Society problems

Finnish American Heritage Society celebrates 35 years

Katrina Bousquet, member of the Finnish American Heritage Society in Canterbury with a table loom, which is used to make scarves, belts, neckerchiefs and small table runners.

Robert Harmon, left, and his brother, Richard Harmon, carry on a tradition of “relief sculpture”. During Finland’s Winter War (1939-1940), soldiers carved scenes of their homes, farms and monuments onto wooden planks to pass the time in the trenches, said Katrina Bousquet, a member of the Finnish Society of the American heritage in Canterbury. Jan Tormay photo

A chance tasting of pulla (a Finnish cardamom sweet bun) brought to a high school faculty event 20 years ago sparked questions, and Patti Folsom joined the Finnish American Heritage Society (FAHS) at 76 North Canterbury Road (Route 169) in Canterbury. Soon after, she signed up for FAHS’s annual trip to Finland.

“I think it’s important for people to learn about different cultures. And in our culture and with our traditions, there are a lot of unique aspects,” said Folsom, a half-Finnish former librarian.

The FAHS, which purchased the building from the (Finnish-owned) Sampo Club 35 years ago in 1987, features one of the largest collections of Finnish and Finnish-American artifacts on the East Coast. The collection includes books, documents, photographs, traditional costumes, birch bark handicrafts, wood carvings, musical instruments, wall hangings and woven sheets, she said.

Now, a Connecticut Cultural Fund operating support grant of $6,000 through Connecticut Humanities, a nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has enabled FAHS to catalog and share items via the online database ctcollections.org and “staff and open the museum and archive to the public” this spring, Folsom said.

The FAHS Museum is open every Wednesday and the second and fourth Saturdays of each month from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with no admission charge.

One aspect of Finnish culture can be described by the word “sisu”, which can be defined as “the bravery or perseverance under adverse or worst circumstances, such as the Winter War of World War II (1939 -40) when the Finns fought the Russians,” Kristina Bousquet and Folsom, co-chairs of the collections management committee, said as they finished their mutual reflections one June afternoon.

Folsom said she hoped to show the documentary “Fire and Ice: The Winter War of Finland and Russia”, “to say that the Finns know what the Ukrainians are going through, because the Finns have also solved this whole problem”.

During the Winter War, Finnish soldiers carved scenes of their homes, farms and monuments onto wooden planks to pass the time in the trenches, Bousquet said. To continue this tradition of “relief carving,” a woodcarving group comprised of members and nonmembers meets on the lower level of FAHS every Wednesday from 1 to 4 p.m. Just bring tools and wood. There are no fees.

Built in 1925, the 4,000-square-foot FAHS building, which includes a kitchen and hall (for about 100 people) with a stage known for its “great acoustics,” is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Approximately 1,000 square feet of the structure contains the museum, lending library, and air-conditioned archive room.

“Everything in the museum has been donated,” said Bousquet from Norwich, who is half-Finnish. Their challenge is that they cannot keep everything they are given. “So we slowly cleaned up our archives.”

“Our mission (established in 2021) is to promote and preserve Finnish American heritage and history in the Northeast, which includes New York and Delaware, Connecticut, New England. It really helped us decide what to keep and what not to keep.

Another goal is to re-use their 6 large looms, which Finns use to make hand-woven towels, scarves, rugs and tapestries, Bousquet said.

FAHS, a nonprofit, also received a museum renovation grant from Conservation ConneCTion, “which is supported by a partnership with the Connecticut League of History Organizations and funded by a grant from the CT Cultural Fund,” Folsom said. in an email. “The CT Cultural Fund is administered by CT Humanities, with funding provided by the Connecticut State Department of Economic and Community Development/Connecticut Office of the Arts of the Connecticut State Legislature.

“FAHS has been assigned two visiting museum curators, Elysa Engelman, Director of Exhibitions, Mystic Seaport and Nicole Carpenter, Director of Programs and Collections, Westport Museum for History & Culture.”

Folsom said Engelman and Carpenter, who visited the museum in May, will work with members to create a dynamic new exhibit. “They tasked the committee with interviewing FAHS members and visitors about what they hope to see in the museum and what stories they think the museum should tell in its two halls.”

The committee will meet again with curators to decide how to spend a $3,000 stipend that is part of the Museum Makeover grant,” she said.

“With the Museum Makeover (grant), we’re trying to make this a newly reworked, remodeled and vibrant signage that will tell a story to people coming off the street (without) any Finnish connection.”

“I was so amazed at the beauty of their collection (FAHS) and the beauty of the organization in general,” said Lisa Joseph from Canterbury, who has a background in art history and museum studies. She joined several months ago and was also hired as a cataloger through a grant. “So the more I work with them, the more I become interested in Finnish culture.”

While reading a book with traditional Finnish stories based on ballads and folk tales called “Kalevala”, coming to different events and eating, she said, “You become ‘smitten by Finns'”.

Although Joseph has lived down the road from FAHS for 11 years and saw the building and its sign in front, she said she didn’t know anyone could join – you don’t have to be Finnish.

“Sometimes all it takes is for them to attend a fun event and then they’re hooked and then they want to join,” Bousquet said.

Although her parents were members of FAHS, she said the organization never appealed to her until 20 years ago when she attended a breakfast that coincided with the day of the opening of fishing. “So I brought my kids when they were little and they loved it, so we kept coming.”

Her non-Finnish husband, Steve Bousquet, is now president of the FAHS.

Kazimiera Kazlowski from Lebanon became an FAHS volunteer 5 years ago when she retired. She now helps “in any way she can,” including using her museum knowledge. “It’s a welcoming and supportive organization and everything you’d want in a volunteer position.”

She added: “I like to discover a different culture. It’s fun, but yet we learn.

Of their 300 FAHS members, about 40 are active and local, Bousquet said. They hope to attract new members, including young people, to continue the society and the museum for future generations. The annual presentations of “Finnish Culinary Delights” with children and “Pikku Joulu”, which means “Little Christmas”, are ways to involve young people.

In addition to making annual trips to Finland, FAHS celebrates its 30th “finnfun weekend” this year at The Inn at East Hill Farm in Troy, New Hampshire. “It’s a weekend of fun (and) Finnish culture. We offer seminars and courses on different things. One year it could be genealogy or music or cooking classes on Saturday and Sunday that you could attend,” which could include crafts or writing “to promote Finnish culture,” Bousquet said.

Folsom emphasized, “You don’t have to be Finnish to have fun,” or join the organization. “A simple interest in Finnish culture is enough to get you involved in our organization.”

FAHS membership fees are $20 for individuals and $35 per household. For more information about this nonprofit, its upcoming woodcarving festival, garage sale, and other events, visit fahs-ct.org or Facebook: Finnish American Heritage Society of Canterbury, CT. To inquire about Heritage Hall and Kitchen rentals, message them on Facebook, email info@fahs-ct.org, or call (860) 546-6671.

Long-time Norwich resident Jan Tormay now lives in Westerly.