his spot in the middle of five men sleeping abreast, tucking a threadbare jacket under his head for a pillow. On day four, unless he had existing marks on his arm as evidence, Joseph would have been required to receive a smallpox vaccination from the ship’s doctor. At the end of the week, he must have pushed through the crowd at the railing as the outline of land emerged from the fog.

As an unfamiliar feeling of hope blossomed in his chest, he would have squinted, trying to discern the shape of his future.

There. There it is.

Impatiently, he’d have waited for hours with 400 other emigrants, roped into a holding area on deck as saloon and second-cabin passengers comfortably disembarked into established lives. Finally, nerves jangling, my great grandpa would have funneled off the ship into the custom house at the port of Philadelphia (brightening his eyes to look lucid while turning out all the coins in his pockets to prove his worth).

The Rhynland ship manifest indicates Joseph intended to head to Port Arthur, Ontario, Canada; perhaps he knew some folks from back home who had set up life in one of the rural Finnish villages outside Thunder Bay. Also probable is that he headed to Port Arthur as a stepping-off point to Michigan’s UP, for decades later he would tell census takers that he was a former copper miner, and it was in Michigan that Finns dug for copper.

Hasty words scribbled on faded documents obscure Joseph’s plans, personality, agency.

It could be that he headed directly to northern Minnesota from Philadelphia, of course, never making it to Port Arthur or blipping through Michigan. Perhaps, in the chaotic moments of embarking from Liverpool for the United States, he couldn’t muster enough English to communicate the lack of an actual plan to the person filling out the ship manifest, shrugging, embarrassed, gesturing a tight “What he said” while pointing to the guy in line before him. Perhaps port authorities in Philadelphia hastily distributed the new immigrant arrivals to railway stations throughout the city, leaving Joseph in a huddle with a few shipboard compatriots, the group energy driven by the future mayor of Proctor, Minnesota, a charismatic guy named Emil who’d loudly stated “Duluth, Minnesota” when pressed for his intended destination. Joseph would have needed buddies to make the next move, familiar strangers to shore up his spirits and finances; the cost of a train ticket to the Midwest exceeded the money in his pocket.

Most likely in debt, Joseph’s American adventure – driven by the Finnish immigrant’s refrain of “When I make enough money, I will buy a farm” – began.


In the early 1930s, when he was in his late teens, my grandpa Francis got into a disagreement with his father, Joseph, an argument so significant that Francis joined the trend of other young Depression down-and-outers and hopped a boxcar headed west, distance solidifying an estrangement between father and son that lasted 12 years. Although they did eventually see each other again, Joseph lived in Northern Minnesota, Francis in Montana, until death.

What the two mulish Finns fought about wasn’t passed down in family lore, but the scene in my head, set on the farm Joseph had finally managed to purchase more than a decade after leaving the mines and opening a pool hall, then a grocery store, is set in a small wooden house lit by kerosene lanterns. The argument begins with an authoritative order exhaled on cigarette breath, a “Tee se nyt” command with which Francis – half stubborn, half scared – dares a disagreeable “Ei, en tee sitä.” The tone bounces on a wire of “No, I will not…,” trembles to “When I tell you this is how it will be, you don’t question it…,” is followed by a snap of “You’re a farmer now, Dad, so why do you act like you’re my foreman at the mine? As soon as you bought this land, you left Rudy and Ernie and me to rot in the pit, at the mercy of the operation, telling us it’s time we learned to fend for ourselves. Everything for you is about the farm, your new wife, your new kid, while we scrape by on lousy wages, lucky every day we walk out of that hole intact, lucky we’ve banded together and can afford a place to live with Rudy and his wife. When you do think about your sons, it’s to issue orders. You’re not my boss, you don’t care a lick for us, and I’m sick of it. I’m sick of you.”

After Francis turns his back on Joseph with storming finality, deciding to get away-away-away from his irascible old man, I picture him slamming into a rickety Model T to start the hour-and-a-half drive from Eagle Township to his brother’s house in Crosby, a town where the worst disaster in Minnesota mining history had taken place six years earlier when a mine shaft collapsed, flooding underground tunnels with mud and water, killing 41 workers.

Heaving into the house where Francis and younger brother Ernie have lived with their older brother Rudy and his 19-year-old bride since their widowed father married a new wife and started a second family on his new piece of land, Francis announces, “I’m leaving. I hate the mine, but Dad tells me it’s the only work I’m good for, except of course when he wants us to drive to the farm to break our backs on weekends. He got out of the pit as soon as he could, so why can’t I?” Uncharacteristically overwrought as he scrambles to gather a few things — let’s knot them into a bandana as a nod to the era — Francis cobbles together a plan that will get him away-away-away, hissing questions and spitballing ideas to his brothers. Crouched over his bed, jamming his extra shirt into the bundle, he’s a lanky young man with an eighth-grade education making a break that will change everything for those who come after, just as his difficult father had thirty years earlier.

Agitated, my grandpa listens to his brother Ernest, the nearest to him in age of the original four offspring, an eighteen-year-old at the halfway mark of his life – not yet plagued, I hope, by the darkness that will shut him into a garage with a running car when he’s married and a father at age 36. I imagine Ernie thinking of the girl he’ll one day wed and suggesting, “Here’s a thought: that nice Helia Heikkila has an uncle over in Montana, the postmaster in a town called Roberts. There are trains that go near there, and you met Emil a few times before he moved West. I bet he could set you up real good. Finns stick together, after all.”


In the late 1800s, the Catholic Church began constructing a diocesan complex in the Central Hillside neighborhood of Duluth, Minnesota. First built was the Sacred Heart Cathedral, followed in 1904 by the construction of a school, then a hospital, eventually an orphanage and the Christian Brothers Home. When, a few decades later in 1942, the Brothers withdrew from the neighborhood due to a financial crisis, the Benedictine Sisters moved into the building – now called the Sacred Heart Convent — to continue the work of educating Catholic youth and serving the community at large.

During the nearly 30 years the Sisters lived in and taught near the convent, the building became a symbol of hope for Duluth’s needy. The back door of the large brick building was frequently opened to “St. Josephs,” unhoused men who sought — and always received — food. In the early 1970s, a time of social turmoil, the Sisters welcomed an interracial couple that had been displaced by flooding; for three months, as the couple searched for permanent housing, they found solace and safety in an apartment within the convent.

Although their service to the community was multi-pronged, the Sisters’ primary vocation was in the Sacred Heart School. Years later, one Sister would describe how fondly former students regarded their years at the intimate school, perhaps because it was a place for those “poor in the things of this world,” which then created a unique spirit of communal care (“Remembering Things Past: The First Schools in Duluth”).


Once Great-Grandpa Joseph arrived in the U.S., he followed the established path for Finns in the upper Midwest and shuffled day after day into the hot, dangerous, underpaid world of copper, then iron ore, mining. In 1902, Minnesota’s Commissioner of Labor reported that 40% of the state’s mining employees were Finnish, characterizing them as “strong, well-built, used to hard work and meager fare” (“Why Did Finnish Immigrants Come to Minnesota?”).

Despite their perceived ability to handle the work, however, Finnish miners suffered. In addition to the physical toil and toll of ruined backs, deafened ears, and blackened lungs, the mental cost was immense. When asked about their work, miners who packed into small shaft elevators to descend into heat and darkness reported they were scared every minute they spent underground; in a job colored by collapsing tunnels, explosions gone wrong, and an average of 70 dead each year in a single mining system, miners were known to answer the question “What do you like best about mining?” with a vehement “Nothing!”

I picture Joseph in the first years of his American Dream with dirt contouring the creases of his face, a rusty-red kohl of hematite dust ringing the blank eyes that resulted from working a 6 a.m.-4 p.m. job so exhausting that all he could do after the breaker whistle blew was stagger home, eat dinner, and collapse onto a hard mattress, his fitful sleep plagued by nightmares of misfired explosions sending tons of dirt falling, crushing, smothering. With little energy for entertainment and the reality that due to lack of education, he had no options, Joseph acquiesced to the default of killing himself with work rather than slowly starving to death. His only hopes for a better life would have been establishing a family and, even more pragmatically, finding work above ground.

In 1903, Joseph married a fellow Finnish immigrant, Aina Lydia Raiha, in the Iron Range town of Hibbing, Minnesota, where the massive open-pit Hull Rust and Mahoning mining operations were on their way to digging an eight-mile hole that would one day be called “The Grand Canyon of the North.” I imagine my great-grandpa in the hole, perhaps manning a shovel attached to a chain as thick as his thigh. His new wife was pregnant, the guys on his crew had some jokes that made him chuckle, and the sight of the sun fueled hope.

A few years later, in 1907, Joseph, again-pregnant Lydia, and their daughter Siami Marie moved to Bovey, Minnesota, a crowded, bawdy town of 1400 people supporting 24 saloons, raucous watering holes known for flavoring their alcohol with tobacco juice. With the opening of the above-ground Canisteo ore pit, the town was booming; unable to find accommodation, some miners in search of sleep paid 50 cents for floorspace while others, feeling flush, shelled out five dollars for the privilege of a billiard table bed.

Locked into the role of provider for a growing family, Joseph woke early, grabbed his lunch pail, felt the muck of 2nd Avenue tug at his boots as a hog rooted around the center of the road, and made his way to the pit, day after day – relieved to see the sky, even as he breathed in heavy metals amongst tailings ponds.

In 1912, the year my grandfather Francis was born, the family moved 74 miles from Bovey to Cuyana, a burgeoning town where ore production was expanding from underground into a new open pit. Ostensibly, mining offered a steady paycheck, yet the reality was a work-driven itinerancy. To attract families, The Rogers, Brown Mining Company was building multi-room homes, each with a yard, a connection to city water, and enough space to raise a cow, a few pigs, a flock of chickens, and a small garden. When Joseph’s final son, Ernest, was born in 1913, the town was thriving, with the mining operation offering free weekly lyceum programs and silent films at the community theater; before the inevitable bust of a played-out mine, there was always the addictive promise of community and a settled life.

On Sundays, his skin clean for the first time in a week, Joseph would have put on a collar with his best shirt and walked into the Lutheran church holding Siami Marie’s hand, Lydia cradling baby Ernie while Francis and Rudy shuffled behind. Sure, the pastor would follow the liturgy, but increasingly, a new message was preached from the pulpit: Finns belonged on farms; on farms, the work was hard, but it was done in open air, surrounded by nature, as God intended for the Finns.


Already lean before he hopped the train – I picture him dodging the railyard security “bulls” hired to beat hoboes, leaping for the first ladder of a car since aiming for the second one chanced landing between cars and being tossed under the wheels, his arm nearly tugged out of its socket by helpful friends he hasn’t met yet hauling him inside the unrelenting rattle of an empty car — Grandpa Francis doesn’t eat during the three-day ride to Montana. Taciturn and shy, he settles into a corner, securing himself the classic observer’s spot, a position decades later I’d often see his son, my father, assume in group situations. Swaying, the car clacks its way West, the noise masking the sound of his growling stomach, the synchronized rumble of body and train a reassurance that powerful change is afoot.

He hops off the train as it nears the town of Laurel – Does he roll? Is it dusty? – and then jumps onto a connection to Red Lodge, the town nearest Roberts, his final destination. Looking for Emil Heikkila, uncle of a friend back home, Francis finds him at the store-cum-post office where Emil is postmaster. When I imagine Francis walking through the door, there is a shout of surprise followed by thousand-watt smiles as Emil realizes it’s Joseph’s little Francis from back in Cuyuna! Sure if he isn’t a man now, though!

Standing at the counter that morning is Charlie DeVries, a local rancher, buying the Sunday paper for his father. In a town of a few hundred, every newcomer has a full inventory taken within an hour of arrival, and once Charlie takes the measure of my grandpa, he offers Francis a job as a hired hand on the DeVries ranch, tucking him into his truck for the ride to meet ranch scion Lammert and matriarch Wilhemina at the house. In my conjurings, Charlie is a talker; someone has to fill the space between strangers, and Francis is no help. Charlie waggles a finger out the window as he drives, explaining the ownership, leases, and bad blood that create the foundation of unquestioned settler colonization.

When Charlie and the newly hired hand walk into Amelia’s kitchen that day, it is 10 a.m., so she asks my grandpa if he’s had breakfast yet. No, ma’am, haven’t had much to eat at all, Francis mumbles. In no time, the stovetop is hot, and stout, brusque, kind Amelia DeVries flips pancake after pancake, then some more when she discovers it’s his first meal since leaving Minnesota. Later, my great-great-grandmother would be remembered as saying, “I never saw anybody put away so many pancakes…he was so hungry!”

From that moment forward, pancakes are standard fare for Francis’ breakfast, their imprint of welcome and satisfaction seared into his psyche. To him, oatmeal and cornflakes are poor substitutes; it just isn’t breakfast without pancakes. For the next 34 years, Francis in a cranky mood is evidence of a morning bereft of the first food to greet him when he, at last, landed in a life of his own choosing.


Forty years ago, during the deep recession of 1982, Americans were struggling. President Reagan’s policies had splashily cut and then quietly raised taxes along with pushing an agenda of “less government” that decimated social and entitlement programs. The era was rough for most Americans, but it was particularly brutal for the largest U.S. city on Lake Superior, as a national recession and the collapse of the domestic steel industry led to the loss of Duluth, Minnesota’s steel mill, manufacturing jobs, and shipping concerns. Population plummeted, unemployment skyrocketed to more than 20%, and poverty became the norm; at one point, a short-lived joke of a billboard erected along I-35 asked, plaintively: “Will the last one leaving Duluth please turn out the light?”

 By 1982, Duluth was one of the ten most strapped metropolitan areas in the country. Headed by youthful Mayor John Fedo, leaders from these “dire straits” cities banded together and requested a meeting with President Reagan, hoping for federal support that would “help our unemployed citizens survive this winter” (“Duluth Among Ten Recession-Hit Areas…”). After the president declined, they managed a meeting with the director of Housing and Urban Development, only to learn it was illegal to earmark federal action and development grants for specific cities. Faced with this “totally inadequate” response, the city leaders returned home to let citizens know they were on their own (“HUD”).

In the absence of government care, grassroots organizations grow to fill the cracks. In Duluth, indigents, many of them second-generation immigrants who found themselves unable to make a living in now-defunct industries, had begun lining up outside a former Catholic convent, hoping to score a daily meal. As demand sorely outstripped supply, an ecumenical group of citizens took action. Hoping to organize a better system for feeding their neighbors, they asked the Bishop for permission to use the existing kitchen of an empty school in the former Catholic diocese.

He said yes.

Although the original intention was for the soup kitchen to be a short-term remedy until the economic crisis eased, decades passed, and federal social support continued to fail the people. Still waiting to feel even a drop of good fortune trickle down, no longer believing in either the abstract or reality of The American Dream, needy citizens four decades after the soup kitchen’s establishment in the 1980s still flood the former Sacred Heart School – now called The Damiano Center – in search of a full stomach, warm clothes, emergency services, a little respite from the cold.


Joseph’s third wife, Hilda, made it a year before deciding she didn’t like farm living.

“You sell some cabbages off the end of your truck and think you’re something?” she jibed, packing her bags. “If you ever decide you want a real life, one with me, you’ll unload this dump and move to Duluth, too.”

Reluctantly, perhaps telling himself he could work the farm on the weekends, Joseph followed her to the city, where they rented an apartment at 301 East Third Street, the staging ground for Hilda’s next idea. “Instead of throwing money out the window each month on rent, if you’d get rid of that stupid farm, we could use the proceeds to buy a place and set ourselves up for good. You’re not going to be able to drive truck forever, Old Man, so let’s think ahead.”

Eventually, well harangued, his back and ears aching, Joseph agreed: they’d sell the farm and equipment and use the proceeds to purchase two houses in Duluth, 1018 and 1020 East Fourth Street. After fixing up the interiors, they’d move into one and rent out the apartments in the duplex next door. Why, Joseph wouldn’t have to work at all under this plan, with Hilda acting as landlady. Her schemes, her entreaties, her dissatisfaction – they buzzed in his ears like bog mosquitoes in July. Swatting them away, Joseph let loose of the dream of his lifetime: fields rolling toward the tree line, seedlings poking through muddy clods of earth, morning mist swirling over the pond, an immigrant second son having finally landed, his right to claim space undisputed.

From the start, Joseph must have hated the city, the traffic rumbling past the front window, the people cutting through the park across the street. The walls felt tight, and so did his chest. With two teenagers upstairs, the telephone always ringing, and the rental units a pit of time and money, Joseph’s third marriage simmered, then boiled. Eventually his daughter Dorothy, tired of slaps and hollering in the living room, moved out, joining her half-brother Ernie’s household while she finished high school. With fewer people in the household, Joseph, Hilda, and her son Stanley moved next door into one of the apartments, freeing the entire house at 1018 for rental – boosting the crumbling family’s income.

Nine years after they moved to Duluth, Joseph filed for divorce, his anger an engine of subtext roaring through staid legalese on the paperwork.

The secretary taking dictation would have found shorthand an impotent tool for capturing Mr. Joseph Pihlaja’s vitriol the day he unleashed in the lawyer’s office, the plaintiff’s words spilling out terse and fast, eventually polished into a complaint:

“…since such marriage, defendant has treated plaintiff in a cruel and inhuman manner…constituting a long, continuous and systematic course of ill-treatment, defendant has, frequently and on numerous occasions, struck plaintiff on and about his face, and , in the presence of third parties, swore at plaintiff and called plaintiff vile, offensive, indecent, and loathsome names, such as God Damn Son of a Bitch, and other names of similar purport.

That defendant’s conduct and behavior toward plaintiff, aforesaid, has impaired plaintiff’s state of mind, mental and emotional well-being, and health, with the effect that plaintiff is not a well man, and, during the past year, plaintiff was obliged and necessarily required to undergo a surgical operation for the removal of a cancerous growth in his stomach with the effect that the greater part of his stomach was removed thereby.”

Joseph’s screed gained momentum when he told the lawyer how Hilda refused his marital rights of sexual intercourse; how she, nearly a pauper when they’d met, had manipulated him into selling his farm and its effects for $10,000; how she’d convinced him, through “special instance and request,” to leave his name off the titles of the Duluth houses; how she’d left him two months earlier, after selling the houses and leaving him only $2,000 out of the $14,000 sale; how he was dying, destitute, desperate, duped, grasping for the law to grant him a justice life had denied since the day he was born in a stinking wooden hut in Southwestern Finland, an event only significant for starting a merciless cycle of striving and washing out, toiling and losing. Given how wrongfully, improperly, and fraudulently he’d been treated by the scheming defendant, which had given her an improper, illegal, and unconscionable advantage over him, could the defendant not be enjoined and restrained from dissipating or otherwise disposing of the funds that by right should be his? Could these papers full of words please force her to do right and then be removed from his life so he could find some small peace before his guts killed him dead?


In 1945, when he’s 33, Francis purchases four bus tickets and takes his family eastward across the plains from the thousand-acre ranch in Montana that he and his wife, Dorothy – Lammert DeVries’ grand-daughter – have cobbled together from various parcels near the original DeVries homestead.

After the couple married in 1934, they lived in Uncle Charlie’s old house and worked for Dorothy’s father, Herman – a tight, tough man who paid the newlyweds a dollar a week to cook beans to feed his pigs, who gave them seed for crops in return for 2/3 the yield. When their first child (my father) was born, Francis and Dorothy worked as hired hands, living in a box car, too tired at the end of each day to despair that the baby’s crib was an orange crate, eventually upgraded to a dresser drawer. By the time their second child was born, Francis had spent much of 1937 in Washington state, putting his back into construction on the Grand Coulee Dam in an effort to change their circumstances. Returning to Montana for the holidays with his family, his heart must have have soared when an uninhabited ranch came up for lease, then sale; over the next few years, his forehead pale, cheeks burned, Francis scrabbled his way into loans to purchase nearby acreages as they became available.

When the family takes that trip to Minnesota during the austerity and rationing of World War II, Francis is fully his own man, renowned for his chickens, filling his own box cars with harvested crops, having repaired and improved a dilapidated house into something fit for respectable people. Thanks to Dorothy’s gentle insistence that it’s important to stay connected with his sisters and brothers, with her sending notes and gifts to nieces and nephews in the Midwest, a kind of rapprochement has become possible.

They are headed to Duluth, Minnesota, to see Joseph.

Aged ten and seven, my dad and his brother are oblivious to the tensions roiling beneath the surface of this exciting, unprecedented trip – due to wartime rationing of gas, I imagine it on the Greyhound. All young Donald and Larry know is there’s a lady driving the bus, Mom has sandwiches in a basket, and South Dakota is forty shades of brown.

When the family arrives in Duluth, Francis’ mood is fragile; having borrowed a car from one of his brothers upon arrival – those are the easier reunions – and pulled up in front of the modest two-story house at 1018 E. Fourth Street where Joseph lives with his third wife and her teenage son, Francis jerks the handbrake and turns off the car, staring pensively at the park across the street while the engine, cooling, begins to tick. As he opens the door, he fixes a firm look on his wife and two young sons before – so much like his father in this moment! — issuing an order: Stay.

Inhaling, filling his lungs with sisu, he turns toward the house, lifts himself to standing, and takes the first step toward reconciliation after 12 years of strain. A figure half-hidden behind a lacy curtain watches the prodigal son, now a man grown, navigate the sidewalk leading to the front door.

What do they say? How do they repair a rift so entrenched? It happens in Finnish, I assume, a language my grandfather refuses to pass onto his children, the mocking voices of non-Finn classmates and strangers having seared into him a lasting shame. Their conversation ranges from mundanities about the weather to reports about various family members, both men stiff as they exchange terse sentences and adjust to the sight of crow’s feet on faces smoother in memory.

After a bit, Francis sets down his coffee cup with finality and makes an excuse about needing to get back to his family out in the car. They’ve got other folks to see before they head home. Does my grandpa’s ownership of an expanse of ancestral Apsáalooké lands rub salt into a wound that remains raw inside his immigrant father, a man who had achieved the dream of a farm, only to sell it at the urging of a new wife? Or does Joseph feel a kind of pride in having a son who broke free of the danger and drudgery of the mines, a vicarious victory as he listens to Francis describe looking across the acres and seeing the Pryor Mountains, even the Beartooths on a clear day?

With this new, stilted detente, the thread they’ve strung between them is wispy, but it holds.

As the years tick by, occasional cards, a few dollars folded into an envelope to mark the birthdays of my dad and his brother, wing across the prairies. Eventually, someone makes a phone call or writes a letter: Joseph’s health isn’t good. His latest marriage has exploded; they’re starting a divorce. It doesn’t look like he has long, what with the stomach cancer. He’d like to see the ranch. Meet his grandsons. See if his son’s success soothes the ulcer below his heart.

In the summer of 1950, Joseph, daughter Dorothy, son Rudy and family, even firstborn Siami Marie up from Florida, do the most American of things: they gather together and take a road trip.

The landscape in central Montana is jarring to a Finn who moved from a homeland of trees and water to a northern state heavily featuring the same. As Francis walks his father around the fields, pointing out crops of alfalfa, discussing winter wheat, explaining cattle profits, gesturing toward the chicken coop he’d helped Donald build for his 4-H project, Joseph is unsettled. Surrounded by yawning sky, not a tree in sight, no mine shaft hemming in his gaze, his eyes don’t know where to light. How does a man know where he is when the horizon is limitless?

Somehow, though, in choosing and committing to this place, Francis has resolved that question for himself. When he was a child, the family moved every few years, whenever one mine dried up and another opened, and even when Joseph wearied of dependence on jobs that wanted to kill him and tried his hand as a businessman, his shops and income were tightly tied to miners’ fortunes. Day to day, month to month, the only things that were certain in Francis’s childhood were mud, mockery, and the low-grade misery of Not Enough. As an adult, though, he’s landed in a place where his quietness is heard, his mildness a strength.

I see the two men, one gaunt, hand pressing against his belly, the other bright-eyed and chest forward, standing shoulder to shoulder as they watch the cows lumber toward them in search of a treat of alfalfa. Behind them, beneath the shade of a couple brave trees, the two Dorothys lay out a blanket, a watermelon, some plates, a tower of sandwiches.

“Francis!” my grandma calls. “Time for supper.”

‘I’m not so hungry,” Joseph tells his son, his face pinched. “You’ll have to eat enough for me, too.”

Francis nods, stoic. “Oh, I’m always hungry, isä. I’ll eat for us both.”


My arms are tired before I find the donation room within the Damiano Center, but I hardly notice as I walk through the corridor creaking with history, sniffing the faint must of an old school turned community resource. Perhaps a former classroom, the Free Store is full not of desks but, rather, a literal mountain of clothing that’s been dropped off by people with the privilege of shedding our “too much” onto those who don’t have enough.

I add my bags to the foothills and meander distractedly back to the parking lot, musing about the layers of lives and purposes this building has seen, with squeaky shoes shuffling through halls, eagle-eyed nuns catching offenses, the soup kitchen filling bellies while Reagan filled his coffers with the profits of billionaires. The space I walk through is 115 years old, built four years after Great-Grandpa Joseph first arrived in the United States.

But Joseph is not on my mind as I head toward the parking lot. I don’t even know to think about him since his son, my grandpa Francis, died when I was an infant; similarly, my dad barely knew his grandpa Joseph, outside of the time Joseph visited the Montana ranch when Dad was 15. Joseph Edward Pihlaja, the man who uprooted himself from grinding poverty and turned his face toward the American Dream, reaping rewards of black lungs, dead wives, estranged children, an empty bank account, and a gut full of resentment, is, at best, a faint smudge at the corner of my sense of self. The driver’s license in my purse says “Pihlaja,” but I don’t really know why.

Unencumbered, I hop behind the wheel, contemplating my next errand before I turn the key. Where next? Ah, a roll down the steep hill toward the lake – living by water still feels wild after growing up in arid central Montana, as though the random choices and moves that landed me in this gorgeous city were orchestrated by a puckish universe.

The car idles while I settle myself, drinking in the enduring charm of the massive brick building on the two hundred block of West Fourth Street. For people around the city who hit hard times, stomachs growling, clothes worn, wallets empty, the Damiano Center is the thing with feathers, offering hope to those poor in the things of this world, expanding over the decades to meet a swell of need. First it was a school, part of the diocese, but it was also part of the neighborhood, fringed by houses where the parking lot now stands. Fifty, sixty, seventy years ago, someone living in the house at 222 West Fourth Street, a modest duplex abutting the Sacred Heart School grounds, would have been a front-row observer to the daily rhythms of school bells and chattering children in uniform, witness to the promise of a new generation – not yet tired, disillusioned, lonely – ripening into the future.

Maybe, in 1950, that lonely observer smoked a cigarette each day around 3 p.m. when school let out, drawing a deep inhale into lungs swollen with chronic bronchitis. I picture him leaning his emaciated frame against the windowsill, exhaling a cloud over the heads of a trio of tousled third graders bashing their bookbags against each other and squawking as they compare notes on Sister Clementine’s chin hair. Adjusting himself – nothing but skin and bones since they took out half his stomach – he leans elbows onto the sill, gaze following the youngsters, remembering for half a hitched breath when his own kids were that age, the mud they’d track over the threshold giving their mother the devil. All grown and gone now, weren’t they, though? Makes a man wish for a little mud on the carpet sometimes, evidence of the living world to rough up this sterile mausoleum.

His cigarette a nub, he crushes it into an ashtray, clutching his belly as he stands. Maybe he’ll go to bed early, a relief to skip dinner when he’s no appetite nor much in the cabinets. Get some sleep before his morning shift of watching out the back window for the kids who prefer the obstacle course of the alley.

Slow, frail, he shuffles toward the bathroom.

I shift into Reverse.

One by one, fingers arthritic, he undoes the buttons of his shirt while examining his face in the mirror. Tomorrow he’ll shave. Look nice for his daughter when she stops by with soup.

Craning my head over my shoulder, I check out the back window. Are there some kids jumping over ruts in the alley? Nah. Trick of the sun.

Teeth clean, he eases down the hall toward his bed. There. There now.

Trunk empty, load lightened, I ease across the asphalt, readying to zip down the hill.

And just then, right then, for the quickest of seconds, for half a hitch of breath, I’m there, there now — moving across the spot, the earth, the air, the home where he went to bed one night, groaned as he rolled over, and, sighing out the weary load, exhaled his last.

Sources (Informally)

“Bovey and Coleraine: A Tale of Two Cities – Part One”

“Bovey Minnesota History”

“China Swedes, Forest Finns, and the Great Migration: How Finnish Immigrants Helped Build America”

“City of Cuyana: History”

“Cuyana, Minnesota” Wikipedia,_Minnesota

Damiano Center image:

“Damiano Center Marks Its 35th Anniversary” Duluth News Tribune

“Duluth Among Ten Recession-Hit Areas…” Duluth News Tribune


“The Finns in America” European Reading Room,encouraged%20others%20to%20follow%20suit.

“First-Hand Account of Steerage Conditions – 1898”

“History and Mission” Damiano Center


“Hull Rust Mine View: North Hibbing”—North-Hibbing

“Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History: The Finns” Library of Congress

“Mining on the Iron Range” Minnesota Digital Library

“Remembering Things Past: The First Schools in Duluth”

“Russification of Finland”,civil%20service%20offices%20to%20Russians.

“Riding the Rails: 1929-1941”

“Sacred Heart Cathedral, Sacred Heart School and Christian Brothers Home” Wikipedia,_Sacred_Heart_School_and_Christian_Brothers_Home

“Train Hopping during the Great Depression”

“A Very Brief History of Mining on the Cuyana Iron Range” Minnpost

“Why Did Finnish Immigrants Come to Minnesota?” Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 21st, 2022







One response to “Paved Paradise”

  1. Jono Avatar

    Damn! That was a fine story! I’m sure it is not atypical of many of the immigration stories of that place and time. My own is more recent with my parents being immigrants after WW2. So glad you wrote this down.

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