Barbara Payne is part of a crucial link between cultural past and future. As a daughter of Finnish immigrants, she felt a personal connection to the task of preserving artifacts from her ancestral culture and local knowledge of her parents’ language. She and her husband Manny are charter members of the Finnish American Heritage Society of Maine in West Paris. She is currently serving her last year as a director and plans on focusing all her efforts after that on her favorite job within the organization: curator of the Finnish museum.


I was born in South Paris on New Year’s Day in 1939. I am the youngest of 13. Like most of us kids, I was born at home. My aunt who lived across the woods was actually the midwife that helped deliver me.
We lived a very isolated life, in that our farm was on a dirt road and the nearest neighbor was a mile away. It was pretty much family. There were always people around. We grew up off the grid because there weren’t many houses up there, and they didn’t run electricity. We were very self-reliant. The whole family pitched in on raising crops of cucumbers, beans, and other things for the factories. My father and brothers also worked in the woods.
I remember going to the local Finnish dances when I was little, where they’d play the accordion and other cultural instruments. After the first generation passed, the children of these immigrants started losing touch with their roots. Some people were really interested in maintaining things and others were not.
My first language was Finnish, but I don’t ever remember learning to speak English because, by the time I went to school, my oldest siblings were either in school or out of school. I obviously learned from them. I didn’t have an extensive vocabulary, but it was fine.
When I started school, my mother told me I thought I was such a hotshot speaking English that I didn’t want to speak Finnish anymore. My parents always spoke to me in Finnish, but I would respond in English. We also had what a lot of Finns have: the mixing of the two languages that nobody but a Finnish American can understand.
I went to school at the Fox Schoolhouse in South Paris from kindergarten to 6th grade. For four years, I attended Paris High School on Pine Street, which housed the junior high and high school in one building at that time. By then, all my siblings were married. When I was in high school, I was a very private person. I was never involved in plays, writing, public speaking, or anything like that. However, I do love history and culture.
The Finnish way of life was just who I was. I never felt I wanted to ditch it because it was a part of me. It was so intertwined with the American way of life.
My husband and I met at the Oxford County Fair. Manny had been in the Air Force and had just gotten out around that time. He already knew my brothers from the roller rink in Oxford, and he also knew one of my sisters, so the rest was history. We liked to go to the movies together. We liked going bowling, dancing and just having a good time in general. We married during my senior year of high school, in 1958.
What eventually brought me out of my shell was having children. When I enrolled my oldest daughter in Sunday School at the age of 4, they didn’t have enough teachers. I ended up becoming a Sunday School teacher to help fill the need. The same thing happened with the Girls Scouts. When my kids were in school and they needed classroom volunteers, I became a classroom volunteer. By the time I had one child in elementary school, one in junior high, and one in high school, I decided to join the school board.
In my early years, working with kids was great, but I would shake in my boots if I ever had to get up and speak in front of adults. I really didn’t like it. If I’ve got nothing to say, I can’t make anything up, so I could never be invited to stand up and say a few words.
I served on my children’s school board for twelve years– three of which were as chairman. I also served on the Region 11 Board for three years– part of which was as chairman there. After taking time off from that, I got involved with various local committees in whatever capacity I was needed. I even did one term as selectman.
The last thing I was involved in was the Paris Veterans’ Monument Committee. I served as secretary for it. Ownni Raasumaa, one of my nearest neighbors growing up, was the one who had the idea to put in those memorial tablets with the list of veterans’ names in Moore Park.
In January 1982, a meeting was called to see if there was any interest in starting an organization for preserving local Finnish history. A total of 82 people showed up. I was elected as one of the directors. Over the years, I have served as a director, the president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, and museum curator for the Finnish American Heritage Society of Maine.
I love the information that gets brought in, and I love the artistic portion of setting up items for display. After losing the language, the opportunity to gain it back is so important. Since many Finnish immigrants who settled here came from Kuhmo, many locals with Finnish ancestry are interrelated. People originally from here come back to get in touch with their roots. It’s really a learning experience.
Life nowadays is quiet. I’m still active in a few things. Mostly, I’m just enjoying my family, which includes five grandchildren and a great-grandson.

Barbara Payne stands among some Finnish artifacts and beneath a banner that says “Tervetuloa,” the word for “Welcome” in Finnish. Photo by Amanda Komulainen

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: