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Happy St. Urho’s Day! Bemidji has ties to Finnish legend

A plaque adorning the St. Urho statue in Menahga displays the St. Urho legend as told by, and credited to, the late Sulo Havumaki, a former Bemidji State University professor. Photo courtesy

Bethany Wesley

BEMIDJI — The proof is on the statue. Maybe.

Today, as Finns and non-Finns alike come together to celebrate St. Urho’s Day in honor of a probably fictitious man credited with saving Finnish vineyards from grasshoppers, a controversy of sorts exists as to who should actually be credited with creating the legend.

For one family with Bemidji ties, the proof is on the statue.

“At the Menahga statue, my dad’s name is on the bottom,” said Luke Havumaki, a teacher in Faribault, Minn.

A statue in Menahga, Minn., depicts the saint with a giant grasshopper speared on his pitchfork. When the statue was dedicated in 1982, Doris Havumaki, the wife of the late Sulo Havumaki of Bemidji, was on hand to break a bottle of Wild Irish Rose wine over a toe of the statue.

“I christened it,” Doris told the Pioneer in 2008. She died in 2009.

Sulo, a former psychology professor at Bemidji State University, is one of two Minnesotans credited with “rediscovering” the legend of St. Urho.

In defense of Sulo

Sulo was in St. Paul when he is reported to have developed a day in March to honor a Finish saint who saved the country’s vineyards from grasshoppers.

According to past accounts, Sulo was disheartened by the vast celebrations for St. Patrick’s Day there and decided to campaign in defense of St. Urho.

“He was overwhelmed with St. Patrick’s so he thought he’d help out St. Urho a little bit,” Doris said in 2008.

Sulo then left St. Paul and came to Bemidji in 1956, bringing with him his campaigns for St. Urho’s Day, which was marked by celebrants wearing purple for the vineyards and green for the grasshoppers.

He always planned a parade, on the most awful routes, such as traveling in front of the wastewater treatment plant or a junkyard. Then, each was always canceled for wild reasons. One year, Luke recalled, then-Vice President Spiro Agnew was set to attend, but canceled at the last minute because, due to state matters, he was suddenly unavailable.

“My dad was the smartest man I ever met,” Luke said, noting that Sulo was clever and witty.

He also spoke multiple languages and enjoyed fishing and gardening.

“St. Urho’s Day was a highlight for us,” Luke said.

One year, his colleagues went to Finland and soon thereafter Sulo received a package with a letter — written in Finnish of course with a Finnish postmark — thanking him for his efforts in promoting the saint.

One account said the package contained a petrified grape seed; Luke recalls it as a thigh bone.

“My father could not deny it (as a hoax) because then he’d have to say he’d made up the whole thing (the legend),” said Luke, the youngest of four children who was born the same year his father “rediscovered” the legend.

Instead, the “relics” were put on display at BSU in the center of Sattgast Hall.

Who is Richard Mattson?

But Sulo is not the only man credited with the origins of St. Urho’s Day.

Richard Mattson lived in Virginia, Minn., where while working at a department store he is said to have developed the St. Urho legend in 1956, the year Sulo came to Bemidji.

“St. Urho was born nearly 50 years ago at Ketola’s Department Store in Virginia, thanks to a fun-loving Finnish-American named Richard L. Mattson, who figured it was time for a saint of the Finn’s very own,” reported the Mesabi Daily News in a June 7, 2001, article announcing Mattson’s death at age 87.

Mattson’s version of the legend talked about a saint who drove frogs from Finland, thus saving the grape crop. There, the celebrations were celebrated in May but were said to have been moved to March to provide a Finnish response to St. Patrick’s Day.

The website at credits both men:

“The legend of St. Urho originated in Northern Minnesota in the 1950s. However, there are differing opinions as to whether it began with the fables created by Sulo Havumaki of Bemidji, or the tongue-in-cheek tales told by Richard Mattson of Virginia. Either way, the legend has grown among North Americans of Finnish descent to the point where St. Urho is known and celebrated across the United States and Canada, and even in Finland.”

And perhaps that alone is the point.

Keeping it alive

For his part, Luke, interviewed by phone Friday during a short teaching break, continues to keep the legend alive.

“I am wearing purple and green right now,” he said proudly, before admitting that, yes, he was also wearing a St. Patrick’s tie because, well, he teaches fifth-graders and St. Patty’s is an obvious holiday that the children enjoy.

Luke, too, has organized parades that would always be canceled. He said he and his siblings, wherever they’ve gone, they’ve either educated that new community on St. Urho’s Day or reinforced the legends they’ve heard previously.

“St Patrick has so much better PR,” Luke said, feigning sadness over the the amount of attention given to March 17 over March 16. “I always say, ‘Are you a farmer? How many snakes are you worried about? Wouldn’t you worry more about locusts and grasshoppers? How many are going to want a saint to take on those instead of snakes?’”