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When West Berkeley was Finntown

The city of Berkeley, California was created when the state government made a grant in the late 1850's of 640 acres for the site of the University of California. At that time what later became West Berkeley was a community called Ocean View. Ocean View was the site of the flour mills which ground the wheat grown in the Central Valley. The grain was offloaded on a pier that extended about a half mile out into San Francisco Bay. The milled flour returned by the same route to be loaded on ocean-going ships.

Ocean View was a working class community. Later, in 1878, Ocean View was merged with the community associated with the University of California and the city hall sited on the boundary between the two communities at Sacramento Avenue. Later the city hall was moved to downtown Berkeley near the UC campus.

The Demographics of Berkeley's Finntown

Population Components of Berkeley and Adjacent Unincorporated Land
Census
Year
Total
Population
Foreign
Born
Finland
born
18802,2076930
18905,1011,5600
190013,2143,21681
191040,4348,641338
192056,03610,506648

Finns never were a dominant population group in West Berkeley but they were highly visible as a result of their communal organizations. They built several Lutheran churches and they built the Finnish Hall. The Finnish Hall was built by the Finnish Comrades Association, a radical political organization that also had a band that played at public events. The Finns also founded the Berkeley Co-ops, a chain of cooperative retail grocery stores and one hardware store.

There was even a division within the Finnish community of West Berkeley between those who were socialists and those who were not. One informant who grew up in Finntown in the 1930's said that the Sunday school in his church consisted primarily of singing radical political songs.


San Pablo & Addison in the 1940s
One block south of San Pablo & University

Finntown was centered on the intersection of University and San Pablo Avenues. San Pablo was the major north-south thoroughfare in west Berkeley and Finns located on both sides of San Pablo. Finntown ultimately spread south into Oakland below Ashby and north into Albany above Gilman. The following table shows the relative importance of Berkeley in the Finnish community of Alameda County.

The Finnish Population of Alameda County
Census
Year
County
Total
BerkeleyOaklandAlbany
190014081400
1910725338319...
19201,1536483908

A major factor in the increase in population between the censuses of 1900 and 1910 was the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The Finnish enclave near the Embarcadero burned as a result of that earthquake and the residents moved to undamaged areas such as West Berkeley where there were already Finnish communities.

One of the first Finn to settle in West Berkeley was Gustavus Bonn who was a San Francisco saloon keeper who married a Berkeley girl, Mary Handerkin, in 1879 and established a saloon at the intersection of University Avenue and Second Street. That saloon was managed by another Finn, Axel Blumberg, who married the sister of Gustavus Bonn's wife. Later Blumberg started his own saloon at University and Sixth Street.

Lest it appear that Finns were only involved with building saloons it must be noted that a church for Finns was built on Channing Way near Ninth Street in 1901 and a second church was built at Alston Way and Byron Street in 1912. Later another Finnish church was built also on Byron Street.

Walter Mork, Businessman and
Community Leader for West Berkeley

Walter Mork and his wife Wendla were refugees from the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 who settled in West Berkeley. Walter Mork said they arrived in West Berkeley with only the clothes they were wearing. There were community aid programs set up immediately which helped the Morks settle. However, Walter Mork, even though he himself was but a refugee began to help organize the assistance programs. Later he and his wife purchased a lot in West Berkeley and built a house there.

The residence of Walter and Wendla Mork
on what is now Hearst Avenue

Walter Mork started a business and became an employer in West Berkeley. His business produced gloves and was located in a building near the intersection of San Pablo and Hearst Avenues, close by his residence. The building still stands but has been an auto repair shop for many decades.

Later Walter Mork ran for the Berkeley City Council and won. He continued to be re-elected and represented West Berkeley on the City Council for 26 years.

Later Walter Mork formed a sheet metal business which during World War II produced galvanized iron water tanks for Navy ships.

The Finnish Comrades' Association

This organization, popularly known as The Comrades, was incorporated in June of 1908. Its purposes included

Walter Mork was one of the five original directors. Two of the other four directors lived in North Oakland. By September of they had purchased land on Tenth Street in Berkeley for the construction of a meeting hall and on October 25th of 1908 the construction commenced.

The remarkable Finnish Hall was completed in June of 1909 and became a major venue for public meetings of the Finnish community of West Berkeley. Other organizations, such as the Westminster Presbyterian Church and the Saint Ambrose Catholic Church and local schools, also used the facilities. Here are four views of the very photogenic structure.


Political organizations, particularly socialist ones, used the Finnish Hall. In the 1911 Berkeley elected a Socialist Party mayor, J. Stitt Wilson. A Socialist Party member was elected to the Berkeley City Council. About eight hundred people filled the Finnish Hall for a pre-election rally and later a victory celebration. In 1913 Mayor Wilson declined to run for re-election and no Socialist Party candidates were elected to the City Council. However the Finnish Hall was the site of a large rally for Hiram Johnson, the successful Progressive Republican candidate for governor of California that year.

In 1915 and again in 1917 Mr. Wilson was the Socialist Party candidate for mayor but lost both times, as did the other members of his party in the city council elections.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWWW) was active in Berkeley. The Socialist Party rejected the concept of industrial unionism which was the keystone of the IWWW. The IWW and the Finnish Federation of Socialists split away from the Socialist Party over this issue in 1912 and no longer used the Finnish Hall for their meetings. Instead they met in what was called Holtz Hall, the upstairs portion of the building on University Avenue shown below.

Holtz Hall was the upstairs of this building

The schism among the Berkeley socialists became more profound after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Finland was not incorporated into the Russian Empire; it was united with Russia only be virtue of Russia and Finland having the same monarch. When the Czar was overthrown and executed, Finland technically became independent of Russia. Vladimir Lenin allowed Finland to become independent of Russia, probably because he believed the Finnish Bolsheviks would immediately take power. The Finnish Red Guards did take power in Finland within weeks of the Finnish declaration of independence, but Finnish conservatives immediately raised an army opposing the takeover and enlisted the aid of Germany. The Whites, the opposing force, was strongly supported by the agrarian countryside and the Reds support was in the city. The result was a civil war in which the Reds were supported by the Bolsheviks of Russia and the Whites were supported by the Germans and the Swedes. Ultimately the Whites won.

In West Berkeley there were public meetings denouncing the effort of the bourgeoisie forces to overthrow the Finnish socialists. The more radical socialists in Berkeley embraced the ideology of the Bolsheviks; the less radical and more traditional socialists were reluctant to do so. This led to another schism within the socialist movement in Berkeley. The radical socialists separated from the other socialist organizations and formed a communist party, later known as the Workers Party. The radical elements maintained control over the Finnish Hall. The other socialists tried to distance themselves from the Bolsheviks of Russia in the public's mind. This led to the expelling of radical elements.

The Berkeley City Council passed an ordinance in 1919 that made it a misdemeanor to display a red flag in a public procession and to distribute seditious literature.

The Brotherhood

There was another important organization in West Berkeley that was sometimes confused with the Comrades Association. In the early 1880's in San Francisco Finns formed a fraternal and benevolent society called formally the United Finnish Kalevala Brothers and Sisters, but more popularly known as The Brotherhood. In 1911 there was a meeting in Holtz Hall to form a local subsidiary of this organization. Walter Mork was one of the organizers of the local lodge of this organization. The Brotherhood, a nonpolitical organization, was allowed to use the Finnish Hall for a period of time in the 1920's. But by 1930 the Workers Party was refusing the use of the Finnish Hall to such bourgeoisie organizations as the Brotherhood.

The Comrades Band

The Finns in the Comrades Association in its early days formed a band of twentysome instruments and this band was often a feature of public meetings in West Berkeley.


Source for the above:
John Perala, The Finns of Berkeley, California, Finnish-American Historical Society of the West, May 1989.


The Berkeley Cooperatives

(To be continued.)


Here are some of the surviving structures of Finntown.

     This was Adolf Lein's bakery on Bancroft
Way which later became a church.


     The residence of Victor Land in the 1890's
on Ninth Street


     The residence of Hans and Axa
Palmgren on Channing Street


     The boarding house of Berndt
and Gustava Fardig


A Lutheran Church in which sermons
were given in Finnish as well as
English up through the 1970's.
Now a Berkeley city park

An Anecdote:

In the late 1920's there appeared in a newspaper in the Berkeley-Oakland area the following story. A man was appearing before a judge to contest a traffic citation he had received that charged him with speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol. The man told the judge that he had not been drinking but instead was woozy from the effect of lacquer he used in his work as an interior decorator. He said he was driving fast to get away from some Finns who were going to beat him up. He said he was talking with someone near where there was a group of Finns and that because he stuttered they thought he was mocking them. According to the man the Finns started to attack him and ran to his car and drove away but he was afraid they would follow him in a car. The judge chuckled at the story and gave the man a reduced penalty on two conditions. For thirty days he was to stay away from alcohol and stay away from Finns.


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