Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


In common with the architecture of other ethnic groups that settled in the Great Plains, Finnish architecture included a mixture of old and new: traditional Finnish uses and techniques were often combined with American building practices and needs. Distinctive Finnish log construction techniques were only manifested in areas with suitable timber resources, which were quite rare on the Plains.

The earliest Finnish settlers were no different from their fellow pioneer settlers who chose to settle in the Great Plains: many lived in "soddies" and dugouts until they could construct more substantial residences. The majority of structures were of frame construction that followed American building practices, and a few were of stone. In areas of abundant timber, Finns built in the traditional Nordic manner–with closely fitted, horizontally stacked logs held together by wooden pins and elegant corner-notching systems–as they did throughout Finland and the Great Lakes region of North America. Significantly, no farm or ranch site was a direct transplant of Finnish architecture to North American soil; instead, contemporary building methods and prefabricated materials and features were commonly combined with Nordic construction techniques. For a period of time, there appears to have been some attempt to lay out the buildings on farms and ranches in open courtyard arrangements, a feature common in some areas of Finnish migration.

One building traditional and unique to Finns was the sauna; it flourished in a variety of materials, including frame, earth, metal, concrete block, railroad tie, and traditional log. Early Finnish immigrants are known to have heated their saunas with buffalo and cow chips. In towns, the sauna was built as a communal commercial building and revealed the greatest variety in form and materials. Many surviving family saunas are frame and followed the traditional two-room layout for bathing and changing purposes. A few adaptations included attached chicken coops to keep valuable poultry warm in the harsh Plains winters. Evidence also survives of a few older smoke (savu) or chimneyless saunas.

Surveys conducted to date reveal that the most important concentrations of traditional log structures were built in the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Little Belt Creek valley of Montana, the latter area termed Korpivaara (wilderness hill) by local Finns. These regions provided pine, spruce, and cedar logs for building construction. Less information is available about Finnish architecture in the Prairie Provinces, but Saskatchewan's New Finland community is known for the number of poplar or aspen log buildings constructed by early immigrants.

The Buskala ranch, located in the Black Hills, is an excellent example of Finnish log architecture. Henry and Anna Buskala and their two sons moved to the site in 1901 after residing in several mining towns. The ranch structures, most built prior to 1910, were organized around two yards. The domestic yard included a two-story house, the original sauna, a privy, and a root cellar, while the larger animal yard consisted of a cow and hay barn, a calf barn/stable, and the corral. Hay bins and a field hay barn (lato) were situated half a mile from the house, whereas the other buildings show a mixture of American and Finnish features; the lato not only was a very rare architectural feature in the Great Plains, but it was a direct transplant from Finland. By 1918 the Buskalas had added a blacksmith shop, a granary, and a new sauna to the building ensemble. The rather large number of individual structures, most of relatively modest size, also reflected agricultural practices in Finland.

Finnish settlement in Montana's Korpivaara community followed a similar pattern: after working in mining towns, some Finns developed homesteads along the three-milelong valley. Korpivaara includes evidence of six ranches displaying sophisticated Nordic building methods; many structures reveal frequent use of the toothed-corner notch, a type seldom found elsewhere in America. During the early period of homesteading (1895–1915), Finns typically constructed three or four small log buildings and cleared six to thirty-five acres of land for cultivation. During the subsequent development phase (1915–30), the cultivated acreage increased, a large dwelling unit replaced the initial residence, and as many as ten log buildings were added.

Farther north, the buildings in New Finland, Saskatchewan, were constructed of poplar logs cut from the Qu'Appelle River valley. Because poplar proved difficult to shape and work, chinking made of clay and straw was used between the logs. The earliest buildings included sod roofs covering a layer of birch bark, while the houses often were distinguished by their whitewashed exteriors and interior walls. Locally available ocher was mixed with kerosene or turpentine to make red barn paint. Although many of New Finland's log buildings have disappeared, several farms and ranches–some of which now embrace three or more sections of land–still display at least one extant structure.

Churches and ethnic halls were common features of many ethnic settlements on the Plains. Finns constructed a variety of these buildings, many in frame. Temperance and workers halls and cooperative stores, mills, creameries, and grain elevators were common features in the Finnish settlement landscape. Finns, along with their Nordic neighbors on the Plains, were somewhat more prone than other groups to develop cooperative businesses, including threshing companies, which have left no material remains. In rural South Dakota Finnish Apostolic Lutheran churches developed a new religious architecture, most likely in response to the ecclesiastical independence afforded them in America. Simple and austere, the remaining early Apostolic church at Savo Township, South Dakota, reflects the simplicity and antiliturgical beliefs of its members.

Finnish settlement in the Great Plains is distinguished by its simultaneous maintenance of tradition and adaptation to American and Canadian architectural practices. In most areas Finns replicated the pattern of other immigrant groups: they put up buildings identified as American or Canadian, but beneath them lies an ethnic pattern of communal settlement, economic interdependence, religious and political affiliation, and family association. In rural areas with abundant timber, however, Finns constructed buildings that reflected their Nordic background, a practice that continued well into the 1920s. Today, the only Finnish architectural tradition to survive is the ever-adaptable sauna, which has moved from a singularly ethnic tradition to a common international fixture of wealthy homes, hotels, and spas.


Arnold R. Alanen Nebraska State Historical Society Carolyn Torma American Planning Association>

Sanford, Dena Lynn. "Finnish Homesteads in Montana's Little Belt Creek Valley: Korpivaara's Vernacular Building Tradition." Master's Thesis, University of Oregon, 1991.

Sutyla, Charles M. The Finnish Sauna in Manitoba. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Folk Culture Studies, National Museums of Canada, 1977.

Torma, Carolyn. "The Architecture of Finnish Settlement in South Dakota." In Finns in North America, edited by Michael G. Karni, Olavi Koivukangas, and Edward W. Laine. Turku, Finland: Institute for Migration, 1988: 99–119.

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