St. Urho’s Day: Butte’s Warm-up for St. Patrick’s Day

Courtesy of the Helsinki Bar
Courtesy of the Helsinki Bar
Every March 17th, Butte’s reputations as a thickly Irish town and as a wide-open mining town converge in the raucous, beautiful mess that is St. Patrick’s Day. Butte’s St. Patrick’s Day is justly famous, and the city’s connection to Ireland well known. Not everyone in Ireland knows Montana, but mention Butte and their eyes light up. They know exactly the place you mean. However, Butte wasn’t just an Irish enclave. At one time, Butte was one of the western United States’ most important cities, and it attracted immigrants from across the world. Most important to today’s blog, Butte attracted Finns. The Finns came later than other groups. However, by the 1920s the population had grown enough to form a thriving neighborhood: Finn Town. Finn Town has disappeared, consumed by the Berkley Pit, but a Finnish population still survives, and clings to its ancient traditions.

The tradition, in this case, is St. Urho’s day, which comes from 1950s Minnesota. St. Uhro is a tongue-in-cheek invention, riffing off of the legends of St. Patrick and American folk heroes like Paul Bunyan. According to the story, the Finnish vineyards were faced with a terrible grasshopper problem (this was sometime in the mythic past when Finland had a climate conducive to grape growing). Urho yelled at the grasshoppers, and told them to leave Finland, and they did. All this happened on March 16th, and if you think this seems like an attempt to upstage St. Patrick, you might not be entirely wrong. Over the past 60 years, Finns in America have embraced St. Urho’s day as a way to honor their Finnishness. St. Urho is especially popular in places (like Butte) with both Finns and Irish, because St. Urho’s Day makes a perfect pre-party to St. Patrick’s Day.

In Butte, the festivities center around the Helsinki Bar and Yacht Club, the only remaining Finn Town building. Bar goers elect a “saint” and “lady” of the day who get draped in bright purple and green cloth, stand on the bar, shout out something in Finnish, and then get toasted with shots of purple schnapps. From there, festivities (probably after a few more purple drinks) eventually spill over into St. Patrick’s Day the next day. The fact that there are almost 63 different types of grasshoppers and crickets still living in Finland doesn’t seem to bother anyone in the slightest.

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