by Erin Doane, Curator
When photographer Jack Delano from the Farm Security Administration came to Rumsey Hill in northern Chemung County in 1940, he photographed nearly a dozen families living there. I wrote about his documentary project here on January 4, 2021. As I mentioned in that post, I wasn’t able to find out much about most of the people he photographed, but I did learn a lot about Urho Maki and his family.
|Mr. Urho Maki, September 1940|
Urho Maki was a Finnish immigrant and farmer in the area of Rumsey Hill in the Town of Van Etten. He and his wife Aina had three children, George, Ethel, and Bertha. From searching the local newspapers, I learned that their lives were full of struggle, conflict, and tragedy. In 1940, they were photographically document by Jack Delano as a family living in rural poverty. The Makis owned their farm but, like many other people at that time, suffered greatly from the effects of the Great Depression. Their struggles continued for many years.
In late October 1942, fire broke out in the Makis’ barn and quickly spread to their house. Despite the efforts of the Van Etten Fire Department, both buildings were destroyed. Neighbors gave the family shelter in the immediate aftermath and the Lioness Club offered them assistance in the longer term.
Three years later, tragedy struck the family again. On September 10, 1945, nine-year-old George went swimming in Shepard’s Creek with his younger sister Ethel and another youngster. George got into deep water and disappeared. Ethel ran home to get help, but by the time they returned George had drowned. For some reason Urho and Aina believed that a neighbor with a grudge against them was responsible for their son’s death. They went to court multiple times attempting to press charges against the person they believed to be guilty, but repeated investigations yielded no supporting evidence.
|Daughter of Urho Maki (likely Ethel), September 1940|
Urho and Aina were in the news again starting in 1950 when the County began the process of rerouting County Road 3 in the Town of Van Etten. The construction plan included the appropriation of land from the Maki farm. When Urho lodged a complaint about the plan, it was modified to take less of their land than originally proposed. Despite that, the Makis continued to fight against the project. Eventually, the courts ordered that portion of their land condemned and Chemung County issued the Makis two checks as payment for the property (though they never cashed them). When highway officials and workers arrived to begin construction, they were greeted by members of the Maki family armed with shotguns.
It appears that the road construction did go ahead even as the Makis continued to protest. In April 1953, Urho, Aina, and their two daughters went to Albany in order to see Governor Dewey regarding the County appropriating part of their land for the highway rebuild. After waiting for two hours at the Executive Chambers of the State Capitol they were asked to leave as the building was closing for the day. Aina apparently caused a disturbance and shouted at the State Police that arrived to calm her down. She was ordered to leave Albany or be jailed. She was later given a 30-day suspended sentence after admitting a disorderly conduct charge.
|Star-Gazette, April 29, 1953|
In November of the same year, both Urho and Aina were arrested on charges of stealing fencing from the Lehigh Valley Railroad. The railroad company had a right-of-way near the Makis’ farm, but they claimed the fence had been put up on their property. The couple tore the fence down and were arrested for it. On November 27, they appeared in County Court. While they were arraigned separately, Aina kept breaking in to comment about the proceeding and yell questions across the court. Urho repeatedly tossed a map across the papers on the judge’s bench to support his claim that the fence had been put up on their property. Both husband and wife made it loudly known that they wanted their case taken to the highest court in the land.
|Star-Gazette, November 28, 1953|
Bail was set at $1,000 cash or $2,000 property for each. They refused to pay and were ordered to jail. Urho refused to get up and was half-dragged out of the courtroom by two state troopers as Aina continued to vociferously protest. As all this was going on, their seven-year-old daughter Bertha wailed and 15-year-old Ethel stared stolidly across the room.
Language may have been the cause of much of the confusion in the courtroom. The Makis’ first language was Finnish. While they spoke some English, they also relied on their nephew Neil Lehto to help interpret for them. Their second appearance in court a week later, this time with a lawyer, went more smoothly. Cash bail was posted and both were released from jail. Urho admitted a charge of malicious mischief and received a suspended sentence and probation with the condition that he return the fence he tore down to the Lehigh Valley Railroad. The indictment against Aina was dismissed.
It would be nice to report that this was the end of property conflicts for the Maki family, but it wasn’t. In August 1956, Aina threatened a state trooper with a potato digger after she had prevented workmen from placing markers along Route 223 in preparation for road reconstruction. She was not arrested that time. After that, the Maki name only appeared in newspapers in less sensational, personal notices.
|Urho Maki, September 1940|