Guest commentary: What Petrell Hall means to usWe are granddaughters of Edwin and Olga Petrell, who provided the land for the hall and after whom it was named. To us, Petrell Hall stands for community.
By: Joy Kolehmainen Reynolds, Washington, D.C. and Kay Kolehmainen Kingsley, Circleville, Ohio, Lake County News Chronicle
We are granddaughters of Edwin and Olga Petrell, who provided the land for the hall and after whom it was named.
To us, Petrell Hall stands for community.
When, growing up, we spent summers here in Brimson, Petrell Hall was mostly dormant, languishing in years of disuse between its flourishing in the ‘teens, twenties and thirties and its wonderful rebirth we see today, the result of hard work by so many in this community over the past years.
Accordingly, our knowledge of the hall came largely through our mother, Astrid Petrell Kolehmainen, and grandfather, Edwin Petrell. Our grandmother, Olga Bergstrom Petrell, the other original donor of the hall, died before we were born, at a time when breast cancer was not an occasion for pink ribbons but for a hand-built gravestone in Brimson Cemetery.
Edwin and Olga furnished the land for the construction of Petrell Hall, according to the 1911 deed of transfer, as a site for the Fairbanks Finnish Work-People’s Society “to be used for social up-lifting of the working class for ever.”
These words set the theme for our discussion: community. Edwin Petrell and Olga Bergstrom were immigrants. Like all immigrants, they had the courage and initiative to leave the countries of their birth to seek a better life in America. They would be horrified by the venom and hatred expressed by some against the immigrants of today. They knew that America only benefits from the diversity and capacity for hard work that immigrants bring to our nation, regardless of their color or the language they speak.
Politics were an integral part of the life of the hall, and still are today, with elections and town meetings taking place regularly. In Edwin’s and Olga’s days, the politics were radical but their purpose was clear: to serve the need for all to work together for the common good, through efforts such as the cooperative movement. Olga and Edwin would not even begin to comprehend the mentality of some of today’s politicians, who would destroy the workers’ ability to bargain collectively through unions of their own choosing, or who would gut the legitimate role of government in helping the poor, the sick, the elderly – those who cannot fend for themselves.
Petrell Hall was also a center for the arts. Astrid fondly recalled singing in choral groups there. Amateur theatricals and instrumental performances also lit the wilderness. In a way, Astrid’s memories tied together the three aspects of our reminiscences – immigration, politics, and the uplift of the spirit. She recalled singing “Vapaa Venaja” – “Free Russia”- an anthem for many of the Finnish settlers in Brimson who had fled the control of Czarist Russia before the revolution but who fortunately found their brighter day here in the forests of northern Minnesota.
Still today, arts, politics and service to others are the hallmarks of the newly rejuvenated Petrell Hall community. May it thrive another 100 years.
This piece was delivered as a speech by Joy Kolehmainen Reynolds at the Petrell Hall Centennial last weekend.