The seaside wooden towns of Kvarken are filled with interesting history, fascinating traditions and intriguing myths.
Have you ever heard the expression “having one foot in the grave”?
Even though it is commonly understood as being close to death or trapped by death, in the village of Öja, this expression has a more literary meaning.
There’s an old tale of an old fisherman named Mjosund-Viktor who lived on Mjosund Island in Öja. Viktor was born in the mid-1800s and lived on the island with his wife Lena. In 1915, Viktor got an infection (gangrene) in his right foot, just like many fishermen were prone to during these hard times.
However, Viktor didn’t believe in his local doctor’s knowledge or treatment. His self treatment to ease the pain was to put his foot in cold and salty seawater.
As the infection spread and the pain got stronger, Mjosund-Viktor found out his only solution was to amputate his foot. Still not believing in doctors and modern medicine, he decided to do this at home with the help of his wife.
Viktor made it through the amputation, and soon after, his wife wrapped up the amputated foot and took a long sea journey to Karleby town. There, she met with the parish priest, asking for permission to bury the amputated foot in the graveyard. The priest approved and the foot was buried. Viktor lived for about a year after his self amputation, literally with one foot in the grave.
The town of Kristinestad was founded on Koppö Island in 1649. The city grew slowly over the next century and after the town was given staple rights in late 1700, Kristinestad started to develop rapidly. Industries such as shipbuilding, seafaring, leather factories, breweries, and fishing were established, and this attracted the bourgeoisie and the artisans. Kristinestad bloomed.
During the 19th century, its port was one of the busiest in the Gulf of Bothnia, and the merchant fleet was one of the largest in Finland. Impressive houses were built along the waterfront during this time period. These include Empire-style merchants’ trade buildings and cottages which previously housed shipowners and the rest of the bourgeoisie class.
But these magnificent houses aren’t the only buildings with historical significance in Kristinestad. Development over the last centuries is evident in the various styles of wooden houses in the town. Following its narrow streets, the further away from the seaside you get, the smaller the well-preserved, colorful wooden structures become. The wealthiest citizens lived closer to the sea.
Another living sign of Kristinestad’s history are old wells around town, which have been preserved from times when water was manually carried into the homes. Today, they appear as romantic decorative elements with spring water flowing down gravel ridges from taps.
Kristinestad also has a selection of unique customs buildings, which date back to between 1680 and 1720. Under Swedish rule, these buildings were checkpoints for charging custom duties to people arriving into the city.
A nice story from Kristinestad is also how the alley Kattpiskargränd got its name. The name of the alley, translated in English, is Cat whipper’s lane and dates from the 18th century when Kristinestad experienced its golden age due to the lively shipping. Young shipyard workers from Skaftung village made lots of noise in the narrow alley when they came out of the pub. The night sleep of the people in the neighborhood was disturbed and the residents had to come out, to drive the loud men away. The cheerful men, were called kitten in Swedish after the village of Skaftung from which they came. This is how the alley got its name and became later the official name of this alley. The alley is one of the most photographed streets in Finland today.
Strolling around Kvarken’s wooden towns, pay attention to small mirrors attached to windows outside of old houses. The function of these “gossip mirrors” was to stay informed about what was going on outside the house, without being seen as nosy. Sometimes, the mirrors also kept the residents informed about what was happening inside the neighbours houses as well. In Kokkola town, there are tales about the meaning of decorations that residents put on their windowsills.
As the town was mostly inhabited by seamen, sailors and fishermen, wives were often left alone at home for months while their husbands were at sea. To signal this to the community, they would have a pair of porcelain dogs placed in the window. The dogs would be facing out if their husbands were away, and facing inwards if their husbands were home.
It is said that this custom was also a sign for their lovers to tell them in a subtle way when it was safe to visit. Nevertheless, the mirrors outside the houses allowed neighbours to pay attention to everyone arriving or leaving the houses, making sure to keep the flow of gossip going.
The Kvarken region’s land uplifting phenomenon is visible everywhere you go. For some of the small wooden towns, it has had a huge impact over the years. As the land has risen, the old town centers have moved further away from the shoreline. Bays have either been cut off from the sea or are getting too shallow for larger ships to enter. Times have also changed, and what used to be important industries for the area are now replaced with new professions.
The town of Jakobstad has a strong tradition of shipbuilding and was an important maritime trade town up until the mid 19th century. A lot of this industry was located in the old harbour area of town, but as times changed and new industries took over, the old harbour has a different purpose now.
Today, the old harbour is primarily a recreational area with a beach, beautiful forest and marina for small boats. Well preserved, traditional red boat houses, wooden buildings, loading docks and old storehouses still line the harbor and tell the story of a former thriving shipbuilding community.
The Shipyard Museum and its war indemnity schooner, Vega, also play important roles in telling the history of both Jakobstad and Finland. The wooden three-masted schooner Vega was one of 91 war indemnity schooners built in Finland after the country was obliged to pay war reparations worth 300 million gold dollars in products to the Soviet Union. It was delivered to the Soviet Union in 1952 and relocated to Estonia.
Even though the Vega was not built in Jakobstad, it remains an iconic symbol for the town. Beyond being a fine example of Finnish shipbuilding – combining traditional knowledge and craft with innovative wood construction – it is also a symbol of peace.
After Vega had served as a school vessel until 1979 in Estonia, the Estonian Republic donated back to Finland and she was transported to Jakobstad in June 1997.