In Finland, Minnesota, Community Is a Verb

This content is underwritten by Valvoline Instant Oil Change across Northern Minnesota, a woman-owned business supporting women and families across the region.

(l-r) Lise Abazs, Shannon Walz, Nancy Anselment-Olson, Honor Schauland, and Sandy Maxwell near the Clair Nelson Center. Photo Sarah Witeli

A little over 100 miles south of the Canadian border, and less than six miles inland of Lake Superior’s shoreline, sits Finland, Minnesota. Located in the Crystal Bay Township of about 500 people, it is nestled in the folds of the Sawtooth Mountains and surrounded by wilderness. Minnesotans living away from the North Shore may know it as home to Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, which attracts thousands of children annually. In 1895, Finnish immigrants to the area built homesteads and the state’s first community co-op, which continues to serve residents today.

There is also the Clair Nelson Center, a community hub that originated from a multi-year comprehensive planning process involving many residents. The 10-year Comprehensive Land Use Plan continues to evolve to make the township more environmentally and economically sustainable. On any given day at the Center, there are skill-sharing classes, youth development activities, and strategic planning potlucks. The Finland Foodchain, an adjacent project, is rebuilding the local food economy by supporting residents who farm, cook, and buy food locally. The community is also looking to embrace cooperatively owned affordable housing.

But simply listing these initiatives does not do Finland justice. The region is alive with a special collaborative energy, something residents date back over 100 years. Minnesota Women’s Press spoke with five women who live and participate in Finland about what truly makes a community, and how a culture of engagement promotes Finland’s long-term sustainability.

Nancy Anselment-Olson: I moved over to Finland 48 years ago. Even though I grew up in the area, I felt like I came home when I came to Finland. There is this sense that you can be a little bit different in Finland, and that is just fine. I am currently one of the core staff members of Friends of Finland. It is really important to me that the kids here grow up with that same sense of community, belonging, and ownership of thisplace.

Honor Schauland: I think this is a community where people participate in a way that is not as common in other places as it used to be. Sometimes people want to be engaged because they are annoyed about something that is happening. I mean, I think that is one way to be engaged, but I want to empower people to participate before it gets to that point and to help people create the future they want to see. Change is inevitable, and a lot of times in small places like this it does not always feel like we have power, but we do. If people participate in their community, that has the power to change a lot. I grew up in this area, and I left for school and lived in the city for a while. I really missed the woods, and I missed that opportunity for engaged participation. When I came home, there were leaders and events that engaged me and changed my life — and probably saved it in certain ways.

Shannon Walz: I grew up in Southern Minnesota, and my family came up here to camp. I remember coming over the hill in Duluth and seeing Lake Superior and how it made my heart feel. I had the pleasure of living up here after college for a while and was always actively working to come back. I had never experienced anything that was so inviting; I feel a deep sense of belonging, and it is why I stay.

Lise Abazs: In a lot of places people only react to things, but I feel like in Finland, maybe because it has been relatively isolated and had to fend for itself a lot, there is an attitude here of “if we want something to happen, we’ll make it happen.” And that is empowering. There have been successes, which helps encourage people. Not that there have not been difficulties along the way, it has been hard, but people are willing to do that work.

Walz: Not everybody agrees, but they are able to have relationships and dialogue. The community center does an incredible job of holding that space open.

Let’s narrow in on how you conceptualized the Clair Nelson Center as an open space but also something that engages people. It is not just a building.

Anselment-Olson: Our calendar is full of varied activities, and they all come from individuals who want to try something new. If we need a forum for a public meeting, it is there. It is a place for ideas. It is really wonderful to watch people’s reaction [when we say] “we have this space, you can use it, sure.” I love that.

Schauland: The planning for it really was about gathering input from many different groups of people in the community [to ask about] their vision for the community itself.

That planning process ended up creating the Center as well as a land use plan for the township that helps us raise funds for the Center and maintain a comprehensive vision for its future. That process involved everyone from the Girl Scouts to the fire department to the snowmobile club.

The commercial kitchen space was something that came up repeatedly — that food is a central part of every community gathering. The kitchen includes equipment to support business start-ups, because that was identified as the sort of thing that was needed in those initial meetings. So far the kitchen has incubated several spin-off businesses. We needed a stage, so that was added onto the multi-purpose gym room. The kids use it to do impromptu performances. That also goes all the way back to that community input and feedback process.

Some of it is a matter of scale; bigger cities are organized differently. We are a township, and so it is possible to go to all of the pertinent community groups and get their input. In contrast, I have been to city council meetings about strategic planning — they have open meetings and sometimes people come, but it is a bit of a different animal. So in that way we have our unique challenges by being a small community but we are also really lucky. The way that we are surrounded by the natural world makes it easier to become part of this place.

There has been a cultural continuity in Finland that has existed for a long time.

Sandy Maxwell: In the 1980s, I first felt like I was really a part of the Finland community. I bought my land in ’81, and in ’82 I was working at the taconite company, and there was a big downturn in the economy. The taconite industry really took a hit. People were in economic despair around here. There was this group of women in Finland — Maria Ostman, Francis Swanson, and Bernice Dittmer — and they started these community dinners. There were a lot of government commodities offered back then, and so they would take items like canned salmon and cornmeal and make these fantastic dinners. That was in the old rec hall, the precursor to the Clair Nelson Center. We were in our twenties back then, and those women who were preparing the meals were probably the ages Nancy and I are now, in their sixties. We would bring our own plates and utensils, and it was a great social event. When the evening was coming to a close, we young people did not want to leave because we were having such a great time visiting. The elders would have to usher us to the door. That was the first time I really felt that sense of community. Those women were proactive back then, and they took charge.

Anselment-Olson: That is the thing that Finland has always had: give a party and everybody will come. We need that connectedness to each other. We all live on our own homesteads, and it can be isolating. That is what the Finns did when they first settled here — they got together because human beings have that need, and we’re still doing it.

Abazs: Rural communities can be known as isolating or closed-minded, and maybe to some people it might feel that way, but if you come wanting to be part of things, Finland embraces people. I am seeing it happen now as an older person. New folks keep us vibrant and growing. We are open to the gifts that everybody is bringing to the community. Sandy starts a nursery, we have a farm. It is a little pond, so you can have a big impact.

Maxwell: Community potlucks at the Clair Nelson Center — who comes? It’s not just people from Finland; there’s people from Silver Bay, Isabella, Little Marais — these communities overlap.

Abazs: A lot of folks come and work with us in the summer, and hikers come through and they are amazed at how many interesting people and interesting conversations they have at this little rural community potluck. That is special.

Schauland: Potlucks are the secret community organizing tool. You get people to sit down and talk to each other and all kinds of crazy things happen.

Abazs: It is not just hamburger hotdishes; you will get the roadkill roast, the vegan dish, it is the whole shabang, and that’s what is enriching. We are too small to stay in our silos. We have to actually figure out how to enjoy each other. You can’t ignore your neighbors, even if you don’t agree with them on everything.

You can’t ignore your neighbors. How have you seen that attitude help solve some of the community’s persisting problems?

Anselment-Olson: We have the same problems that other rural areas have, but some of them are extreme because of our location and the sparsity of population. Some of us realized that we had a problem with meth. We decided to have public meetings and discuss the situation, why it was here, and why now. The conclusion was that we have these problems because of all of these other things. The disenfranchisement, lack of jobs, lack of opportunity. We talked about solutions, and we are here to support people if they want and need help. But for me, the focus has become about prevention and preventing those kinds of things starts with kids. That connectedness to community, I think, gives people a sense of belonging and alternatives to that behavior.

Schauland: The whole time I have been growing up, I have been listening to the adults in my life who took me ricing figuring out where and how [the wild rice] is going to get processed. People would pool resources and send somebody to drive [the wild rice] to the processor, which is a long ways away. More recently, people have been figuring out how to build a processing facility here in our community. I see that happen a lot. People here have to be creative and innovative in their daily lives for so many different reasons, and are endlessly adaptable.

Abazs: We are proud of having the oldest co-op in the state. I am proud to be living on an old homestead. There is a lot to be proud of — not because of individuals, it wasn’t some famous person who came and lived here. It is because the community built some incredible things throughout the years.

Schauland: The Finns were unique folks that way. They needed a place to get supplies, and so they created the co-op store. It is all about banding together and working with the people that are here and with the land. I am not Finnish, but I did grow up with Finnish elders. I think of Sandy’s aunt, Charlotte. I remember when she was 90, watching her take a boat out on Lake Superior.

Maxwell: She lived to be 106. Speaking of challenges that we have faced in the past, and things that we are going to be confronted with, one overwhelming thing is how to balance tourism with maintaining the integrity of the land, because more and more people are coming here all the time. Tourism is a big part of the economy, but in the last two years during the pandemic there was an influx of people up here. Nancy and I, we saw how the North Shore used to be a relatively quiet place when we were kids. Now it is just a different world. But I hope we can be instrumental in coming up with ideas about how to accommodate tourism and prevent destruction.

Walz: A few years ago, Duluth was highlighted as a climate refuge. We have abundant natural resources. With our communities now, I think of this idea of “enough,” not in a limiting way, but in a fulfilling way. And how do you preserve that culture, especially when there is going to be pressure to support other places? How do people who want to be in this place understand that is a core value of ours, and that we want to do everything we can to protect that?

Schauland: It all has implications in older people being priced out of their land with property taxes, and whether younger people can afford to buy land here. It has to do with young people growing up here and being able to find jobs. If the only jobs they can get are service industry jobs that do not pay super well, that ties back to what Nancy was talking about with drug issues. We are pretty dang sustainable for a community in many ways, but there are pressures that are beyond our control. We can control how we react and adapt.

Please describe the difference between living in a place and being part of a community.

Anselment-Olson: I did not know what community was when I was younger; I did not know it was important. When I moved here there was this attractiveness. I was so young that I did not really identify it, but I knew I liked it. As I have spent time here, the rootedness has grown. I do not want to be anywhere else. The thought of having to leave my home because I can’t be here when I am old terrifies me. It is more than losing your house; it is losing community. Just driving down this road, I have so many people to wave at. When times are tough, community is wonderful.

Walz: When you live in a community, you want to participate because you feel safe and welcome to participate.

Schauland: Community feeds people. I see people come here and keep coming back because they are fed by this place and the natural world. It is really interesting to watch relationships grow for people who have never seriously experienced that before. It helps me to remember that not everybody has that, and how lucky we are.

Abazs: This type of community attracts people who value it. Our job is to nurture that so it continues. You can live somewhere and not have a relationship to the land or the people around you. To have a community, you have to have a relationship with both.