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Together At Last - 2

Tomi Jannus Alankola was born in Finland, on September 23, 1878. During his early years, he learned the only trade available to him, that of shipbuilding. He learned not only to build wooden ships, but also to match them with steel hulls and steam powered engines, which had to be made and assembled by hand. He also learned to read a sextant and was able to find his way easily around the seas of Finland with the aid of a compass.

In 1898, at the age of twenty, Tomi was a 200 pound, young man of immense strength and ability.

Hearing of the many opportunities available in America, Tomi, along with thousands of other young men from Finland, Sweden and Norway, set sail for the promised land. Victor Markkula, one of Tom's friends, had the opinion that when Tom first left Finland, he planned to reach the new country and make a good living out of his knowledge of ship building and because he was a top steel worker. He wanted to eventually return a well-to-do man, perhaps with a family, to his homeland. He tried to find work, but had no luck with this. He ended up in Minnesota, where he was known as Tom Sukanen, and he started farming. He met a young lady who was trying to carry on her father's farm. He also had immigrated from Finland, but had recently died. Tom married the young lady, and they combined forces on the farm, but still could not make much headway. During this time they had a son and three daughters.

In 1911, Tom suddenly decided to leave and head for Canada, in search of a brother who was farming in the Macrorie-Birsay area of Saskatchewan, where free land was still available. Tom hoped to file a homestead and bring his family to live in Canada.

Carrying his belongings on his back, he set out on foot for a 600 mile trek. As he traveled, he lived off the land and apparently he found it no more difficult to navigate in a direct line through the prairie, than on the ocean. Along the way, he found people who knew his brother, Svante, and finally reached his destination.

He decided to file on a homestead (NE 14-26-9-W3) near Birsay, just ten miles from his brother, Svante, on October 23rd, under the name of Damianus Sukanen. Thus, he became another of the many homesteaders of Saskatchewan.

Much of the following history came from Elmer, Svante's son, and a close friend, Vic Markkula.

Tom Sukanen, a man of immense strength, was six feet and two inches tall and weighed between 270 and 280 pounds. He was often seen walking from the Macrorie store to his farm, six miles away, with three or four hundred pounds of supplies on his back.

"Moon" Mullin found out that Tom's neighbours thought highly of him. He helped the homesteaders with their building, planting, and threshing. He made a sewing machine with which to sew and mend his clothes, and he often let the women of the area use it to sew clothes for their families. Tom Sukanen in his early years at Macrorie was always willing to help with repairs to machines and the like. He made a threshing machine, driven by steam and owned by a local farmer. He showed new homesteaders, with little or no money, how to build two or three roomed sod houses, similar to those used in Finland.

By 1916, Tom had received clear title to his homestead, and had accumulated about nine thousand dollars, a large sum in those days.

Having had no communication with his wife and family, by 1918, he decide to walk the same 600 miles to his former home. Svante said "Tom set out full of enthusiasm, to get his wife and family and bring them to Canada".

When he arrived at the farm in Minnesota, he found no one there. The place was abandoned and he learned his wife had died in the "flu" epidemic. His son and daughters had been scattered by the authorities into foster homes. The son, whose name had been changed to John Forsythe, was the only one traceable.

Tom located his son and persuaded him to return to Canada with him. They started the long walk back to Birsay, but were stopped just a few miles south of the Canada-United States border. The boy was returned to his foster parents, where he lived in expectation of another rescue attempt as promised by his father. Tom headed west on a second attempt, however the authorities anticipated this, and they were caught again. This time, they put the boy in a reform school and deported Tom from the United States, warning him that future attempts would result in jail time. So Tom returned to Birsay, alone. With no one to talk to, morning or evening, he lost his ability for any small talk and resented anyone asking questions.

By now the Dunblane rail line was being built. Tom worked on the rail gang for a considerable time. It is recorded in the report of the foreman, Mr. Stone, that when workers were unloading the steel rails, weighing 600 pounds and more, it took several men to unload each and throw it off the flat cars. Tom amazed his fellow workers and the foreman, by picking up the rails by himself and heaving them over onto the ground.

Irving Peterson, who eventually was one of the committee who worked on the restoration of the ship, relates that a set of street car wheels and axle somehow found their way to near where Tom lived. The young men would try their strength at sports days by lifting this. It took three of them to lift it off the ground. Tom happened to be there one year and the crowd challenged him to lift this set of wheels and axle. He put them shoulder high twice and above his head the third time.

Like many Finlanders, Tom had a dry humour and could make a comical comment with an impassive face. One time, when he killed a beef, he left the hide and head on, when he dressed the carcass. When asked later why he had done so, he replied "It will be more comfortable with it's clothes on".

At the beginning of the Depression, he knit himself a suit of clothes, out of balls of binder twine. It looked and wore real well. He built himself a tricycle, which young Elmer said that even he too could ride when he was nine or ten years old. The small Stanley-Jones machines for threshing were now appearing. Tom copied the model and made it larger. He powered his machine by steam, and did his own threshing and that of his neighbours with it.

In 1929, after he got his crop seeded, he disappeared for a month. He had made a remark earlier that he was thinking of returning to Finland for a visit. It was discovered later that he had built a heavy row boat. With this he set out on the spring high water of the Saskatchewan River, stopping briefly along the way, he arrived at Hudson Bay. Here he got a job on a freight ship and ended up at his old home in Finland. There was documented proof that he arrived there, bringing with him his home-made violin on which he played the tunes he had learned in Canada. His relatives in Finland wrote to another in Macrorie about the visit.

Being an experienced seaman, Tom had no trouble in working part of his passage on any sea-going ship. He returned home the conventional way. Moon Mullin also discovered that Tom had secured a complete set of maps from the Regina Department of Archives, prior to his departure for Finland. They were eventually discovered in bundles of papers that Tom had left with relatives. This trip indicated that he was planning his route for when he could start out with his own boat.

Sometime after Tom had returned home to Macrorie, the district was astonished when shipments of large quantities of steel, sheet metal, cable and copper arrived at the Macrorie rail station. With the help of a neighbour, William Sentner, they unloaded this and hauled it to Tom's farm. By now the community realized that Tom's talk for the past years of building a boat and returning to Finland was becoming a reality.

From here on the farming and harvesting were completely neglected. This did not matter a great deal as the next five or six years produced nothing but dust storms and grasshoppers-no rain. It was the "Great Depression" years. As a result, there was plenty of time for the scoffers and gossips to keep abreast of Tom's work. At any hour, day or night, they could see the glow of his forge or hear the pounding of his heavy hammers, binding and riveting the steel portions of the ship and shaping the boiler. A scant few hours each night was all the rest he took.

Some of the younger fellows, with nothing to do, started coming near where Tom was working. They openly commented on his work and called him "the crazy Finlander", obviously disrupting Tom's thoughts. One fellow made the mistake of kicking an open fire into where Tom was working. Tom grabbed the offender by his heels, swung him around through the embers and sent the young fellow flying; Tom never said a word. They all took to their heels.

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Site last updated: 06/21/02
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