Rifton Finns: An Ethnic Enclave in Ulster County, New York

Article excerpt


When you begin to consider the Finns of New York State, there are two obvious foci that have received the majority of attention in the ethnic literature. The presence of some estimated 20,000 Finns in New York City during the 1920s provided a large population with its myriad cultural, religious and social organizations and activities. The heyday of the large Finnish population has passed, and as of 2000, a total of 3,466 Finns lived in New York City.1 This number remains the highest population within the state. Due to this large population size, much has been written about their existence, for example, in Brooklyn and Manhattan.2 A second significant concentration of Finns within the state has always been the Finger Lakes region in western New York State. Here, in cities and towns such as Van Etten, Spencer, Millport, and Ithaca, activities and organizations have existed for decades and have also received academic interest.3

However, there is one location that has not received attention since the publication of the 1926 History of Finnish-Americans by Salomon llmonen.4 In this publication, the town of Rifton or Ulster Park in the county of Ulster is listed with the names of some 13 Finnish individuals. There is nothing rare in this list of names, as llmonen also lists the names of Finnish immigrants In numerous other locations throughout the state and across the country. What is significant, however, is the fact that some seventy years later, the concentration of Finns in Rifton ranks seventh in the entire state of New York. Neighboring High Falls, only some eight miles west of Rifton, has the fifth highest concentration of Finns in the state (Tables 1 & 2, Map 1 ). While the absolute number of Finns in these two villages is very low, their proportion within the entire village population is more significant. And as it turns out, the historical presence of the Finns in this part of New York was even more significant in the past compared to the present.

My interest in this Finnish concentration began as a result of my relocation to the region in 2000. As I have lived in nearby Tillson, NY and my children have attended elementary school in Rifton, we discovered the existence of streets with Finnish names. Suominen's Road and Tervo Drive have obvious Finnish connections. As my daughters participated in the local Brownies program, I came across a plaque at the Rifton Volunteer Fire Station which honored former firefighters of the village. On this plaque, the names of several Finns were listed. Who were these Finns? Where did they come from? Where did they live? Where are their descendente? These were some of the questions I began to ponder as I discovered that Finns had once lived in this small village.


As mentioned earlier, virtually nothing has been written about the Rifton Finns since 1926. With the names provided by llmonen in his text, I scoured the local telephone directories. I sent letters to possible Finns in the region, with limited success. Some

responded positively and were excited to help. I also contacted the local town halls of Esopus and Rosendale to examine property maps to determine where the Finns may have lived. I also was able to gather historical census information and additional family names from the 1920 and 1930 US Censuses available online at Ancestry.com. Additional material was located from historical censuses available at the University of Virginia Library and through Ellis Island Passenger Arrival Records.5 Local newspaper coverage of several major events that included the Rifton Finns were found in the Kingston Daily Freeman as well as the Finnish-American newspaper New Yorkin Uutiset. Several Interviews with local and not-so-local Finns and their descendants took place between 2003-2005 to provide more detail to the material being collected, and finally, photographic evidence of the Finns in the region were obtained. These include photos of individuals and families, houses and structures, as well as events and activities. …