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2017-07-14 / Range History

MY LEGACY TOUR IN TOIVOLA

The school, the cemetery, the homestead, the swinging bridge
By Helen Aubol
HTF Contributor


The Nygard headstone in the Toivola Cemetery, with an aerial photograph of the old homestead on the left. Photo by Lyssa Hilde of Lyssa Hilde Photography. The Nygard headstone in the Toivola Cemetery, with an aerial photograph of the old homestead on the left. Photo by Lyssa Hilde of Lyssa Hilde Photography. THIS WEEK IN RANGE HISTORY

TOIVOLA – There is something about reaching milestones in one’s life that causes one to look back over your life to see where it is that you have come. This New Year’s Eve will be a major milestone for me as I turn 65 years of age and I will be making a decision on my Medicare supplement. Perhaps it’s that.

Or perhaps it is simply the fact that two-thirds to three-quarters of my life has passed and that alone makes me wonder what sort of contribution I have left behind for future generations. Friends my age often discuss our “final arrangements” and whether or not we would want a traditional funeral or simply to be cremated and our ashes tossed into the wind somewhere. Yes, it’s what you do as you age.


Four generations of Nygards in 1941. Standing (l. to r.) are William Nygard, the author’s father, and Oscar Nygard, the author’s grandfather. Seated is Jacob Nygard, the author’s great-grandfather, holding Edward Nygard, the author’s oldest brother. Edward drowned in 1958 at the age of 17. Submitted photo. Four generations of Nygards in 1941. Standing (l. to r.) are William Nygard, the author’s father, and Oscar Nygard, the author’s grandfather. Seated is Jacob Nygard, the author’s great-grandfather, holding Edward Nygard, the author’s oldest brother. Edward drowned in 1958 at the age of 17. Submitted photo. It was those discussions that prompted me to think about doing my own personal “legacy tour.” As a child it was customary on or before Memorial Day to go with my parents to take care of the relatives who had their final resting place in the Toivola Cemetery by bringing flowers—fake or real. Toivola is a small area that lies south of Highway 37 between Hibbing and Virginia along Highway 5. It was a Finnish community where speaking Finn and taking saunas were a way of life. Anyone who lived there knew that it was a common Saturday night ritual to visit friends with coffee, good food and a sauna.


Helen Aubol stands by the Toivola swinging bridge. Photos by Lyssa Hilde. Helen Aubol stands by the Toivola swinging bridge. Photos by Lyssa Hilde. I think the Toivola Cemetery has to be one of the prettiest cemeteries in our area as it is very well kept and sits on a gentle hillside about a mile west of Highway 5. It faces east with a large Lahti hayfield that separates it from the highway and is surrounded by large hardwoods making it a very peaceful place to visit. I have four generations of Nygards buried there and I can still recall the stories told by my parents about each family member, both good and bad.

It was those stories that prompted the legacy tour. I needed to pass those stories on to our daughter, Alyssa, and her daughter, Lennon, so they would be able to pass the stories onto their children, grandchildren and beyond.

We chose Saturday, June 24, 2017, as our tour date so Alyssa’s beau, Frank, could join us. Lennon had just spent most of the week with us as my husband Gary and I needed our grandma and grandpa fix after being in Florida for the last seven months. As Minnesota weather would have it, this June has been cooler than normal and that was no exception. Overcast, windy and occasional showers saddened me as visiting a cemetery in the rain is not my idea of a great time. During my morning prayer I asked the Lord if He would at least let the sun peek out and no rain to full during our time there.


The barn on the author’s old homestead is showing some signs of age. The barn on the author’s old homestead is showing some signs of age. So off we went on our adventure. Gary, Lennon and I met Frank and Alyssa for a nice warm meal at the Wilbert Café in Cotton. Then, as we took off on Highway 52, I shared with them how Cotton was the last community in Minnesota to give up their telephone switchboard in the ‘70s. They had no idea about party lines, four digit phone numbers, telephone operators and listening in on your neighbors.

We headed south down Highway 7 made famous by Bobby Aro and for the drag racing that took place during the years of the muscle cars—long and straight it was perfect for racing. I showed them Harry Kacer’s bar which was a local watering hole that provided lots of liquid refreshments for young and old alike during that era.

From there we turned right onto Highway 133 which leads us right into the heart of downtown Meadowlands. Today Meadowlands is just a shadow of what she used to be. I could no longer see any remnants of the cheese factory, Ackley’s garage or, most importantly, the teen’s favorite hangout of the Bayou. (Not even sure of the spelling, but it was a hamburger joint that held wall-to-wall kids after the basketball games, much like Al’s Diner in the television series “Happy Days.”) While Rudy’s grocery store, Plett’s and the co-op store are still standing, they serve only as reminders of the years-gone-by.


Helen Nygard, now Helen Aubol, and others from the Toivola Meadowlands class of 1971 left their signatures on the school’s blackboard during an all-class reunion some years back. Photos by Lyssa Hilde. Helen Nygard, now Helen Aubol, and others from the Toivola Meadowlands class of 1971 left their signatures on the school’s blackboard during an all-class reunion some years back. Photos by Lyssa Hilde.

One could not leave Meadowlands without stopping by the local Toivola-Meadowlands School. It was the heartbeat of the community and when it closed the community slowly began to die along with it. We stopped in front of the building and spotted a couple cars out front. Alyssa, being bold, said she wanted to see if the doors would be open. We waited in the car thinking that surely the doors would be locked but, surprisingly, they were open!

We all piled out of our Prius and cautiously entered, not knowing how safe or unsafe this would be. We entered the darkened gym that still smelled the same as it did in the 1960s. Gary was brave enough to try the lights and sure enough, they began to turn on. It was sad to see that Old Man Winter and a leaky roof had caused the wood floors to buckle, but the American flag still hung where years and years of students had stood and faced for the National Anthem. One couldn’t help but remember the cheering and screams as we would play basketball against our arch rivals, the Cotton Cardinals.

As we poke our heads in and out of the dark and forgotten classrooms a beautiful calico cat came to check us out. Shortly thereafter a fella came towards us, along with the cat. Extending ourselves to show that we were friendly, we found out he was the owner of the building and that he was using it as a place to rehab old GMC RVs to their original condition. He lives in Cloquet and isn’t at the school often, but we just hit it right. He walked with us as we toured the whole building.

Alyssa called out to me at one point saying, “Come here Miss Nygard” (my maiden name). Sure enough, in one classroom there was my autograph on the blackboard, along with the autographs of a couple of my BFFs. Evidentially, we had signed it back in the early 2000s when we had an all class reunion there. It was sweet to see it hadn’t been erased.

In the original part of the building we saw the rock fireplace that was in the old kindergarten classroom. Upon seeing that fireplace one couldn’t help but think about all the students who had stood before it waiting to get class pictures taken for the school yearbook. I almost felt like, if we could get quiet enough, we would have been able to hear the laughter and voices of those who had passed through these halls.


The old Toivola Meadowlands School. The old Toivola Meadowlands School.

After profusely thanking the man and Madea the cat for allowing us to tour, we went outside to an unbelievable sight…THE SUN! Remembering my earlier prayer I thanked the Lord and we loaded up for our next stop…Schneiderman’s.

If the Meadowlands area had one claim to fame it was the Schneiderman’s Furniture store. It didn’t start out that way. Max Schneiderman bought the little two-story building to be what we might consider today to be a convenience store. While it wasn’t as big as the co-op store, it was the place to go for that can of soup, the Sunday paper and, most importantly, the penny candy.

The family lived in the second story and Max and Edna were a real blessing to the community on the 4th of July as they hosted fireworks along the railroad tracks for area residents. Then Max began selling Sealy mattresses in part of the store. At one point he asked my father to join him as my father was a truck driver with his own trucks. My dad’s response was, “Who’s going to drive out here to buy furniture?” We often joked about that being the difference between a Jew and a Finlander. The rest is history.

Next stop was our homestead that was about a mile from Schneiderman’s. Back in the day it was all hayfields, but no longer. Today it is heavily timbered and one can no longer see the neighbors as in years past. The homestead was the same, but different. The barn is still standing but much like me is showing signs of age. My older brother, Larry, had made the hay mow into a basketball court and the “big kids” would come out to our place to shoot hoops. That stopped, however, when one night the thumping so frightened the cows below that one fell into the manger and had to be put down.

We didn’t trouble the owners of the property during our tour, but instead headed towards our main destination, the cemetery.

Most folks may not think of a cemetery a place of peace and comfort, but to me there is something special about seeing a place of your genealogy right in front of you. The first stop was a patch of shrubs with a dedication sign for Edward Nygard, my oldest brother. He was the golden child of our family. Smart and handsome, he had a bright future ahead of him. However, on July 2, 1958, one month after graduation he drowned in Nichols Lake. I was only five at the time so my memory is foggy regarding him, but it warms my heart that the cemetery still honors him after nearly 60 years.

We then moved onto the rest of the relatives from my parents to my great-grandparents sharing the stories as the stories had been related to me by my parents. We even visited Evelina Maki, my father’s aunt who, undoubtedly caused scandal in the community when she cheated on her husband while he visited Finland. Upon his return and discovery of the infidelity, he chose to hang himself in his despair. Now he lies next to the man she later married. We thought that perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea.

We piled back into the car and headed back to Highway 5. As we passed the Lahti hay farm I remembered the hanging bridge by the highway. It is an old-fashioned hanging type bridge meant for foot traffic and was old when I was a kid. It crosses a picturesque babbling brook below that would be fitting for a calendar month. Sure enough,

 The rock fireplace in the kindergarten room of the old Toivola Meadowlands School. Class pictures for the school yearbook were often taken in front of this fireplace. was still there and someone from the Lahti family has refurbished it. Alyssa and Lennon were brave enough to stand on it and take pictures. It is one of the three remnants of a small Finnish community that once thrived and served the families of the area. The other two remnants are the cemetery and the white Lutheran Church sitting on a hill that has honored many of those who made their last trip from the church west to their final resting spot.

Most amazingly, as we piled into the car for the last time that day, the rain began to fall. Once more, I had to thank the Lord for remembering us on our legacy tour.

I came away with some final thoughts. In our day when everything is so disposable, it felt good to be able to go to a physical place where my own personal history still exists. To see the memorial stones of my relatives was a reminder that even through the decades, their lives still mattered. They left a legacy, a faint trace that their existence on this earth left behind a contribution to humanity. While it is sad to see these small towns wither and die, one can still see the echoes of those who went before us. These are brave men and women who left their home of Finland to an unknown land with the hopes of a better life and future for their children and grandchildren. Well done family. Well done.

I hope that one day my great grandchildren will stand by my memorial stone in Toivola and share the same stories with their grandchildren about how life used to be. That’s my legacy tour. What is yours?

Helen Aubol and her husband Gary have spent the last decade living a vagabond lifestyle between Florida and Minnesota. They still consider Minnesota to be home and they return to Virginia every spring.

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