Heikki Lunta – A Modern Copper Country Folk Hero By Jim Kurtti
The unusually mild and snowless December the Copper Country of Michigan is experiencing this year, is reminiscent of a similar winter in 1970. That year it took the extraordinary efforts of the mythical character, Heikki Lunta to remedy the situation. In 1970 the Range Snowmobile Club of Atlantic Mine, Michigan had planned a snowmobile race for the fourth of December, a time of year when there is nearly always ample snow on the Keweenaw Peninsula.
The members of club had been working hard to make the event a success, but the most vital commodity was lacking – snow!
A Hancock radio station, WMPL, was sponsoring the event, and station staff was also very concerned. In an attempt to rally community support despite the conditions, a radio-time salesman, David Riutta, concocted the character “Heikki Lunta”, getting his inspiration from the well-known county/western singer Hank Snow. In twenty minutes Dave wrote the words to the now legendary “Heikki Lunta Snow Dance Song.” The tune, to which Dave applied the lyrics, had already been with him for awhile, so the entire composition took less than one hour.
Dave returned to the radio station and with the assistance of the station owner, Bob Olson, another well-known Copper Country persona, the legend of Heikki Lunta was born. The fictional Heikki Lunta was said to live in the back woods of the Finnish farming community of Tapiola, Michigan, twenty miles south of Houghton.
Furthermore, he was reported to have the ability to perform a dance, which would cause the snow to fall from the skies. The talented radio team took to the airwaves and caused a sensation throughout the Copper Country community. Heikki Lunta was an instant hit, and miraculously it began to snow-and snow and snow! Ironically, the snowmobile races had to be postponed because there was too much snow.
Heikki Lunta’s fame grew, and the snow dance song was sent via UPI to stations around the country. The exploits of Heikki Lunta were mentioned on “The Today Show ” and “The Tonight Show.” Riutta was invited to winter events as far away as California to sing his magical snow song. Family responsibilities and his employment, however, prevented him from making these trips.
A recording of “Heikki Lunta Snow Dance Song” was produced, and the first 3000 copies sold in a short time. As with any sudden success story, there was a downside. Perhaps Heikki Lunta danced too much, because the snow kept coming. Strained relations began to appear between the pro-snow and the anti-snow camps. Riutta recalls one incident where he was confronted by a large lumberjack, who was so irked by the amount of snow Heikki Lunta had brought, he expressed the desire to “clean Heikki’s [Riutta’s] clock”. It became apparent that there were others in the community who actually believed the playing of the snow dance song would produce snow.
When the winter seemed to be getting a bit too long, Riutta felt compelled to compose a sequel tune, “Heikki Lunta Go Away,” which became the flip side to the second pressing of the record. During the big snow years of the late ’70s Heikki Lunta was almost forgotten. Now the sunny days of the December 1998 call for the magic of Heikki Lunta. For the price of $10 (or $13.85 for priority mail) one can purchase the two Heikki Lunta songs — “Heikki Lunta” and “Heikki Lunta Go Away” on a CD from: WMPL, P.O. Box 547, Hancock, Michigan 49930.
Saint Henrik, Bishop and Martyr By Jim Kurtti
Saint Henrik (Henry, Heikki) of Uppsala is the patron saint of Finland, according to the Roman Calender of the Catholic Church. He was an Englishman, living in Rome in 1151 when he was asked to accompany the papal legate, Nicholas Cardinal Breakspear (later Pope Adrian IV) to Scandinavia.
The following year Henrik was consecrated bishop of Uppsala, Sweden by Cardinal Breakspear. Henrik accompanied King Erik of Sweden in the latter’s invasion of the Finnish territory in 1155 to punish the Finnish pirates, and he remained in Finland when King Erik returned to Sweden. Henrik set out to convert the Finns to the Christian faith. His missionary work concentrated around the Ahvenanmaa Islands and the area of present-day Turku.According to tradition, while on a missionary journey in 1156, Bishop Henrik stopped at the home of Lalli, an affluent farmer and convert. Lalli was not at home and Lalli’s wife, Kerttu, did not want to offer the bishop anything to eat. The bishop insisted that custom dictated that she supply him with his needs.
Upon leaving Bishop Henrik paid the mistress of house for the provisions he had received. When Lalli returned home Kerttu related the story of the bishop’s visit, but intentionally did not mention that he paid for his food. In anger Lalli started out after the bishop and caught up to him on the frozen surface of Köyliö Lake, where Lalli murdered the bishop.The grisly tale continues with Lalli removing the bishop’s miter and placing it upon his own head. When Lalli returned home and attempted to remove the miter his scalp came with it. An equally gruesome tale states that Lalli attempted to steal the bishop’s ring from Henrik’s thumb, but Lalli could not remove it.
Finally, in desperation, Lalli cut off the bishop’s thumb in order to secure the ring. The ring fell into the snow and could not be found. Traditions and folktales developed around Saint Henrik’s murder. It was believed that the missing bishop’s ring can be seen through the crystal clear waters of Köyliö Lake, and although it can be seen shimmering in the waters it can never be reached. Other folktales state that a blind fisherman caught the ring and placed it on his eyes, causing him to immediately regain his sight. Bishop Henrik’s body was buried at Nousiainen.
In the 1290’s his remains were removed to the site of the new diocesan center in Turku.It was during the end of the thirteenth century that Henrik was elevated to the position of national saint. His death date of January 19th was the highest feast-day in the calendar of saints of the Diocese of Turku, which covered the whole of Finland at that time. Great masses were said on Saint Henrik’s day and Henrik’s cult and legends highly influenced both ecclesiastical art and literature in Finland.
And what of Lalli? Tradition states that Lalli died within the year of killing Bishop Henrik. During this time he led a cursed life. Mice attacked Lalli as if they were going to eat him alive. Fleeing his home, Lalli took up residence in a root cellar, but the rodents were able to find him there as well. Finally Lalli escaped to a place called Kiukanen, in the village of Harola. He built a small cabin there on a place still called Lallinmaa (Lalli’s land). Even here the mice tormented hapless Lalli. In the end Lalli was driven up a large tree by the mice. The mice began to gnaw at the tree until it came crashing down, sending Lalli and the mice into the lake, where they all drown.
To this day this lake is called Hiirijärvi (Mouse Lake). In medieval times and long afterwards, Lalli represented paganism and St. Henrik, the victory of Christianity. In art, the figure of Lalli is most often shown lying under the foot of St. Henrik, subdued and scalpless. In the more recent past, some people have attempted to portray Lalli as a symbol of Finnish independence and unwillingness to submit to authority.
St. Henrik’s Day (Heikinpäivä) was the tradition halfway mark of winter among the rural Finns. Heikinpäivä has also been called Keskitalvi (mid-winter). As with many Finnish name days, there are folk sayings associated with Heikinpäivä. There are three that are still commonly recited in the Copper Country today: Karhu kääntää kylkeä. (The bear rolls over to the other side.), Talven selkä taittuu (Winter’s back breaks.) and Heikki heinää jakaa (Heikki divides the hay.) It was a time when the farmer took stock of his hay, grains and other commodities, making sure that there was at least half left.
The folklore traditions have diminished in Finland much more than among the Finnish-speaking people in the Copper Country. Because of the loss of the Finnish language amoung the following generations,Folklore traditions are dying out here also. In all our Finnish-American communities there exists a treasure trove of folklore, such as folksaying, stories, Finnish place names and traditions. It is vitally important that we all collect and preserve as much of this legacy as possible.