“Pelkie” documentary shares journey of Finnish immigrants in U.P.


Ashley Beronja

On Monday, March 15 at 8 p.m. the documentary “Pelkie: 100 Years of Finnishness in Michigan’s North Woods” aired on WNMUTV 13 PBS. The oral history documentary showcased the deep study of Pelkie, a small Finnish American farming and logging community. 

The documentary was produced by retired NMU sociology professor, Michael Loukinen, and former NMU student, Alex Maier. Together the two created a three-hour-long film project that includes interviews with second, third and fourth generation Finnish Americans along with shots of scenic Pelkie as well as historical photos. 

“It is a unique project,” Michael Loukinen said. “How many three-hour film series have been made about any small rural community in Michigan? You have one right here in the Copper Country. As you know, there are many small Finnish American communities throughout the western U.P. The Pelkie story is the same story of these communities.”

The film highlighted many important historical features of the Pelkie town. In episode one of the series, “From Copper Mines to Farmers”, second and third-generation members of Pelkie talked about the Pelkie Co-Op, the abundance of dairy farmers and some even reminisced on the cabbages and rutabagas that were grown in the town. 

As the film continued on, shifting especially from the first to the second episode, viewers are left with a personal connection to the town of Pelkie and the people who grew up there or had family from there. Filmmakers Loukinen and Maier not only told the history of Pelkie but surpassed that and told the peoples’ story.

“The way that we interview elderly people and record stories from their childhood is much more immersive than just reading a history textbook,” Maier said. “It humanizes the history and I enjoy living in the early 1900s vicariously through these people’s stories.”

Loukinen hopes that viewers can walk away from this film with an understanding and appreciation for the hard work of Finnish immigrant pioneering farmers in the upper Midwest as well as all of the family farm communities that have been decimated across the United States.

“I hope viewers grasp the importance of developing a supportive community where people actually know and care about each other. I hope that some viewers will awaken to the significance of communal memory that binds people together,” Loukinen said. “We were not always confined to our own nuclear families and immersed in the social media world. Friends and neighbors once sat down and visited regularly over coffee. The coffee pot was always on and people were not strangers.”

For both Loukinen and Maier, film projects are still in the works. Loukinen will be releasing three more documentary films covering the Pelkie area. Those films are looking to be released in 2021. Maier, on the other hand, is working on more outdoor and adventure films. His latest project will be based on the hike taking place on the Continental Divide Trail. 

As for Pelkie, Loukinen said the town is a community in transition. Those who have retired, casino employees, state prison employees, Mennonites, self-employed artisans, artists and a few back-to-the-landers. 

“Some Finnish Americans still live there but the community is no longer united by a common heritage. Most work outside the community, the central village area has almost disappeared and they don’t visit regularly like they used to because they watch TV and are tied to the internet,” Loukinen said.

To purchase “Pelkie: 100 Years of Finnishness in Michigan’s North Woods” or other films produced by Loukinen, you can find those films on the U.P. North Films website.