John Kustaa Biberg 1855-1933
by Mark J Biberg, Nikolai, Alaska
John Kustaa Biberg was born September 2, 1855 in Kortesjarvi, Finland. He was the son of Juha Kustaa Biberg who was born in 1824 and Lisa Greta who was born in 1821. John had six siblings; he was the forth child and first son. Lisa is from the region just to the south of Kortrsjarvi, called Alaharma. Both were not far from the western coast of Finland where the Baltic Sea water flow in the Gulf of Bothnia.
That part of south central Finland is known for its beauty. The rolling hills are covered with flowing greens of grass, trees, and moss. The tree are a combination if pine and hardwood. There were some large farms and some small. The homes were quaint and buildings were quaint, simple, and well-built. The land was beautiful and the Finns who called it home had a special places in their heart for this land. It was geography of the heart that inspired the connection that John and his family had with the land. It was not for lack of intimacy and love of homeland that caused many to decide to leave; nature pushed many out.
John grew up in a Finland that was controlled politically by outside forces. For a long time it was part of the Kingdom of Sweden (up to about 1809) and after that the Czar of Russia. (1809-1917). While under the control of Sweden, if Finns wanted to work, they often had to change their names: Biberg is a Swedish name. It did not make John any less of a Finn when his family changed the name, it just meant they made an economic decision that was best for their family.
The years from 1850-1890 brought severe drought to the entire region and the situation was mad worse by the inept economic policies of the Czar of Russia. John Biberg, as a young man in the 1850’s and 60’s, like many Finns young and old at the time, experienced hunger and poor social conditions. It was hard to make a living and it was hard to raise a family. Infant mortality was endemic, infant mortality was rampant, and malnutrition was common. The hunger, famine, destitution drove some crazy and others to think about a better life somewhere else. John Biberg dreamed of something better than the depressed conditions in his beloved Finland.
John Biberg married Lisa Kivihuhta on December 8th, 1883 in a beautiful local church with a cemetery surrounding it. The Lutheran church in provided a wonder wedding site for John and Lisa, but it was bittersweet as both knew their destinies were to be found far away from the beauty of their homeland.
John traveled to the United States in 1883; he went first to Canada as that was the cheaper route. On my way to America I took a variety of boats, Ferries, and ocean steamers. I traveled by foot to the south of Finland, the crossed over to Sweden taking the train south, and the again on the boat across the Baltic Sea to The Netherlands. The Final leg was on an larger ocean steamer that crossed the English Channel to the open waters of the north Atlantic. It was a grueling 2 month crossing in the second class compartment; fresh air was at a premium and John tried to get to the upper deck every chance he got. The trip from south central Finland to northern Minnesota is about 4000 miles, give or take.
John Biberg arrived in Canada in 1883 and milled around there for a while investigating opportunities. There were none and he soon crossed over into Michigan in 1884 for a brief stay. He kept moving and soon found himself in Chicago in 1885. He knew he would have to find a place to settle down soon. Lisa would be coming soon and he needed to find a place for them to make a stand. He talked to other immigrants, mostly other Finns, and heard stories about how the land in Wisconsin and Minnesota was much like Finland. He went to Rhinelander, Wisconsin in 1887 to meet his beloved Lisa. They had been apart since they were married in 1883. There love was still strong and the rugged land of northern Minnesota called to them.
John Biberg had heard stories of along the way of the first Finnish Pioneers that settled in an area of northern Minnesota they called Kalavela. John was familiar with the story of the Kalavela and often thought his life was like the story in some ways. The more he thought about those early Finnish pioneers the more he wanted to go to that country. They traveled to the Kalavela region in 1890 and got settled in. There first daughter Sanna had been born along the way in Ironwood, Michigan in July of 1889. (much like the story of Sacajawea with Lewis and Clark a few years earlier).
When John Biberg arrived in the Kalavela area (near present day Kettle River, MN) he met a man by the name of John Haikola. Mr. Akola helped John pick out a homestead site. The first one they found was all swamp, but on the second try, they found a nice piece of land near what would later become the Four Corners of Kalavela School.
From John’s diary:
“It was very dark when we finishing surveying the land. Neither Mr. Haikola nor myself was sure about getting back to the main road (some 8 miles away) and so we thought about camping there for the night. First, I climbed a tree to look around; I was amazed: as far as the eye could see it was forest, wilderness, tress, big trees and small, pine trees and hardwood. This was beautiful country and I had a vision that this was where I wanted to raise a family; I saw the Kettle River off in the distance and heard a bear growling, a wolf howling, and saw many deer. This was a frontier wilderness, but I had found a land with a beauty that would match my memories of home in Finland.”
John and Lisa were among the first settlers in the area and their home near four corners became a rendezvous point for future settlers. They were always glad to help as they had received help and hospitality in their travels as well. These early Finnish pioneers took helped each other out (they had to as nobody else was there.)
John and Lisa would have seven children: Sanna Biberg 1889-1966, Frank Oscar Biberg 1892-1963, Ester Biberg 1896-1918, Edward Biberg 1898-1960, Hilda Biberg 1901-1925, and Charles Gust Biberg born 1904-1962. Their son Frank was the first white born child in Kalavela township.
John and Lisa worked hard to build a farm out of the rugged woods. The trees needed to be cut, stumps removed, and the soil prepared for planting. At first the farm was small and was surrounded by huge trees with their imposing presence. Little by little, year after year all through the 1890’s John and Lisa hacked and hewed a living from the land. By the turn of the century, in 1900, their little homestead started to resemble a farm, and their young continued to grow along the way.
Sanna completed her schooling in 1907 and Frank in 1910. John remember how hard life was in Finland when he was a boy and he encouraged his children to work hard and get an education. Ester attended and Edward attended the local school as well; both being enthusiastic students with open minds. Hilda and Charles started school about he same time in 1906-07 and completed their schooling as WW1 was ending. In those days most students went to school through the 8th grade with some going on to high school. John and Lisa wanted all of their children to attend school and do their best.
John and Lisa had an old crank phonograph and had radios as well. Every Saturday night the family would get together and listen to the music. It was fun to see such modern technology. John always told the kids not to crank it too much as the battery would go dead.
John used to tell the kids that they were lucky the school was close by as they could walk across the field to play on the swings and slides. In the winters, John would make a skating rink over by the school and the area kids would skate. There was a little warming house there to keep warm.
In those days there was no electricity. The REA brought electricity to the Kalavela area in the 1930s. John and Lisa had a small generator and were able to create electricity many years before there was power.
In 1904, after his youngest son Charles was born, John Biberg had every reason to be hopeful and optimistic. He 48 years old and the father of six beautiful children. He had left his native Finland, but not before marrying his sweat-heart Lisa in his hometown church in the land he loved. He had traveled, worked hard, and he and Lisa had found this place they liked. Now, a mere 20 years after arriving in this country with next to nothing; he had plot of land, a family, and reason to be hopeful for the future.
Education was very important to these early Finnish settlers, mainly to allow children to learn better English, but it was also known that this was a way the children would progress and have better opportunities. John and Lisa Biberg, later in their lives, donated 4.5 acres to the township in order that they could build a two story brick school. The school was built in 1929 and all of John’s grandchildren would attend.
To John Biberg, and the pioneers who blazed the trail, a tribute was written some years later; it read: “In memory of the Finnish Pioneers who arrived here in the western part of Carlton County. In 1872 and thereafter and made their homes with courage and perseverance” That quote was published by the Finnish American society in 1852.
John Biberg became a naturalized citizen of the United States on October, 19, 1897. President Mckinley was in office, people still remembered first hand the US Civil War and the frontier in American history was still a reality. John Biberg, said good-bye to his homeland by renouncing any political ties and swearing allegiance to the US Constitution; but he knew in his heart that Finland was his home. However, he loved this new land and he especially appreciated that their was opportunity for a man to work hard and make something of himself.
John and Lisa built a large yet modest home. It had a front porch with many windows. The house was lined with brick foundations and had a large brick chimney. The house, which was painted white, was surrounded by a fence, that was not white picket, but gave the home a feel of security. John and Lisa in their later years would walk outside their home; both in their Sunday best, and marvel at the modern home surrounded by the impressive homestead. It was a testament to the human spirit and the inner passion that many had at that time.
John would live to a ripe old age of 77 in 1933. He was born a subject of the Czar of Russia in 1856 when James Buchanan was President and he died a US citizen after a long life, in 1933, a few months after FDR was inaugurated president. Lisa also lived a long life dying in March of 1936. Both died in Kettle River and are buried at West Branch cemetery.
John Biberg loved to tell stories to his grandchildren about life back in Finland in the 1860’s and 70’s. Some he told the heroic tales of Kalavela and other times he told wonderful stories of growing up in Kortjarvi with wonderful green forest to play in. John Biberg usually spoke Finn and his English was sometimes broken and provincial. But that is OK as all his children and grandchildren understood and spoke Finn.
John Biberg was a true adventurer; leaving his homeland to see a new life. Along the way he lived life to its fullest. In his 77 years he did much of what any man could expect to do in that time.
Mark Biberg lives in Nikolai, Alaska in a little log cabin just off the Kuskokwim River. Nikolai is about 100 air miles from Anchorage and is the 10th checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail. He has 2 sons, Rafael and Sean. he wants to teach his sons about the lessons of the past and about the meaning of the phrase: "We can see farther when we stand on the shoulders of giants"