Many of the Estonian organizations and communities familiar to us are celebrating anniversaries of several decades of activity, often taking pride in being the “first” or “oldest” such group in the Estonian-American community. But there have been individual Estonians and entire Estonian communities in the United States long before the influx of World War II refugees. Nearly all of these pre-World War II organizations and communities have dissolved or been assimilated. Most of what is known about them can be found in the book Estonians in America, 1627-1975 (Pennar, J., with T. Parming and P. Rebane. Oceana Publications, 1975).
Thanks to a lead from Dr. Parming, my husband Agu and I found and visited, on our cross-country trip in the summer of 1977, a former Estonian settlement near the prairie town of Chester, Montana.
The prairies are indeed a flat, unimpressive land. It was difficult to imagine what could have attracted people to settle here, especially before the so-called “amenities of civilization” had reached the area. But people flocked here in large numbers early in this century during the days of the Homesteading Act, when the United States government offerered 320 acres of land to anyone willing and able to cultivate it. This free land was advertised in many European countries and Russia, as well as in the eastern U.S. and Canada. Within the kaleidoscope of ethnic groups who left their homelands to answer this call were nearly 40 Estonian families, who traveled to this then-desolate western state around the year 1910, seeking a new homestead and a better life.
In the early years, many of these families lived in tiny shacks or mudbrick houses. Water was a precious commodity, wells were often some distance from living quarters, and in the winter, the people would sometimes have to melt snow. During the harsh western winters, potatoes were kept under mattresses to prevent them from freezing. Heat came from wood stoves and cow chips. Medical care consisted, for the most part, of traditional home remedies.
The Estonian settlement was often called the “Finnish settlement” by others in the area, since most people were not familiar with Estonia, and the language of these foreigners sounded much like Finnish.
During the years 1914-1916, with considerable financial and physical effort, the Estonians built a community hall (the very first “Estonian House” in the United States!), located about 10 miles northwest of Chester, Montana. All materials and labor were donated by the Estonians themselves. The Estonian Community Hall was the site of dances, plays, songfests and various other celebrations, whenever the people could afford a break from the rigors of everyday life in the hostile prairie. This was also the site of an Estonian School for the Estonian homesteaders' children.
By the 1920's, however, a series of natural disasters, such as drought and plagues of grasshoppers and cutworms, forced many Estonian families to leave the area in search of better living conditions, and a few of the original community members remained when the situation began to improve in 1927-28. In 1927, the entire Estonian Community Hall was moved into the town of Chester and became a community hall for all the local residents. The original Eesti Maja still stands today in Chester, Montana (see photo), now used as a warehouse by Chester Implement.
In honor of the American Bicentennial in 1976, the Liberty County Museum (the county in which Chester is located) published a history of the county entitled Our Heritage. Leafing through this 511-page collection of old photos, anecdotes, clippings, short articles and interviews, we come across the faces of Estonian pioneers among all the others who settled the American prairie.
Tiina Kaia Ets, a well-known face in the Baltimore Estonian Community, writes for their local bulletin and works as a freelance translator. We're also proud to have her as the Esto America Baltimore correspondent
(This article appeared originally in Esto America, January 1984, and is reprinted here with the author's permission.)
America's first Estonian House