A flour mill in Salo, lost in history

Old news clipping. (Courtesy of Houghton Daily Mining Gazette)

by Diana Richter

Hidden in the woods four miles north of Hancock, Michigan, are the ruins of a dam on the Boston Creek, one of the main watersheds that flows to the Portage Ship Canal. Along the creekbank downstream from the dam lie several large concrete culverts through which once flowed water from the dam to a waterwheel and grindstone that ground the winter’s flour and feed for the first hearty Finnish farmers in the Copper Country.

The Finnish Farmers Milling Company was incorporated in 1905—the first flour mill in Houghton County. It was needed at a time when the copper mines were becoming less profitable, and much of the forests had been cut and cleared, making farmland available. It was a time when Finnish immigration to the Copper Country of northern Michigan was at its peak. The Finnish Farmers Milling Company operated for 31 years until 1936, when a flour mill powered by electricity came to the city of Houghton.

The area where the grist mill was built is known as Salo in Hancock Township. At the time, many farm roads crisscrossed the hills and valleys between Hancock and Lake Superior to the north. Along these roads, which were no more than two-tracks for a horse and wagon, were small farmsteads where Finnish immigrants worked to make a living. This is the area where Big Louie Moilanen grew up and sold hay to the Quincy Mining Company. Today the farms are abandoned and few remnants can be found, and the roads are used as hiking trails.

Old-timers in the area who have since passed away said farmers from as far away as Chassell, Pelkie and Lake Linden would bring their grain to the mill, also known as a grist mill. The mill had a stable for horses and a house in which to stay overnight while their grain was being ground.

The mill operated as a corporation and sold shares for $10 each. The first 10 founders of the mill were awarded 25 shares each; these men being—Daniel Bukema, Matti Mattson, Ivar Lingren, Matti Marjamaa, Gusta Makela, Gusta Hyvonen, John Wuori, Abel Hyvinen, Jacob Ojala, and Andrew Bram. The first four men were from Salo, the next four were from the Boston area three miles east, and the last two were from Canal and Hancock, respectively. Mr. John Kiiskila, a Hancock attorney, was the Notary Public on the Articles of Incorporation, and likely took a role in drafting the articles.

The purpose of the mill as stated in the articles were, “To conduct and carry on general milling business consisting to grind and manufacture all kinds of grain, flour and feed; to grind and manufacture any other products that may be properly and consistently come in under general milling for itself and others; to buy and sell all kinds of grain, flour and feed, and to do and deal with all and things necessary and proper for carrying on successfully said milling business.”

Not a lot of information can be found in the historical records about the mill. Only two articles appear in the Houghton Daily Mining Gazette, one in 1978 and one in 1982. The earlier article is more extensive and accompanied by a picture of the mill. Ironically, it is titled, “Finnish Farmers Milling Plant Almost Forgotten.” The second article is very brief and has a picture of a different mill.

The mill operated mostly in the fall of the year and again in April. Two men were needed to operate the mill. Forty barrels of flour could be ground in eight-to-12-hour shift. Water for the mill was received from the Franklin Mining Company dam, now known as the Boston Dam. When the water was let out from the Franklin Dam six miles away, it took 12 hours to fill up the dam by the grist mill.

A heavy cast iron, 12-foot waterwheel with about 20 cups created as much as 40 horsepower to turn the grindstone inside the mill. At the closing of the mill, Matt Lukkari was the miller and John Waara was the assistant miller. They were the sole employees then and were paid $1.50 a day for their work.

A recent discovery concerning the mill was made in the farm house of one of the last millers, John Waara. The house, a half mile east of the mill, was being cleaned out after the passing of John and Clara’s only son, Henry, in 2010. A hand-written ledger book was found that began at the start of Finnish Farmers Milling Company. The book contains a list of shareholders and stock registers beginning October 14, 1905. The book also contains a work log, written partly in Finnish, with lists of names and hours worked at the mill. Many of the last names in the book are still familiar in the area today.

The work log in the ledger book records: Total Time, Rate per Day, Amount, Balance, When Paid, and Remarks. Thus, it appears that farmers who had their flour or feed ground at the mill could work to pay for the cost of grinding. Under the “Remarks” column, some of the pay was also made in shares. The rate per day was anywhere from $1.70 to $4.50 for things like teaming, carpentry, labor, single horse, and horses.

There is much history of the earliest farmers in the Copper Country that were associated with the Finnish Farmers Milling Company to be gleaned from this original ledger. This book and an extended history of the Finnish Farmers Milling Company completed by the author, along with other documents relating to the mill have been deposited in the Archives of the Finlandia University Finnish American Heritage Center for future historians.

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