Aug. 28, 2006
Family finds relatives in Finland
By Roz Kohls
Harvey Barberg of Cokato found his ancestral homeland in an unexpected place, smack dab in the middle between Sweden and Finland.
The Torneo valley region was neither Swedish nor Finnish up until a war in 1808, when the Russian Czar drew a line on a map down the middle of the Tornea River. The Czar declared one side for Sweden, the other for Finland, said Barberg from his fifth-generation family farm four miles north of Cokato.
Those who live in the Torneo Valley region to this day consider themselves not Finnish nor Swedish, merely people, he added.
Harvey and his wife, Heidi, and his cousin, Dick Barberg of Howard Lake, and his wife, Rose, returned July 26 from Overtorneå, Sweden.
Overtorneå is the town on the banks of the Tornea River, where the Barberg family originated. Isak Barba and his wife, Eva, came to Cokato in 1866 and built a white-oak log cabin, which is still part of Harvey and Heidi’s house now. The Barbas changed their name to Barberg because there was another Barba family already in Cokato.
Harvey and Heidi have three children. Their son, Erick Barberg of Cokato works at Procare Services and raises beef cattle. Their daughters are Lorna Mahlstedt of Cokato, expecting her sixth child, and Heather Ravndal, a preschool teacher in Saint Anthony.
At first, no one in the Barberg family could figure out from where Isak and Eva came. The name of the place didn’t seem to be in any records or on maps of Finland.
In 1991, Harvey and Heidi visited a jazz festival in Finland and Heidi had asked about the town at an information booth. The town in Sweden is so far north that the province it is in is split in half by the Arctic Circle. Residents eat moose and reindeer as frequently as US residents eat beef, Heidi pointed out.
After some correspondence with genealogists there, the Barbergs were invited to a homecoming at Overtorneå. The summer festival, “Matarengi Marknad,” is similar to the Cokato Corn Carnival, and was July 14-16.
When they arrived July 10, little did they know the Barbergs would be guests of honor. The story of their family reunion and Isak’s immigration to America was featured in a special section of the newspaper in Overtorneå. They stayed at a four-star hotel, were served food from gourmet restaurants, taken on tours, and entertained the entire time they were there.
The highlight of the event was when the Barbergs were invited by the commissioner of the province to ride the river on his sauna boat. Harvey said he believes the commissioner of the province is the equivalent of the chairman of the Wright County Board of Commissioners.
A sauna boat is a houseboat that tows a floating sauna behind it. The Barbergs have their own sauna, built in 1880, which they enjoy frequently in Cokato. They were delighted to use the floating sauna also, but not eager to rinse off in the icy cold river afterward, Heidi said.
They also enjoyed a Lions Club-sponsored sauna after a Lions Club salmon fry, she added.
Not counting children, there were 35 relatives at the homecoming who took the Barbergs around to various family sites. The first was Eva’s family farm, which is still used as the Rovainen summer home 140 years later.
Isak and Eva lived in a farmhouse that is still standing and in good condition although it has been empty for the past 40 years, Harvey said.
They also toured the site where Isak was born 10 miles to the south of Overtorneå, but only the house’s footings remain.
In addition, the church in which Isak and Eva were married still stands, and the Barbergs listened to music played on the same organ that played for Isak and Eva’s wedding.
Northern Sweden and Finland look much like Minnesota although the weather isn’t as extreme. It never got warmer than a dry 80 degrees. The winter is moderated by the Gulf of Bothnia to the south.
The Barbergs saw snowflakes, however, even though it was July, when they climbed a high hill near Overtorneå, Heidi said.
Overtorneå also had midnight sun, so sleeping was difficult. Part of it might have been excitement from all the attention the Barbergs received, though, Harvey said.
Harvey can speak fluent Finnish and most of the Finnish can speak English. People from Overtorneå are equally fluent in Swedish.
The economy of Overtorneå is based on dairy farming, timber and salmon fishing.
Heidi was especially interested in the food they were served. For breakfast, for example, instead of serving milk with cereal, a large bowl of yogurt was put on the table. People from Overtorneå put a scoop of yogurt in the bottom of their individual bowls and poured their cereal on top, Heidi said.
In addition to the standard eggs and bacon breakfast, they served tomatoes, cucumbers, cold cuts, and cheese, Harvey said.
Heidi’s favorite were the cloud berries. The yellow berries grow wild in northern Sweden and Finland, and are eaten on cheesecake, cereal and ice cream.
After the festival, the Barbergs traveled farther north to check out the area where the Lantto family of Cokato originated. When they crossed the Arctic Circle, they were “baptized” with a scoop of river water poured over their necks, and given a certificate announcing they had crossed over into the land of “the Sun, the Light and the Colours.”
On their way back through Finland, they met more relatives from a different branch of the family. By accident, the Barbergs were just in time to enjoy another family reunion, Harvey said.
The Barbergs learned from their trip that possibly Isak chose to come to America because he was an illegitimate child and didn’t have land rights. They also discovered he had a brother, and that there is an entire other family of Barbas they didn’t know existed, Harvey said.
In addition, they noticed the people of Overtorneå preserved and maintained old things. They didn’t trash old things just because they are old, as people often do in the United States, Harvey said.