For Dale Piirainen, the question of where he comes from is important. Born into a Finnish family on his father’s side, Piirainen and his two sisters grew up in Ogunquit, Maine. Though Piirainen never lived in West Paris like much of his father’s family did, he spent a number of summers there with his grandparents. After a short stint in college, Piirainen joined the Marines and then later the Navy. His training in the Russian language and his intelligence work took him and his family to many places around the world. When Piirainen retired, he and his wife, Loraine, decided to move to West Paris. They built a house together on a piece of land they inherited from Piirainen’s father and got involved with the community. Piirainen served on the Oxford Hills School District school board for 11 years and on the Technical School board for four. He is now president of the Finnish American Heritage Society of Maine (Finn-Am). He is proud to live where his Finnish ancestors first settled. He is also happy that the three children and seven grandchildren he shares with his wife, Loraine, seem to value their heritage as much as he does.
I grew up in southern Maine. My dad worked in the Navy Yard after WWII. We lived in Ogunquit. I spent summers in West Paris when I was between the ages of 12 and 15 with my grandparents. My grandfather and my uncle worked in the woods. 
My mother’s family had lived in the area since the mid 19th century. My mother wasn’t Finnish. Even though my father’s family had emigrated from Finland to this part of Maine in the early 1900s, I did not grow up in a Finnish home. My grandmother did teach my mother to make a few things, like a heavy rye bread we called Finn Bread, but in those years the culture was passed down through the maternal line. That’s just the way it was. 
It’s tough to identify what the Finnish American actual culture was. Jacob Mikkonen who changed his name to McKeen was the first Finn to come to West Paris. He came at the end of the 19th century from Kuhmo, which is in a remote area of east Finland.  At that time there were a lot of abandoned farms here. The original owners had discovered that the soil was deeper in Ohio and out west and that the winters were not as long. Jacob, being enterprising, looked around and saw there were opportunities to be realized. He communicated with folks back home and people started coming, the vast majority of whom were from the same parish in Kuhmo as Jacob was. Because of this, most of the Finns here in West Paris are related.
Once people came here, they were not interested in preserving their culture. They were interested in getting from one day to the next. They came with nothing. No one could speak the language. All they were able to do was work. The first generation born to the immigrants tried to become Americans and assimilate. Many of them married outside the community, as my father did.
My father did one terrific thing. One day when I was relatively young, he asked me where I thought was from. When I said, Maine. he said, “No, you are from Finland.” He got out the atlas and showed me where Kuhmo was and said, “This is where we are from.” It was a moment of introspection I did not expect from him. That whole thing was very important.
I graduated from Wells High School. I did an abortive year and a half at Iowa State University. Then I dropped out. In 1966, I received a draft notice. Illustrative of my state of mind, instead of being drafted, I joined the Marine Corps. I met Loraine in Pensacola, Florida, where I was doing boot camp training. Loraine was born in the Dutch East Indies, which is now Indonesia. She and her family came to America from Netherlands in 1957. 
I went to Vietnam. I was a manual Morse Code Operator.  A week after I came back in 1968, Loraine and I got married. We have now been married for 48 years. 
After I returned, I was sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California for a course in Russian. Then I went to Germany, where I was stationed in Bremerhaven at the Naval Security Group Activity. We were on an intelligence collection mission for three years.
I was in the Marines for six years. In 1972, I took a discharge and came back to Maine. I went to the University of Maine at Orono for three years and graduated in 1975 with a degree in science and secondary education. By that time we had two children and a third on the way. I frankly couldn’t find a job that would support a family of our size.
I went back to graduate school in Ames, Iowa. I was still on the GI bill. I worked as a teaching assistant and also as an archival assistant in the library. I was going to school and making more money than I would have as a first-year teacher in Maine.
Our third child was born out there. In 1976, even though I had not yet completed my Master’s, my GI benefits ended. It was at the beginning of the Carter years. Employment opportunities were not great. I did not want to borrow money to stay in school, so I went to the recruiters. I ended up going back into the service, this time in the Navy. 
I was sent back out to Monterey for another Russian language course and to do training of a classified nature, where we learned what we were going to do and how to use the language. My family and I ended up at Fort Meade in Maryland at the National Security Agency (NSA). We were there for three years. My job involved utilizing my Russian skills and a lot of temporary assignments, which were mostly submarine reconnaissance missions. I traveled a lot. 
We then spent two years in Scotland, then returned to NSA for another tour. Because I had been commissioned as an officer in Scotland, I did the same thing but was paid more. I did tours of duty in Norfolk, Virginia, at the Pentagon, in Pensacola, Florida and then at Winter Harbor, Maine. I retired as a Lieutenant Commander in 1996. 
When I retired I was only 50. I could have been in the civilian defense sector, but that would have involved moving to Massachusetts or Virginia. I didn’t want to do that, so we came back to West Paris to live on a piece of land we inherited from my father. He had purchased it in 1956, while we were living in Ogunquit. It had an old farmhouse down at bottom of hill. My son lives there now. Interesting enough, that is also where my grandfather spent his very first night in this country. 
The house was falling in when my father bought it. He put a roof on it and planned to turn one end to hunting camp. By the time he retired from the Navy Yard in ’68, he and my mother were able to move in. After we came here, Loraine and I both built this house and started getting involved in this community.
I have been involved in the Finnish American Heritage Society of Maine―Finn-Am is what people call it―for a little over ten years. I am president. It’s a local organization with a pretentious title whose charter is to try to protect the culture and the history. It’s not to extol or to maintain a little Finland enclave. It’s that those folks who came before us deserve to be remembered.
My wife and I have traveled back to the village of Kuhmo in Finland every other year since 2005. We visit, take saunas, fish, drink beer and tell stories. We are no longer viewed as tourists. We are just family coming home to visit. Four years ago, our younger daughter and her daughter went with us. That’s five generations removed from when my ancestors immigrated.
My parents grew up during the Depression.When asked what it was like, they always said it was no different. When you start with very little, you have nothing to lose. For my seven grandchildren, who range in age from 27 to 11, it is different. 
The oldest two graduated from college and are working. My granddaughter who is about to graduate from high school will go to college. Another granddaughter has it in her head that she will become a neurosurgeon. My grandson, who suffered from childhood diabetes, says he is going to become a doctor. He wants to cure diabetes. My granddaughter, Madeline, who is 1/32 Finnish, tells everyone she is Finnish. That’s the immigration experience. I look at my grandchildren as validating that. I think my grandparents would be proud. 

FINNISH-AMERICAN — Dale Piirainen of West Paris is proud of his Finnish roots.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: