Day 136: A Strange Slice Of Saskatchewan

originally published May 15, 2012

It goes without saying that anyone whose Wikipedia article describes him as a “Finnish-born sailor, farmer and Canadian madman” deserves a kilograph here. I had bungled on to the story of Tom Sukanen while researching my original topic, the Great Wall of Saskatchewan.

This is a real thing. Over the course of nearly 30 years, a Saskatchewan farmer named Albert Johnson stacked a bunch of stones together to build a cementless, mortorless wall. The wall-shaped pile is more than 3/8 of a mile long, averaging between six and twelve feet along the way.

You probably can’t see it from space, nor will it repel any invading hordes, but passes for a tourist attraction in Saskatchewan. As it turns out, so does Tom Sukanen.

Tom was born in Finland. He learned to build ships and set off to the Promised Land of America when he was 20. For whatever reason – and I’m sure there is a reason – most of the Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish immigrants were shipped off to the northern states. Tom landed in Minnesota.

He met a young Finnish girl who was stranded alone on her farm after her father had died. It’s a sweet story of a young romance, but don’t let the swelling string section distract you – Tom was not altogether stable.

Tom and his wife became farmers together. They did about as well as farmers could do in that early chunk of the twentieth century, meaning they were able to squeeze a passable living off the land, while finding time to pop out three daughters and a son. Life was idyllic on the Sukanen farm.

Then Tom took off. In 1911 he left his family – no one is quite certain why. Perhaps he was trying to find a better life for his flock, or maybe he’d just had enough of Minnesota. Maybe he’d had enough of his wife – she wasn’t invited.

Tom tracked down his brother in Saskatchewan, around the Macrorie-Brisay region, which is in the southwestern part of the province. It would take a good day to drive the route that Tom took on foot, so we’re probably looking at weeks for him to make this journey. When he got there, Tom snagged some free homesteading land and settled in. He helped his neighbors build sodhouses, and built a sewing machine that he let the local women use for the low price of sitting on his lap and humming “Yankee Doodle” in his ear. Probably.

After seven years, Tom decided it was time to bring the family north. He’d stashed away close to nine thousand dollars (which is roughly 4.6 krejillian dollars in today’s money), and he was ready for them to see the place. Except that he hadn’t really kept in touch with them over the years. Therefore, it was a bit of a surprise when he returned home to fetch them in 1918 and found the farm deserted.

His wife had died of influenza, and his kids had been shipped off to foster homes. I know the postal system was nothing like the efficient, powerful, borderline-obsolete force it is today, but I’m thinking a few letters back and forth might have prevented this awkward moment.

Tom tracked down his son, whose name had been changed by his new foster parents to John Forsythe.

Responsible parent that he was, Tom tried twice to kidnap his son and bring him back over the border, but both times he was caught. His head hung in shame, Tom returned to Saskatchewan and took some work on the railroad. Then the Great Depression hit.

As the economy plummeted earthward, Tom straddled it like a hat-waving Ned Beatty, and opted to take a vacation. He still had a lot of money stashed away, so he packed up a rowboat and set off for Hudson Bay, where he caught a freighter home to Finland.

Tom was the life of the party in the land he had abandoned two decades earlier. He entertained people with Canadian folk songs on a violin, and regaled them with no doubt hilarious tales of prairie life. I don’t know what was so funny and entertaining about 1920s rural Saskatchewan, but Tom mined it and found gold. Or maybe life in Finland is just equally dull, I don’t know.

He came back to the homestead and decided it was time to move the hell off the prairie for good. Tom’s plan was to build a 43-foot steam-powered vessel that Tom could command all the way back to Europe.

Meanwhile, a terrible drought had gripped the province, so along with a tanked economy the locals had to deal with their crops failing. They were starving, while watching their neighbor spend heaps of money on sheet metal steel, copper and cabling for his ship. Tom fell out of favor in the community; they even tried unsuccessfully to get his ass booted off his own property. Luckily for Tom, the “he’s an asshole who doesn’t deserve to live” theory isn’t enough to legally have someone removed from one’s own home.

He named the ship Sontiainen, which means ‘a small dung bug’ (of course). He used galvanized iron for the keel and steel for the hull, bracing it for collisions with Atlantic ice. He built the cabins separate from the rest, and had them moved near the river. It took him six years of his life, forsaking his farm, his savings and his health, all to go to… Finland.

Is it just me, or does this guy’s life story boil down to him pissing people off and wanting to go somewhere else?

Tom needed help with the keel and hull sections, but his neighbors were all refusing. When times are tight, dickishness begets dickishness. In fact, while Tom was camping out with his cabin section by the river, someone stole the steel off his keel and hull back home. Tom had been thwarted.

Rather than scrape together the resources to try again, Tom became institutionalized. His money ran out and he died whilst locked up, in 1943. Yet somehow he has become a Saskatchewan icon.

In 1972, a guy named Moon Mullen renovated the remains of Tom’s ship, and moved it all to be enshrined at the Sukanen Ship Pioneer Village Museum. If you want to see how Saskatchewan people used to live, and once again listen to the story of Tom Sukanen, and I guess if you don’t have the cash for a real vacation, like Vegas or the Caribbean, this might be your ideal destination between mid-May and mid-September. Also, you can see the boat that Tom never got to sail. Or you could just look at the picture of it here, for free.

You can even stand on it. Or, if you want to save the cost of admission, head a few miles away and stand on the Great Wall. After that, get the hell out of Saskatchewan because this is what passes for tourist attractions there.

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