Katrina Bousquet, member of the Finnish American Heritage Society in Canterbury with a tabletop loom, which is used to make sashes, belts, scarves and small table runners.
Robert Harmon, left, and his brother, Richard Harmon, continue a tradition of “relief carving.” During Finland’s Winter War (1939-40), soldiers would carve scenes of their homes, farms and monuments on wooden boards to pass the time while in the trenches, said Katrina Bousquet, member of the Finnish American Heritage Society in Canterbury.Jan Tormay photo
A chance tasting of pulla (a Finnish cardamom sweet bread) brought to a high school faculty event 20 years ago led to questions and Patti Folsom joining the Finnish American Heritage Society (FAHS) at 76 North Canterbury Road (Route 169) in Canterbury. Soon afterwards, she signed up for FAHS’ annual trip to Finland.
“I think it’s important that people learn about different cultures. And in our culture and with our traditions, there are a lot of unique aspects,” said Folsom, a former librarian who is half-Finnish.
The FAHS, which purchased the building from the Sampo Club (owned by Finns) 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 linens, she said.
Now, a $6,000 Connecticut Cultural Fund Operating Support Grant through Connecticut Humanities, a statewide, nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has enabled FAHS to catalog and share items via the ctcollections.org online database 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 Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with no admission fee.
One aspect of Finnish culture can be described by the word, “sisu,” which can be defined as “bravery or perseverance in adverse circumstances or the worst of circumstances, such as the Winter War of World War II (1939-40) when the Finns fought Russians,” said Kristina Bousquet and Folsom, co-chairpersons of the collections management committee, as they finished each other’s thoughts on a June afternoon.
Folsom said she hopes to show the documentary, “Fire and Ice: The Winter War of Finland and Russia,” “to say the Finns know what the Ukrainians are going through, because the Finns had dealt with that whole problem too.”
During the Winter War, Finnish soldiers carved scenes of their homes, farms and monuments on wooden boards to pass the time while in the trenches, Bousquet said. To continue this “relief carving” tradition, a Woodcarving Group of members and nonmembers meets on FAHS’ lower level every Wednesday from 1 to 4 p.m. Just bring tools and wood. There is no fee.
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. About 1,000 square feet of the structure contains the museum, lending library and climate-controlled archival room.
“Everything in the museum has been donated,” said Bousquet of Norwich, who is half-Finnish. Their challenge is they cannot keep everything they are given. “So we’ve been slowly cleaning out our archives.”
“Our mission (created 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’s really helped us decide what to keep and what not to keep.”
Another goal is to once again use their 6 large looms, which Finnish people use to make hand-woven towels, scarves, rugs and tapestries, Bousquet said.
FAHS, a nonprofit organization, has also received a Conservation ConneCTion’s Museum Makeover grant, “which is supported through a partnership with the Connecticut League of History Organizations and funded by a grant from the CT Cultural Fund,” Folsom stated 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 from the Connecticut State Legislature.
“FAHS has been assigned two visiting museum curators, Elysa Engelman, Director of Exhibits, Mystic Seaport and Nicole Carpenter, Programs & Collections Director, Westport Museum for History & Culture.”
Folsom said Engelman and Carpenter, who toured the museum in May, will work with members to create a new dynamic display. “They have tasked the committee with polling 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 rooms.”
The committee will meet again with the 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 are trying to make it a newly reworked, reshaped, dynamic display that’s going to tell a story to people who are coming off the street (with) no Finnish connections.”
“I was so amazed how beautiful their (FAHS’) collection is and how wonderful” the organization is in general, said Lisa Joseph of Canterbury, who has an art history and museum-studies background. She joined several months ago and was also hired as a cataloger with grant money. “So the more I’ve been working with them, the more interested I am in Finnish culture.”
Reading a book with traditional Finnish stories based on ballads and folktales called “Kalevala,” coming to different events and eating the food, she said, “You become ‘Finn-struck.’”
Even though Joseph has lived down the road from FAHS for 11 years and saw the building and its sign out front, she said she didn’t know anyone could join – that one does not have to be Finnish.
“Sometimes all it takes is them attending one fun event, and then they’re hooked and then they want to join,” Bousquet said.
Even though her parents were FAHS members, she said the organization never appealed to her until 20 years ago when she attended a breakfast that coincided with the opening day of fishing. “So I brought my kids when they were little and they loved it, so we kept coming.”
Her non-Finn husband, Steve Bousquet, is now president of FAHS.
Kazimiera Kazlowski of Lebanon became an FAHS volunteer 5 years ago when she retired. She now helps “any way she can,” including utilizing her museum knowledge. “It’s an organization that is welcoming and supportive and just everything you’d want in a volunteer position.”
She added, “I’m enjoying learning about a different culture. It’s fun, but yet we’re learning.”
Of their 300 FAHS members, about 40 are active and local, Bousquet said. They hope to bring in new members, including younger people to continue the society and museum for future generations. Annual presentations of “Finnish Culinary Delights” with children and “Pikku Joulu,” which means, “Little Christmas,” are ways they engage youngsters.
Besides taking annual trips to Finland, FAHS is celebrating its 30th “FinnFun Weekend” this year at The Inn at East Hill Farm in Troy, New Hampshire. “It’s a weekend of Finnish fun (and) culture. We offer seminars and classes on different things. One year, it might be genealogy or music or cooking classes on Saturday and Sunday that you could participate in,” which could include a craft or writing “to promote Finnish culture,” Bousquet said.
Folsom emphasized, “You don’t have to be Finnish to have fun,” or join the organization. “Just an interest in the Finnish culture is enough to get you involved in our organization.”
The fee to join FAHS is $20 for individuals and $35 per household. For more information about this nonprofit organization, its upcoming Woodcarving Fest, yard sale and other events, go to fahs-ct.org, or Facebook: Finnish American Heritage Society of Canterbury, CT. To inquire about renting Heritage Hall and the kitchen, message them on Facebook, email [email protected], or call (860) 546-6671.
Jan Tormay, a longtime Norwich resident, now lives in Westerly.