St. Urho and the outcasts who settled the Iron Range

A giant grasshopper sculpture in Kaleva, Michigan, celebrates the Finnish-American legend of St. Urho, an entirely fictional person whose existence was divined to give Finns in the Upper Midwest an extra day to party before St. Patrick's Day.

A giant grasshopper sculpture in Kaleva, Michigan, celebrates the Finnish-American legend of St. Urho, an entirely fictional person whose existence was divined to give Finns in the Upper Midwest an extra day to party before St. Patrick’s Day.

Sunday, March 16, brings St. Urho’s Day, a Finnish-American celebration of a fictional saint who did something that never really happened. You won’t see the holiday in Finland, because that’s not where the tradition comes from. St. Urho’s Day is a 1950s vintage fabrication of an American Finn on northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.

Richard Mattson cooked up the idea of St. Urho as the man who drove away masses of frogs from Finland, but later storytellers changed the legend to grasshoppers. They also moved Mattson’s May 24 date up to March 16, the day before St. Patrick’s Day, to give the immigrants of Iron Range mining towns two consecutive drinking holidays. A lot of hands have touched the St. Urho’s story, but the tradition spread into almost all the Finnish-American communities in the country and has at least caught the attention of people in Finland, who view the the matter with some bemusement.

(Grasshoppers, ironically, remain quite numerous in Finland)

At the Forbes and Cherry schools where I attended as a boy in the 1980s, the St. Urho tradition was quite strong. You had to wear purple on St. Urho’s and green on St. Patty’s or you’d get pinched.

St. Urho reminds me of an observation I’ve made about the heritage of the Iron Range. The Range is a melting pot of many European cultures, especially those from the Nordic, Slavic and Germanic countries. I think there is an assumption in 2014 that the ethnic traditions we have now came down from those countries. But I’ve increasingly noticed that this is often not the case. Many times the “tradition” is something jumbled among many different ethnicities. Other times the tradition comes not from the old country, but from the imagination of the particular people who took boats around the world to get here.

You have to remember the conditions that drove people from homelands to the frozen, foreign soil of the Iron Range. Poverty. Political oppression. And the very likely possibility that many of these people were outcasts. In other words, our ancestors were poor, stubborn, and quite likely at least partially insane.

I was talking online with a fellow writer in Sweden and made a comment about the Swedish egg coffee that everyone here in northern Minnesota talks about. She was completely shocked and, eventually, amused. She had never heard of Swedish egg coffee. Whatever tradition involving eggs used to keep down the grounds and change the flavor of coffee did not survive the generational leap in Sweden, even if it did here. Most likely, the tradition stemmed from Swedish-Americans who couldn’t afford fancier coffee pots and had to figure out a way to keep grounds out of the beverage.

Another time I was talking to a professor from Finland. His comment was that the Finnish-American immigrants more than a generation removed from Soumi seemed odd to him; not just odd, incredibly odd. To the point that he had a hard time putting up with them and was trying to find dispassionate outside observers who could give him the information he sought.

We must reckon with the fact that our ancestors were crazy. St. Urho’s Day is a pretty good embodiment of this fact.  So, if you’re looking for a family-friendly way to honor Finland’s fictional patron saint this weekend, how about some pancakes?

St. Urho’s Day Pancake Breakfast

JACOBSON, Minn. – Don your purple and green to honor St. Urho, the legendary patron saint of Finland. The Jacobson Community Center will host their 34th Annual St. Urho’s Day Pancake Breakfast from 8 am to Noon on Saturday, March 15, 2014. The Jacobson Community Center is located three miles south of State Highway 200 on the Great River Road (Aitkin County Road 10). The breakfast features our famous pancakes and sausages served with coffee, milk, orange juice, and, of course, grapes. Funds raised are used to support the FREE Jacobson Community Center events. Financial support for this event is provided by Thrivent Financial and Ogle’s Marketplace Foods of Grand Rapids. More information can be found at and the Jacobson Community Center page on Facebook.

DISCLAIMER: Pending unresolved paternity questions buried in time, the author of this post is approximately 25% Finnish-American, 25% Norwegian-American, 12.5% Swedish-American, 12.5 percent British, and the rest vaguely German before there was a Germany.

ADDITION: MPR’s Dan Kraker posted a St. Urho’s Day story this morning. I had this written yesterday, but was saving it for later this morning. Kraker!


  1. I recognized the photo instantly. A few years we were traveling in the area of Kaleva and made a point of visiting the little town. We did see the grasshopper which iirc was a project a shop teacher assigned to his students. We also toured the John Makinen Bottle House. Makinen owned a bottling business and used 60,00 broken bottles in constructing his house in 1941. He must have been a thrifty Finn! The bottoms of the bottles were cemented (?) in the exterior bottom of house and spells out Happy Home in the front. You can tour the interior and contents. Kaleva also has a visitor center which has a lot of historical artifacts to view. Other than in Houghton, Mich I don’t think we have ever seen so many streets with Finnish names in the US. Kaleva is worth a visit if in the area.

  2. For those interested in learning more about Mr. Mattson and his creation of St. Urho, you might appreciate knowing that the Iron Range Research Center (Chisholm) has both his personal papers and a 1998 oral history, both of which touch upon his Finnish legend.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.