Minnesota hunters are expected to take nearly 200,000 white-tailed deer this fall. But back in 1934, a couple of deer hunters were in a more giving mood.
Sons of Finnish immigrants, Eino Saranen and Lester Ketola were 24 when they led an effort in 1934 to transport three young bucks and four young does by train and ship from Virginia, Minn., to Finland.
Back then, Finland had no whitetails, and the numbers of its native reindeer, roe deer and elk were dwindling due to poverty and expanding settlements. Today, the Finnish white-tailed herd tops 110,000 — enough for its own robust hunting season.
And all those Finnish whitetails can trace their roots to that first Minnesota gift in 1934, as well as another six fawns flown over from the Iron Range in 1948 under the supervision of Eino's dad.
"Finnish immigrants in Minnesota wanted to pay respects to their motherland," Finnish veterinary surgeon Dr. Jan Eric Räihä wrote this year on the U.S. National Deer Association's website.
Finland's population of white-tailed deer — nicknamed "Virginia deer" — swelled from 1,000 in 1962 to more than 21,000 in 1978. By 1980, Finnish hunters had bagged 15,000, and that harvest grew fourfold in the 2019-20 season alone.
It all started with those 13 expat fawns from Minnesota and a whimsical idea hatched by Saranen and Ketola, who attended Virginia High School together in the 1920s.
"According to our family history, my grandfather and his friend were sitting around waiting for deer hunting season when they got this crazy idea to send deer to Finland to grow the species," said Amy Dettmer, 49, Eino's granddaughter and a librarian in Grand Rapids, Minn.
The real history behind the Minnesota-to-Finland whitetail pipeline gets a bit muddled because of a fictional book, now out-of-print, published in 1979. In "Bobbi: Father of the Finnish White-Tailed Deer," Matt Niemi and co-author Mary Sharp tell a heart-wrenching story.
According to the book, after a fast-moving train killed a mother deer north of Virginia in May 1934, Niemi, a farm boy, raised the orphaned male fawn and named it Bobbi. A game warden persuaded Niemi to donate the fawn to the Finnish transplant project. Two of the three young bucks died on the final leg of their treacherous voyage and were "buried" in the Baltic Sea before reaching Helsinki, leaving the fate of the Finnish whitetails to Bobbi alone.
Writer Gordon Whittington tried to separate fact from fiction in a deeply researched story in 2013. He notes there was no mention of Niemi or Bobbi in newspaper clippings back in 1934.
"There's little doubt [the book] does contain some factual information," Whittington wrote. "The question is, which parts are fictional, and what's the impact on those parts on the overall veracity of Matt's story?"
Whittington concludes that "only in a loose sense" can we believe Niemi's story that Bobbi, the train wreck orphan, was the Adam for Finland's whited-tailed population. After all, there was that second shipment in 1948 — which started with a photo op featuring Minnesota Gov. Luther Youngdahl and a Northwest Airlines flight attendant checking on a fawn in a crate about to fly out.
"It is entirely possible, but it can't be ruled out that some of the genes would have come from the second transplanted group," Finnish biology Prof. Jon Brommer said in 2018.
Both voyages in 1934 and 1948 were arduous. The first fawns traveled by rail from Minnesota to New York City before boarding a steamer to sail across the North Atlantic. Along the way, Dettmer said, "the train would make stops so people could get off and pick greens for the deer."
The male fawn that survived that first trek was so weak on arrival in Finland that he couldn't move. Ketola had to carry him to a clover field on the way to an estate that agreed to host the young Minnesota deer. But he recovered and the first Finnish fawns arrived in 1937.
Fears of inbreeding prompted the second shipment in 1948. "The fact that the herd was expanding under just one buck was concerning to many wildlife experts," according to a Finnish news agency. Two of the three bucks who flew over in Round Two died within a year of their arrival, leaving one male and three females to be released in the wild.
"One fact is clear: the Arrowhead of Minnesota provided enough whitetails to get the Finnish population started," Whittington wrote.
And what became of the two Minnesota-born sons of Finns who accompanied the deer to their ancestral homeland in 1934?
Eino Saranen studied business at the University of Minnesota before taking over the auto-parts garage his father opened in Virginia. The father of four daughters, he died in 1994 at 84.
Lester Ketola took over his family's furniture store in Virginia, dying at 51 in 1961 and leaving behind his wife and three kids. He's buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
Niemi's book concludes: "As for the generosity of the Minnesota Finns, theirs was a gift that keeps on giving."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.