Uncovering the origins of St. Urho's Day and the role a Bemidji State professor played in bringing it to life
Even those who embrace St. Urho's Day might not be aware of the significant part that a Bemidji State psychology professor played in its origin. The man was Sulo Havumaki.
Editor’s Note: The Beltrami County Historical Society is partnering with the Pioneer on a series of monthly articles highlighting the history of the area. For more information about the Historical Society, visit www.beltramihistory.org.
While green beer is being stocked and participants prepare for the shortest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the world — from one Bemidji pub to another on Beltrami Avenue — some are wearing purple with their green and getting a jump on the festival by celebrating St. Urho’s Day on March 16.
If you’ve never heard of St. Urho, you might be lacking in friends of Finnish descent who embrace this fictitious patron saint of their ancestry — the man who, as legend has it, drove the pernicious grapevine-eating grasshoppers of Finland out of the country and saved the grapes (and eventual wine) by chanting a Finnish command: “Heinasirkka, Heinasirkka, mene taalta hiiteen!” which translates to “Grasshopper, grasshopper, go away!” or “Go to hell,” depending on whose translation one uses.
Even those who embrace the day might not be aware of the significant part that a Bemidji State psychology professor played in its origin. The man was Sulo Havumaki. He came to Bemidji State in 1956 and brought with him an idea to preempt the huge celebrations of everyone who claims to be Irish (if only for a day) — the parades, the wearing of green, and, of course, the beer.
In the archives of the Beltrami County Historical Society, an office memo dated Sept. 28, 1981, from R. Treuer to Dr. Stafford, Dr. Duly, Cabinet members, Nohner, Russell, and McKee addressed “background information on St. Urho, his exclusive connection with BSU and his origins.”
The memo included a document titled “How St. Urho’s Day Came to America” and stressed that “All this is good fun and supportive of ethnic identity. It is the more remarkable since there are no grapes in Finland, no grasshoppers and 25 years ago, only one man in America was aware of Finland’s savior.”
Who was Sulo Havumaki?
Havumaki was born on the Iron Range, a place described in the document as a “hotbed of American Finns.” After teaching in Floodwood and serving as a psychologist for St. Paul schools, he came to Bemidji.
The popularity and pervasiveness of St. Patrick’s Day in St. Paul, evidenced by posters plastered outside his office, had inspired Havumaki to add memos and posters of his own, advertising various St. Urho’s Day events — all to take place the day before St. Patrick’s Day.
When questioned, Havumaki insisted he was not making this up; rather, he was “reminding people of an ancient tradition.”
When Havumaki came to Bemidji, St. Urho came with him. Each March a press release announced an upcoming Grand Parade to be led by a celebrity Grand Marshal. One year John Wayne was invited; another year, Spiro Agnew. Each year the celebrity had to decline due to previous commitments and the parade was canceled.
The legend spread across the ocean and was adopted in the mother country by Finlanders who were pleased to learn about a patron saint they had not known existed.
There were celebrations in towns like Sonkajarvi featuring a Wife-Carrying Contest; first prize — the wife's weight in beer. Seriously, it should’ve been wine, right? Urho saved the grapes, not hops or barley!
The legend became eerily real when Havumaki received a letter from Finland signed by a Finnish scientist along with some “relics” of St. Urho. Instead of asking around to find out which of his friends or colleagues had coordinated such a stunt and give his own part in the legend’s creation away, he simply put the items on display in a glass case on campus.
Spreading the word
The BSU document said that Havumaki’s colleagues and students “gleefully embraced the tradition of St. Urho.” Among those students were Paulette Grand and Darrell Lillquist, both of whom were inspired by Havumaki and became teachers in the Bemidji district.
Lillquist said he tried to emulate Havumaki in his own classroom, including his observance of St. Urho’s Day.
“He was my kind of teacher. He knew what he was doing, but he was always entertaining,” he said.
When Darrell was teaching science in Bemidji, he sported purple socks, a shirt and “something green” each March 16. One year, two students presented him with a hideous green and purple tie they’d found at a rummage sale. “It became part of my St. Urho’s wardrobe,” he said.
Sulo Havumaki died in 1970, but St. Urho’s legend lives on.
Sulo’s son Luke said that he and all his siblings have taken the tradition to wherever they’ve gone — Luke, to the various places he taught, including his 30 years in Faribault, where he brought carrot cake with raisins to school and displayed a wall hanging with a large grasshopper on it made by his wife, Ruth, who also made him vests adorned with grapes and grasshoppers.
He encouraged his students to stomp grapes and brought in Kiebler grasshopper cookies.
“Finding a feeler or a leg is good luck!” he told them. Kiebler grasshopper cookies combine mint and fudge. To this writer’s knowledge, no grasshoppers are killed in the making of these cookies.
Luke is now retired, but his son Bryson teaches in Medford and continues to promote the legend of St. Urho — the third generation of Havumakis to do so.
St. Urho in Bemidji and elsewhere
John Arenz of Bemidji was a member of a local St. Urho’s “club” in the 1980s and ‘90s. Since the day fell toward the end of the cross-country ski season, Arenz, Ira Batchelder, Lisa Boulay and several other ski enthusiasts dressed up in purple and green, skied around Movil Maze, and usually enjoyed a few beers at Keg N' Cork afterward. Arenz still has the club T-shirt and purple and green ski suit he wore.
Followers of the legend often add to the celebrations and stories and provide evidence to support new details. One visitor to the Finn Creek Open Air Museum in New York Mills took a photo of an open pit well there in 1981.
When the film was developed, the face of St. Urho was clearly visible in the sky above the well, a miracle attesting to the saint’s favoring of this Finnish community! A second photo, allegedly taken by two Finn Creek residents who visited Mount Rushmore, showed St. Urho’s face in the monument, like a fifth president.
Some Finnish communities host major celebrations annually. The city of Menahga hosts a weekend festival in mid-March, kicked off with the mayor’s St. Urho Proclamation, an announcement of the winner of the medallion design and the crowning of St. Urho Days’ King and Queen.
The event also includes a variety of food and drink specials (including mojakka and $1 Grasshoppers), snowshoeing, sledding, bingo, a bean bag tournament and the changing of the guard at the St. Urho statue.
Yes, there is a statue devoted to the saint, right on U.S. Highway 71, depicting him with a huge impaled grasshopper. It was dedicated in 1981 with the breaking of a bottle of Wild Irish Rose wine on the toe of the statue by Sulo’s widow Doris.
Finland, Minnesota, also hosts a weekend celebration, although they credit another individual for the origin of the legend — a man named Richard Mattson.
This year’s celebration, March 17-19, includes a pancake breakfast, a tug of war across the Baptism River, a craft fair and plenty of live music — including outdoor music at the Finland Fire Hall by Steven Solkela and the Berserk Blondes.
The publicity for this year’s event in Finland includes the hint of a disclaimer: “Some people say that Finnish resident Sulo Havumaki of Bemidji, Minnesota, is the creator of the holiday.”
But seriously, for the origin of a Finnish legend, would you place your bets on a man named Richard Mattson or a man named Sulo Havumaki?