By Ruth Svensk, Walden Observer, February 10th & 17th, 1986. Permission to reproduce the article was kindly granted by Ruth Svensk.
(Note. I first remember the Holmstedts in the late 1950s, from visits to their home with my parents.)
This essay is a collection of my impressions, items about their earlier years, which the Holmstedts told me for which I trust my memory, and a few notes taken verbatim from the Holmstedts. This month I spoke by phone with Mrs. Esther Hakala, now of Sudbury, who moved to Trout Lake in 1938 and became friends with the Holmstedts. Details supplied by her are included.
Hjalmar Holmstedt became a tailor in his native country, Finland. I remember him telling us that he had a hard time to persuade a master to take him as an apprentice because he was left handed. Tailors had such an antipathy to taking on the challenge of teaching a left-handed learner, that the field was virtually closed to the left-handed.
Hjalmar was so determined to acquire the craft that he apprenticed right-handed. For the first year of his training he never used his dominant hand. He handled needle and scissors with his right hand to the satisfaction of his instructor. Then he began to let his left hand take over techniques he was familiar with and when he was independent, he worked left-handed.
Hjalmar was working in Hango on the south coast of Finland, the port of embarkation for emigrants. He had no intention of leaving the country, and watched the travelers with detachment. Suddenly one winter, 'America Fever" hit him. He had made his arrangements and was on his way before he had time to change his mind. He went by boat to Hull in northern England, travelled by train to Southampton, and took ship there for Halifax.
I quote from notes I took down from Mr. Holmstedt:
"The ticket from Hango to Halifax was over a hundred dollars - maybe a hundred and twenty dollars. The boat from Hango was so old and full of rats. It was the first of March when we left. The ice in the Baltic was very thick. The icebreaker could not do anything; it was too small. Men were down on the ice with ice saws and cutting ice so the boat could slowly go forward. The trip was supposed to be direct to HuIl, but supplies were so low, we had to stop at Copenhagen. We had taken five days in the Baltic.”
Ida Eskola was born in Finland on a farm near Vilpula, the youngest of several children. When she was two months old, her father died. There was Civil War in Finland when she was still young, and I quote from notes I made as Mrs. Holmstedt once told us stories of a child's experience of war:
"We had to get out of our home because the fighting was right there. We went to my mother's brother's place. My uncle had left to hide farther back in the bush. My grandmother lived there. She stayed at the farm. She was maybe eighty.”
"We were hiding in the potato cellar - my sister and me, four of my cousins and my mother's mother. It was wintertime and we had no heat, of course, but we had lots of warm clothes and blankets, and rye straw over the potatoes. Mother, would bring food down for us. We were there a couple days."
"We didn't have candles or nothing. We couldn't see nothing. We children wanted to move around of course. We were playing, and throwing potatoes around in the dark. When we got too noisy, our grandmother would poke us or hit us with her cane.
‘I imagine that by the day in a cramped potato cellar with half a dozen rambunctious children, Grandmother must have been seriously contemplating climbing out and casting herself on the mercy of hostile soldiers.”
Ida's mother did not go into hiding so she could look after the farm livestock. Soldiers came...
"They called 'Where is the woman? My mother was hiding in the stable. She was afraid, but she came out. In the house, the soldiers cut down bread from the poles on the rafters with their knives. They told mother to bring them butter and milk. They ate and then they went on their way."
Ida was not quite sixteen years old yet when, in 1922, she set out on her great adventure, emigration to Canada. She was a widow in her 70s when she saw her homeland again.
She had an aunt in Toronto who sent her money for the passage, and arranged that Ida should work for her in the rooming house she kept. As Ida began to make friends among the Finnish community, she met Hjalmar Holmstedt working in Toronto as a tailor, who was perhaps twelve years older than she. A few weeks before her eighteenth birthday, they were married.
It was 1927 or 1928 (Esther Hakala reckons) when Hjalmar and Ida first came to Trout Lake, as Little Penage was locally called then. They bought a piece of bush land on the southern shore of the west part of the lake (Dieppe Twp.), intending it as a summer retreat.
Coming from Toronto by train, they would get off at the Whitefish station, and walk the nine miles south to Trout Lake', carrying their supplies. There was a simple gravel road for the first few miles that the settlers had made. (Louise Twp.) A log bridge also built by the local men crossed the Vermilion River, but not far beyond, the road turned into a trail. When the Holmstedts were in Toronto, they would leave their boat with a settler on the north shore of Trout Lake. Returning, they made the final stage of the trip in their rowboat.
They built a small log house and cleared some land. In the worst of the Depression they left Toronto and lived at Trout Lake for seven years. They were as self-sufficient as possible, with their horse and other livestock, their field and garden, and with their fuel supply around them. Sometimes Hjalmar worked in Toronto in the winter and Ida stayed here alone. The Holmstedts had no children.
In 1933-34 more local labour extended to Trout Lake, the road now known as the ‘Penage Road'. A wooden bridge was built across the narrows of Trout Lake and a right-of-way was cleared through to Lake Penage, The Holmstedts began to make nearly a mile of private road from their log home to the south end of the Penage Road - the road now to be named Holmstedt Road. At first it was just a path, but a little bit at a time, with shovels and wheelbarrows, Ida and Hjalmar built a road they could eventually use with a vehicle.
With better times they returned to Toronto, coming back only in the summer to their northern home. Ida earned a diploma at the Toronto School of Massage, and worked as a masseuse. About 1945 they built a new and larger house at Trout Lake and ten years later, they left Toronto to become permanent residents here.
Hjalmar was a skilled and creative man. He was a fine tailor, who could do the work of a carpenter and a cabinetmaker, of an electrician, a plumber or a mechanic. As a young man he had played the kantele, a Finnish stringed instrument. In his retirement, he decided to take up the instrument again. He obtained a kantele, but was not satisfied with the quality of it, so, he wrote to a music store in Toronto and had them send him some pegs and piano wire. From his own trees he chose birch to make the boards. He steamed the curves in the sauna and formed the harp shaped kantele body. He selected and cut spruce for the sounding board. He set the pegs, strung the wires, tuned the kantele, and made beautiful music.
There was a black and white studio photo of Ida as young woman taken when she was preparing to leave Finland. It showed a face of cool aristocratic beauty. I would look at the photo and then at Mrs. Holmsedt’s old face where the beautiful bones were still plain to see. The youthful Ida bore a startling similarity a photo of Alexandra, the last Empress of Russia, when she was a young woman. But Ida was not a cool aristocrat woman. She was raised a country girl and all her life she brimmed with vitality and a sense of fun. She tackled heavy work with energy. She was a generous person and gift for friendship.
Hjalmar was already in his eighties when he died at home, the last day of 1975. The following summer Ida Ieft the home they had created together and moved to a Sudbury high rise apartment. Five years later having remained active to the last she died sitting in her chair.
But it is the Holmsedt’s life at Little Penage that the road marker will call to mind. I loved to visit there. At the end of the narrow road, through stands of white pine and dense low-ground bush, how delightful their sunny clearing, the generous vegetable garden, the apple tree, the ornamental shrubs and perennial beds, the welcoming house!
The friendly pair would ensconce their visitors in chairs in the sunroom. Mrs. Holmstedt would slip in and out of the conversation as she made coffee, arranged food on serving plates and set the dining table with china cups and saucers. Then, to summon us to the dining room, she would happily announce “Now we gonna drink coffee”.
In memory, I can still hear her words and feel them as the quintessence of gracious hospitality.