In 1977, on January 19th, snow fell on Miami for the first and only time.
So obviously, thanks to a bit of Wikipedia-clicking, I’m going to commemorate this by talking about the State of Michigan. Because that’s just how I roll.
Unusual falls of snow aren’t that unusual – in 2007, orange snow fell on Serbia – so to talk about an area where snow absolutely isn’t unusual may sound strange. However, it’s interesting because of how, in 1970, the snow lead to the birth of a folkloric character who has since taken hold in the area.
We don’t expect folk legends to appear in the seventies; they emerge out of deserts or dark European forests, travelling with their communities on boats and on wagons. But Heikki Lunta is an exception to this.
But first, some history: The major wave of Finnish emigration to the States came at the back end of the 19th Century, motivated by the usual forces of religious freedom and economic opportunity. This became known as the Great Migration, with many immigrants ending up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. By the time the 1960’s arrived, third and fourth generation Finnish Americans engineered a renaissance in their ancestral culture, influencing many folk singers of the 1970s. This last bit is important.
Some geography: Winters in the Upper Peninsula are long and cold. This is also important.
Some economics: In recent years, the major industry in the area has been tourism, partly thanks to those long winters being ideal for snowmobiling. This is very important.
Some more history: In 1970, a major snowmobile race is due to be held in the town of Atlantic Mine. Just one problem – there’s no snow. There has been no snow for a month, and people are getting twitchy. And so Dave Riutta, an employee of the local radio station, decided to write a song.
The song wove the story of Heikki Lunta, a mythic bringer of snow – although he was named after country singer Hank Snow (Heikki Lunta being a Finnish translation of his name) and how the Range Snowmobile Club members were all petitioning him to bring some snow for the race. The song was broadcast on WMPL Radio and…
It snowed so much, in fact, that Riutta ended up writing another song, this time asking Heikki Lunta to go away. Legend has it that it snowed so much that the snowmobile race was cancelled, although this is debated.
Since then, Heikki has become part of the region’s folklore and mythology, invoked when the winter gets a little too harsh. The story sounds like something out of a book of fairytales, and yet it features snowmobiles and radio stations. In some ways it’s like a Neil Gaiman story come to life, and that’s because, although Heikki Lunta is only six years older than me, he speaks to concerns that are hardwired into communities – the weather, local prosperity, identity politics. You want to explain how a snowmobile race almost gets cancelled because there’s too much snow? That’s not a job for a meteorologist, not really; that’s a job for a storyteller. That’s a job for a legend.
And I guess there are connections to the folklore of my area, because my hometown has a story that everyone would tell you has been part of our community since time immemorial (well, okay, 1875), but in reality only took hold in the early 1970’s. The thing is, I remember my grandmother telling me the story of the Pig on the Wall when I was a child, meaning the whole thing must have entered local legend in the space of just a few years. And maybe that’s because the Pig served a purpose in the psyche of his community, the people responsible for the story tapping into similar same social needs as Dave Riutta. And who knows, maybe, on this day in 1977, a member of Miami’s Finnish community looked into the sky, saw snowflakes falling on the city for the first time ever, and, as weathermen and schoolkids freaked out, tutted and blamed Heikki Lunta.