A Moment in Time: A Legend is Born

By Jeffrey S. Williams

Mankato Times

“While the sons and daughters of Erin were paying their respects to St. Patrick, Mattson was loudly praising the feats of ‘Saint Urho,’” wrote Clarence Ivonen in the Mesabi Daily News in 1956.

So who was St. Urho?

The legend has it that St. Urho, Finland’s “patron saint of vineyard workers,” called out a warning. “Heinasirkka. Heinasirkka. Mene täältä hiiteen! (Translated as “Grasshopper. Grasshopper. Go from hence to hell!”) The purple-clad priest raised his pitchfork and the grasshoppers scattered from the country.

According to the legend, wild grapes were plentiful in Finland around the time of the Little Ice Age. An infestation of grasshoppers threatened the vineyards and the livelihoods of Finnish wineries, causing the vineyard workers to appeal to the gods written in the Kalevala (Finnish folklore). When this didn’t work, they appealed to the Christian god, who did not answer.

They appealed to St. Urho, a Finnish Catholic priest who had returned from studies in Stockholm, Sweden, and Paris, France, for assistance in ridding the fields of the threat. 

Of course it never happened. That’s why it is legend, not fact.

The legend allegedly was created by Richard L. Mattson of Virginia, Minnesota.

According to Mattson, “Gene McCavic, a co-worker at Ketola’s Department Store, chided me in 1953 that the Finns did not have saints like St. Patrick. I told her the Irish aren’t the only ones with great saints. She asked me to name one for the Finns. So I fabricated a story and thought of St. Eero (Eric), St. Jussi (John), and St. Urho. Urho, a common Finnish name, had a more commanding sound.”

Mattson’s tale originally took place in May and dealt with frogs instead of grasshoppers. It was later changed to March 16 because, “everyone wanted to have a party in March as the Finnish answer to St. Patrick.”

When Mattson passed away in 2001 at age 88, Ivonen said, “I was actually there at the start of his legend. That’s why he was special to me.”

However, Mattson may not have been the creator or the legend after all.

Dr. Sulo Havumaki, a psychology professor at Bemidji State University, may have concocted the legend instead.

“My father was in an office listening to a conversation about some Irish fellow, St. Patrick, who was supposed to have driven little snakes from Ireland. So he came up with this event,” said Luke Havumaki.

The legend was allegedly “discovered” etched on the bones of a prehistoric bear found by archaeologists in Finland with Dr. Havumaki supposedly the only person who could translate the narrative. 
Deciphering who originated the tale is like asking whether the chicken or the egg came first, so the Library of Congress credits them both.

“Minnesotans Richard L. Mattson and Sulo Havumaki are credited for initiating this celebration in 1956. The colors worn on St. Urho’s Day, royal purple and nile green, are in memory of the fictitious occasion on which St. Urho (“St. Brave”) supposedly chased away the grasshoppers threatening Finland’s grape harvest,” reads the Library of Congress entry on its website.

Havumaki gets credit for changing the myth from frogs to grasshoppers, for the prehistoric bear, and for changing the date from May 24 to March 16. Mattson gets recognition for writing the original “Ode to St. Urho” with Gene McCavic.

Over time the Finnish-American holiday, “St. Urho’s Day,” has spread even though the legend itself has changed.

Havumaki planned a St. Urho’s Day parade for the city of Bemidji every year until his 1970 death but, according to his son, “they just never were allowed to happen. One year he invited [Vice President] Spiro Agnew to be marshal, but at the last minute he couldn’t attend. Another year the marching band’s instruments all got lost.”

In Finland, Minnesota, a small town with a population less than two hundred located eighty miles east from where Mattson penned the original “Ode,” State Highway 1 is shut down for a parade that begins at the top of a hill and makes its way through the town. That tradition began in 1976.

Menahga, Minnesota, a town sixty miles south of Bemidji, where Havumaki spun his original yarn, erected a wooden chainsaw carving of St. Urho in 1982, which was later replaced with a fiberglass version.

In 1999, Kaleva, a town settled in 1900 by Finnish immigrants in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, dedicated a large metal sculpture of a grasshopper in honor of St. Urho’s Day. Kaleva is named after the Kalevala, the epic Finnish story about the creation of the Earth.

Though Minnesotans can be given credit for creating the fictitious saint, Finnish-American communities in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula should be given their due for spreading the legend.

Though Kenneth Brist, a high school teacher in Ontonagon, Michigan during the 1950s, claims credit for having invented the legend as an excuse to partake in adult beverages for an extra day and then popularized the holiday when he moved to Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. However, little evidence exists to point to Brist as a creator of the patron saint as his promotions borrowed heavily from both Havumaki’s and Mattson’s works.

According to a 1987 New York Times article regarding Upper Michigan’s celebrations, “On Saturday in Houghton, cross-country skiers participated in the St. Urho relays while in Republic, members of a softball league and their friends gathered at the Pine Grove Tavern for a dance. Next Saturday, St. Urho celebrators will get together at the Lions Club in the little town of Rock for dinner.”

The observance of St. Urho’s Day means that assimilation into American life is complete for Finnish-Americans now that they can bring attention to their origins and cultural celebrations like other ethnic groups.

St. Urho’s Day is now celebrated in towns with Finnish heritage across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; Thunder Bay, Ontario; Butte, Montana and throughout Finnish-American communities throughout America. Celebrated the day before the Irish “St. Patrick’s Day” festivals, for these communities St. Urho is the main event with the Irish day being merely an afterthought.

The Irish day was also an American invention, first celebrated in Boston in 1737, and not acknowledged in Ireland until 1903. Similarly, St. Urho’s Day is not recognized in Finland, though the University of Turku has acknowledged (and sometimes celebrates) it in their folklore program.

Professor Auvo Kostiainen, a historian at the University of Turku who has studied Finnish migration patterns, examined the cultural significance of St. Urho’s Day.

“It would seem that the legend started as an anti-Irish-American joke and as an institutionalized way of having fun among people of Finnish descent. This humorous aspect of the legend has always been very obvious. But the legend has also some wider meanings and connections. It shows the influence of the Irish-American heritage and their famous legend of St. Patrick. In some places the celebration has drawn even non-Finns together with the descendants of Finns,” he wrote.

“St. Urho’s day is apparently needed in one sense. It provides a possibility for the descendants of Finnish immigrants to meet other Finnish-related people and therefore, in spite of a resistance from certain more conservative-minded people, St. Urho is gaining more and more fame every year. The joke has developed into a pseudolegend, which is written about in the newspapers, and recounted on the radio and TV, and in respect of which official statements have been presented in state legislatures and in the speeches of state governors,” he added while noting that there were other instances of Finnish history that could have been chosen instead of making a fictional legend.

But in a sense, even the American-created holiday has some truth to it, even if the originators did not know it at the time. It has to do with the grapes and the wine. There really was a St. Urho who hailed from Finland and saved vineyards. His name was Gustaf Nybom.

Born in Helsinki, Finland, on August 30, 1842, Nybom was sixteen-years old when he arrived in Alaska on a ship owned by the Russian American Company. At the time, both Alaska and Finland were held by Russia.

After Alaska was purchased by the United States in 1867, Nybom received a loan from Lauri Kovalainen, purchased one of the Russian American Company’s vessels for $4,000 and formed Hansen, Nybom & Co., which hunted seals off of Alaskan waters and sold their skins in San Francisco. The company name was changed to Alaska Commercial Company a short time later.

He changed his name to Gustave Niebaum since most of business partners were German Jews, and married a German-American, Susan Shingleberger, in 1873.

She did not take kindly to his plans to build a ship to travel around the world and he abandoned his seafaring ways. While searching for a mutual interest, they were introduced to the vineyards of Napa Valley, which was still in its infancy as John Patchett had established the area’s first commercial vineyard only fifteen years before.

In 1879, Niebaum, with a personal fortune exceeding $10 million, purchased the seventy-eight acre winery, “Inglenook,” from Judge S. Clinton Hastings, founder of the University of California Hastings Law School. Hastings purchased it from William C. Watson earlier in the year. Watson, a manager for the Bank of Napa, bought the G. Koni farm in 1871 and named it “Inglenook,” a Scottish term for “Cozy Corner,” and grew the first grapes on the property.

Niebaum paid $48,000 for Inglenook and an adjoining four-hundred-forty-acre farm owned by the Rohlwing family, hired Hamden W. McIntyre from his Alaska Commercial Company to serve as general manager, and then commissioned San Francisco architect William Mooser to design the chateau.

Niebaum worked hard to create quality wines, despite the poor reputation that California wines had to the more sophisticated east coast tastes at that time. He took frequent trips to Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy to observe the craft, import a wider variety of European vines and increase the production standards.

During the first four years of owning Inglenook, he replaced the low-quality Black Malvoisie grapes that came with the property, with Burger, Gutdel, Riesling, Burger, Traminer and Sauvignon Blanc. Eventually he added Pinot Noir, Grenache, Carignan, Tannat, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec, plus a variety of white wine grapes.

The first Inglenook harvest took place in 1882 and produced eighty thousand gallons of wine, which enabled Niebaum to expand the estate by 712 acres by purchasing five neighboring farms. Two years later, capacity on the vineyard had grown to 125,000 gallons.

While Niebaum continued to work on improving quality on his own estate, he also influenced his California colleagues not to send out inferior wines onto the market but to use these for the production of brandy instead in order to improve the reputation of California wines in the east coast market.

At the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889, Inglenook wines won gold medals, which enabled them to be sold in the first class dining cars of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Inglenook’s reputation continued to grow when its wine was served at a special banquet for President Benjamin Harrison in San Francisco two years later.

When Niebaum passed away in 1908 production ceased for three years before Susan, his widow reopened the winery. Inglenook stopped making wine during Prohibition, but continued growing grapes for home markets until the law was repealed.

John Daniel Niebaum Jr., operated the winery from 1939 to 1964 and sold it to Allied Grape Growers in 1964 but held on to 1,500 acres including the Inglenook Estate. Film director Francis Ford Coppola, using the profits from the Godfather films, purchased Inglenook vineyards, but didn’t acquire the chateau property until 1995.  Coppola still owns the estate today.

In the words of Professor Kostiainen “Again through the festivities we can see some of the important issues involving the immigrants and their relationship with the wider society. They tell us about the assimilation process. When the generations of the immigrants proper are gone, it is obvious that their traditions will to some extent have disappeared. Depending on the size, concentration of the ethnic group and the general strength of the traditions, parts of their traditions are nevertheless preserved, perhaps in a changing form. In this process even new traditions are created such as the Legend of St. Urho.”

It is time to change the legend again by raising a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot in memory of the real St. Urho – Gustaf Nybom, a Finnish merchant/trader who kicked inferior quality wine out of California and transformed the Napa Valley into something that rivals the best that Europe has to offer.   

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