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Fairport Harbor, Oh, 44077
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"American Finn Leaves Legacy"
The Dr. Amy Kaukonen Story
By Lasse O. Hiltunen

Amy Kaukonen quoted Edgar Allen Poe on the night she made the decision to become a candidate for Mayor of Fairport, Ohio in 1921.Dr. Amy Kaukonen

“...And now was acknowledged the presence of the red death. He had come like a thief in the night and one by one dropped the revelers in the blood bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall.”

Dr. Kaukonen had seen one of the murdered victims that very afternoon, and had advised him that if he did not quit drinking, he would die of liver failure. Obviously, bootleg liquor, an argument and bullets speeded the process. Two men died that night in a secret bar. Earlier that same day women of the village who were thoroughly disgusted with the men who had made a “complete failure of things” urged her to run for mayor. They related the inside story of Fairport’s corruption by the big whiskey runners. She made up her mind that night. She would run for mayor.

A young 29-year-old Dr. Amy Kaukonen had started her practice in this atmosphere in 1920, (Population: 4211,half Finnish). Because of her steadfast upbringing in a strict Finnish Lutheran religion, Kaukonen was appalled by the seamy bootleggers who brought in the demon rum and by moonshiners who made home-stilled whiskey. Hard-working Finns were made slaves to alcohol and evil women. These conditions made her a candidate of the People’s or Reform party whose unofficial planks specified that it was against alcohol, dance halls, and corrupt government.

Kaukonen waged an honest campaign and won by 75 votes over her adversary William Stange. (Kaukonen 465, Stange 390.) Heavily publicized by the Painesville Telegraph, a local newspaper, stories made much of the prohibition issue, but much more of the woman candidate. Coincidently, woman’s right to vote passed as the nineteenth amendment in 1919 also helped. In Finland, land owning women voted in 1865, and all women voted in 1906.

Kaukonen was, to say the least, a publicist’s dream. She was young. She was beautiful. She was sassy and took little guff from anyone. She was accomplished, having graduated not only at the top of her Conneaut, Ohio high school class, but also with high honors from the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as the first Finnish woman doctor. She was the “first Conneaut Finn kid to graduate high school.” (Not many children finished school in those days.) Historically, she was the first woman Mayor elected in Ohio, and most probably, the second in the country. She served in the U.S. Army as a volunteer in the medical corps, as well as the American Legion.

Has Dr. Amy Agnes Kaukonen contributed to Finnish American history? The answer is an unequivocal and resounding yes! She met an enemy called bootlegging and single-handedly engineered a program in 1921 to change the course of Fairport history.

Kaukonen’s election was the first hurdle, but the real work was in changing the culture of “the damp spot on the Lake” as Fairport was called in those days.

Even before she was elected, a well-dressed gentleman visited Dr. Kaukonen in her office and presented a “block” of hundred dollar bills if she would quit the Mayor’s race. If she didn’t quit immediately, she could still resign one day after she was elected and still keep the “block.” It is obvious that Finnish upbringing which steadfastly anchors itself in honesty and trust, kept Dr. Amy on the right “gentleman.”

Since the 1880’s, Fairport, a busy lake port of entry, had a certain deserved rowdiness combined with extensive use and misuse of alcohol. Dockworkers liked their alcohol and evening entertainments. There were 28 saloons in 1901, where the marshal had to quell many fights and two breweries (Leisy’s and C&S). But by 1906, all the saloons as such were closed. Ninety percent of the soft drink establishments, pool halls, and hotels (saloons in disguise) openly sold bootleg whisky. Fairport’s Kasvi Temperance Hall’s Finnish members fiercely fought back.

Once in office, Dr. Amy had to deal with a reelected marshal J.H. Werbeach who ignored bootlegger activities. Confidently, the new Mayor pumped stories to the local papers describing the marshal’s inactivity and crooked policies and quite possibly “worried the man to death.” He died in 1923.

Kaukonen’s appointment of Leander Congos as new marshal, and a willing Council continued the bootleg eradication plans. Amy’s plans included licensing of poolrooms and soft drink establishments which gave her the means to punish the sneaky saloons.

Amy’s Mayor’s court revoked and refused to renew licenses and sent operators to jail and fined them heavily. Many were sent to Stark County Jail, which put them sixty miles away.

This law and order renewal campaign was not without incident. Mayor Kaukonen was threatened almost every day of her term. The verbal threats were common, but as time went on, the more serious they became. Mention was made of “a fire set to your house when there is a strong wind blowing!” Not intimidated, Mayor Amy continued her crusade.

In a 1922 Homeland Security version of the Mayor’s warrants, she and the Marshal conducted “John Doe” searches of “suspected” places involved in the violation of the Volstead Act (sections 21-22) and brought them to court.

Reporters from all over the country reported that Kaukonen was systematically cleaning up Fairport, Ohio.
Drama? Yes. Effective? Most assuredly. Dr. Amy Kaukonen changed the course of the tiny village to one of civility and family life instead of criminal activity. Without her efforts, a continued underground criminal element may have flourished and surfaced in time to become the culture of the town. Fairport could have become a center of organized crime. It did not.

Amy Kaukonen’s Finnish family history shows a common theme of hard workers coming from Vaasa Province, known as the breadbasket of Finland.
Father Joseph Wilhelm Kaukonen, born in 1853 in Vähäkyrö, and mother Karoliina Aila Koivisto born in 1856 in Kurikka, Finland were married in Kurikka in 1874. They settled in Ylistaro, but left there and landed in, of all places, Lorain, Ohio in 1889, where Amy was born in 1891. The parents and four girls relocated to Conneaut, Ohio where they lived for years. Northeastern Ohio, as many know, is a stronghold of Finns, so they moved to be with “their own.” That was common.

Many of the Finns were railroad workers building lines to accommodate iron ore and coal shipments. Ashtabula, Conneaut, and Fairport also were “port” towns that handled the iron and coal. Finns moved where the work was.

Amy took her Finnish woman’s courage, insight, value and teachings to preserve the Fairport community, i.e., the family, and battled the outside forces of alcohol and the criminal activity that it multiplied by circumventing the Volstead Act. Thus, she fought to protect and preserve the dignity and integrity of people she valued against the insidious criminals who turned regular people into drunken fools. It is not dissimilar from the drug trade situation in today’s society.

1921 and 1922 were a whirlwind for Amy. Not only did she have duties as a medical doctor in a rough and tumble town, she became a sought after spokesperson as a result of her elected fame. Her star presence was valued, and she traveled to New York, Cleveland, Columbus, and Boston to attend and be honored at anti-saloon league meetings. President Warren G. Harding lauded her with an appreciatory letter and a gift of two Airedales (for protection).

Fairport’s Lyric Theatre manager Rogers scooped the country with a special screening of a “moving picture newsreel” of Mayor Amy on December 26, 1921, before she officially took office.
The Painesville Telegraph continued its front page coverage and ran a United Press syndicated human interest feature: “Fairport’s Girl Mayor Defends Modern Girl, Short Skirts, Jazz.”
In some ways, the article shows a different side of Mayor Amy, one that promotes freedom of expression, styles, and hairdos. One would think that “modern Mayor” has joined forces with the “Roaring Twenties” crowd to discard the corset, raise the skirt, bob the hair, shave her eyebrows, powder her nose, and roll her stockings. For every argument for retaining the Puritanical standards, Mayor Amy had a reason against.

Kaukonen railed against narrow-minded people and positively exacting standards, saying “Some folks are so narrow there isn’t room to stick them between the eyes with a pin.” The pert Mayor defended bobbed hair for women, short skirts (wearing them herself), dancing (“the cymbals, saxophone and violin make me move my feet”), and singing.
She also condemned corsets as puritanical nonsense and prudery. Thus, Amy shaped ideas, opened eyes, and changed life.

The public life even put her into possible candidacy for lieutenant governor of Ohio, which she declined. She declined an offer of $1000 per month on the theatrical circuit, offered her. She also spurned numerous “marriage proposals,” (some really pathetic) from all over the country.

In a show of pure generosity and love for her fellow man, she also donated her salary ($50/month) to benefit the poor.
Dr. Amy Agnes Kaukonen sets a standard worth emulating, regardless of ethnicity. She was a star in a dark night. Society is better because of her presence.

Note: this story was also published in the Finnish American Reporter, December, 2007.

Story © Lasse O. Hiltunen, all rights reserved.