Betsy Lindley interviewed Helen Hill (b. 1926) on August 7, 2000, for the Nordic Heritage Museum Vanishing Generation Oral History Project. Helen was born in Ballard and although she lived in many different places as a child, she returned to Ballard and raised a family. She is of Finnish heritage and participated in many Finnish Community groups, including the Finnish Lutheran Church and activities at Veliasurra Hall. She details various recreational opportunities for children and young adults in Seattle during the 1940s, including amusement parks, camping, dancing, swimming, and ice and roller-skating.
Today is August the 7th, 2000, and I'll be interviewing Helen Hill. We're at the home of Helen Hill in Seattle, Washington. My name is Betsy Lindley.
Hi. I'm Helen Pekonen Hill. I was born in 1926 in Ballard in a house near Market Street. And my father went out to get the doctor. By the time he got back, I was there, and he cut the cord. And after that, we moved to an apartment and lived in that apartment for, I don't know how many years, in Ballard. Then we -- my father was a carpenter, and we didn't have a whole lot of money, so we moved up to 32nd Northwest and 83rd, approximately. We lived in a little house in this great big lot, and our only relative lived about three houses up the street.
So, when I finally -- no, before that, we went to Finland, 'cause my mother was lonesome for her parents and her family. And we went there when I was four, came back when I was seven and had to go to school, but I couldn't speak any English. I had gone over there, knowing English, forgot the English, came back speaking Finnish, forgot everything else, you know. So I went to this Nordic Heritage school. At that time it was a grade school called Webster. And then I went to -- in there for two or three years. But after -- about six months it took me to learn the English.
And we lived up the street on 32nd, and my one -- our only relative had a car, and he would pick me up and bring his daughter. Her name was Anja Manninen. And we would go in this old car. It was one of those -- I don't know much about cars, but it was probably a Model T -- down to Webster every morning, and in the evening, afternoons, he would pick us up, back up the street.
And, let's see, after that we -- because my father needed work, we went up to Alaska on a 60-foot halibut fishing boat, because we got a free ride. Bag and baggage, off we went over the mountainous waves, stormy, ended up in Sitka, which is where my father built the first house in Alaska. It was on a street called Thin -- Thin Alley, I think they called it. Lived there for, oh, a couple three years. Then moved to Juneau, lived there a couple of years. Then we took a Ford Trimotor airplane, which is in the Museum of Flight now, up to Anchorage. Lived there three years.
And then I was in the first year of high school, and they had the war, and all the soldiers there. There were 3,000 residents and thousands of soldiers. So my father and mother didn't think it was a good place for a young woman to be with all those men. So, up we go, bag and baggage. We had to get a special permit to get out of Alaska because my father and mother were immigrants. They were aliens.
So, we came down on a ship. There were two ships -- two lines that went up there at that time, the Alaska Line and the Northland Line. The Alaska Line came all the way up to Seward and back, and the Northland serviced the southwestern part of Alaska. Inside Passage, they call it.
And we came to Seattle and Ballard. Lived in various amounts of houses and moved to different schools. I think I went to West Woodland, but I can't be sure, which is still there.
Then we had to get more work, so we trotted off down to California, down to Sacramento. Had this huge campus with a high school. I went in with my violin and started crying, because all these kids and all of this huge school, and I'd come from this little, dinky school somewhere. Oh, I grabbed my violin, came back to Dad, and I says, "I can't live here." So then we moved to San Francisco, lived on a hillside with a big blacktop playground. And the whole time we didn't have a car.
So then we stayed there for a year or two, and then we came back to Ballard. And Dad started building houses. He built the first one on 26th -- or 28th Northwest, I believe. Lived there for a while and went to school. Oh, I can't remember. Then we went to -- he built another one on 20 -- somewhere in Ballard -- 27th or something. And I finished high school in Ballard in 1945 -- '46, midterm because I was always behind, 'cause of the thing that I started when I was seven in the first grade.
So then, he built another house just over Phinney Ridge, which is toward Greenlake. And I finished -- no, I finished high school in Ballard, and then, after that, I went straight to the University of Washington paying my own way, working in an insurance company during the afternoons and going to school in the morning. And then he built a house over on the other side of Phinney Ridge where we lived for quite a while. In fact, they built two houses there. But I kept coming from the University to there by bus, back and forth for like what, three or four years.
I almost graduated, but I met Melvin. And we'd met before that. He married me because I could speak Finnish. And his grandma, who brought him up, couldn't speak any English, so the two of us could communicate. I used to kid him about that. I says, "That's why you married me." But it was kind of fun because we met at one of those Hub dances, you know. And we proceeded to court, and he was in the architecture school, I don't know, it seemed like forever.
But we decided to get married. So that came a halt to everything as far as education goes. Got married up there on Phinney Ridge Presbyterian Church -- no, Lutheran Church, Lutheran Church. What am I saying? Lutheran Church on Phinney Ridge. And what happened after that? Oh, Mel had to go to work to support, you know, the family. We did have an apartment on Capitol Hill for a while, but it was pretty hard to finish going to school and supporting ourselves, so he went to work in different companies.
But eventually we were able to scrounge up enough money for a down payment on a lot in Ballard, on Third Avenue Northwest and 47th. And there was a garage, existing garage, on that lot. Mel fixed it into our first home where our daughter was born. We lived there a year. Meanwhile, he was finishing the house, the main house right on the lot. So, when he got that finished, we moved in and with sawdust on our feet. And before you know it, I had another child, which didn't live past 18 months.
But then comes Norman, like gangbusters. So the two of them were brought up pretty much in the early years right there on Third Avenue. We had a lot of friends right in the neighborhood with children, and we all got along real well, and know each other to this day, most of them anyway. In fact, I have a picture here of Diana, which is one of the reasons we moved from that place.
Oh, this is a picture of -- a newspaper picture of Diana.
A car ran into her.
"Hurt and embarrassed, was shy when she faced the camera in Ballard General Hospital where she was taken with head injuries." Wow. "After running against the side of an automobile at Third and West 48th."
But she didn't --
How was --- and she got hit by a car?
Well, we have a house here, and their house over here and then a street in between. She had a friend over here, and she escaped my attention, you know. Out she ran across the street over to her friend. A car comes this way and (indicating). But he was going slow. And he just felt terrible. But, anyway, she only got bumps and bruises and kind of a swollen face. And the next day when I went to see her, she was bouncing all over that crib.
So we decided that was not a safe place for children. So we started looking for more property, and we finally found one on -- over -- 143rd, I think, and Ashworth, which at that time was out of town.
I mean, it was out in the toolies. And that's where we lived for two -- I don't know, two or three years. And my job was, during the daytime when I wasn't tending the kids, to run around and see if I could find some property, empty property. So I found one on -- just on Corliss and 100 and something. And he built a house there. And during all this building stuff, I was the one that took care -- made the yard, fixed the yard, put the bushes in and figured out where the grass went and all that stuff.
And that one on Corliss was one of my favorite houses. It was flat, ranch style. To this day, it looks good. And the kids had a great time there. So now, where do I go? I'm not in Ballard anymore.
Can I go back, 'cause there is something I was real interested in, was, you were born at home, and at that time were a lot of people born at home? Was it pretty traditional, or was it just because your mother delivered -- was that standard?
No. I think they did have a lot of them born at home. For one thing, medical care wasn't that available, it wasn't that close and transportation wasn't fast. They didn't have any medic cars to run around.
So there wasn't --
And they couldn't speak English anyway.
So, what are you going to do?
Who couldn't speak English? Your --
Okay, your parents.
Not very well, just a little bit, you know, a little Finn-lish, as we called it.
I think the story is that my mother said, "The baby's coming, go get the doctor," which they did have some kind of a doctor that they knew. But the doctor had gone out on a party and was out of it. So, he didn't know what else to do. He came back home trying to figure out something. Well, it was too late then. It was already done. I was there, screaming and hollering.
So, your mother delivered while your father was looking for the doctor, who was partying. But she managed -- they both managed, it sounds like.
Yeah. Well, evidently, there was no complication. My dad tied the cord and said, "Well, here you are."
What kind of help did your mother have? Did she have any relatives here, or --
She had one -- they had together one relative that lived on 32nd. And that's it. They came over here from Finland with no money, one address, and --
How'd they get over here?
On the boat, a ship.
They took a boat?
Uh-huh, they took a ship from Finland to England, across the Atlantic, and then I think they went through Canada.
They did -- after I was born, they did live in Massachusetts for a while and came back over this way by car. I think we finally got a car. It was one of those Model T type things. And my dad used to say, "Herra jesta," that car, it'll only go backwards up the hill. So, over the hill and down the dell, but when it came to a hill, we had to go backwards, up the hill.
Oh, that's funny.
And the whole time I'm laying on that little window compartment in the back and all our worldly possessions in the trunk. They didn't gather too much stuff because they always had to leave some.
So, when -- how long were they here -- they came over here by boat and came through Canada. And then how long were they here before you were born?
So, they were here one year, and you were born. And then, did you continue to live in Ballard at that point? And they still spoke -- they spoke only Finnish?
Well, very poor English. They could eke out a few words. My father could say "coffee."
The important things.
So, by the time we -- when I got a little older, I was their interpreter. So, all through their life pretty much, I did all the interpreting for them when they were stuck. They got better, because they had to get their naturalization papers, which was tough. Oh. Tough for them. They had to study all this stuff. They knew more about our government and how it works than I did by the time they finished going to school and taking all those classes.
How old were you then, when you were doing this translating? It sounds like you were in the United States for four years, and then went --
Finland, came back. Seven -- from seven, age seven -- well, I did the translating all their lives, practically, for them. I'd write their checks sometimes, and --
How young were you when you started, do you remember? Like, were you doing it when you were really young?
Oh, I must have been --
(Continuing) -- like four? Do you remember that?
No. I think I started when I was about eight, because in the meanwhile, I had to learn English myself.
What was that like for you?
Well, for a young person, it's easy. After -- we didn't have any teachers to help us with a second language.
Well, there's nobody to help you. You're just --
You just did it. You just sat there and listened, and just picked it up. Kids pick things up fast.
Was it confusing when you came back, to come back to Ballard from Finland?
It was. But as a young child, you just kind of absorb things as they go. You just roll along with the punches.
I don't recall ever having any unhappy times. My father and mother were pretty jovial, especially my father. He was a great clown. Oh, I did that interpreting from then on, all the time. You know, if it was something important and they needed to know what it meant, like the fine print in some contract, or -- and then that -- getting those immigration papers. Oh.
Now, when was -- tell me about that. I'd like to hear more about that, 'cause that's pretty important.
Yes, it was. And it was so important to them because they wouldn't have been able to -- well, they wanted to become United States citizens. That was important to them. So we went to school and we'd study the lessons and go over them, and I'd try to explain to them what was what. And my mother got her papers first. She was little bit more -- I wouldn't say intelligent, they were both smart. But I think it was more important to her. So she got her papers, and boy, what a happy day that was.
What did she have to do to go get those papers?
Well, you have to fill out a million forms first, down at the Federal --
So you were helping with the filling of the forms out?
Right, at I think it's called the Federal Immigration Building. It's still there. And then taking all the classes so she could understand all these questions that they would have to answer in a test eventually to pass.
And were you with her in those?
Uh-huh. I tried to be almost in everything with her, just to give her support. But she did get it finally. And then my father had a little tougher time because I think he had come over the border illegally from Canada. I think he just walked over. Well, then we had to do this going back and forth between here and Vancouver and getting all these documents from there and Alaska. Oh, everything you can imagine. But eventually he got his, too. And, boy, when it came to vote, they voted. They didn't care if they could understand what's on that sheet, but they voted. They always asked us about this and that, but basically they made up their own minds. They were Democrats, very staunch Democrats.
So, that was that part. But even after they got that, there were still times when they couldn't understand the fine print, so you'd spend a lot of time with them, you know, trying to figure out -- Mel helped, too, because he could speak Finnish. In fact, my father and him got to know each other pretty well. Did a lot of fishing together; built houses together.
But the transportation, that's really interesting to me, because you talk about all this fast transit. In those days they had trolley cars in Ballard. And they went -- if you ever notice in Ballard, there are certain streets that are real wide, I don't know, about every 10, 15 blocks, going across toward the Sound, and that's where the trolley cars ran. And they'd go down to the main part of Ballard, then down through Fremont, down around Lake Union, end up downtown. And that's how we went to town, is on that trolley car.
And if they had kept the rights to all those routes, now they would have fast transit without a big hassle, but they didn't. And if you wanted to go to -- north to Everett and north of that, there were trains, and they ran right through -- oh, about Aurora, just west of Aurora. And all those train track lines, if they had kept the rights to those, they would have perfect fast transit. In the meantime, they all disappeared, and people moved in, and now they've got a big deal.
In those days they had a -- kind of a -- what do you call it, Funland, or where they had merry-go-rounds and roller coasters and all that stuff right over on Bitter Lake, which is now all apartments. And the way we got there was on a trolley car from Ballard. We'd go up there and spend the whole day and night. Then the darned thing burned down.
It wasn't Funland; it was something like that.
Uh-huh. But the transportation really allowed you to get around the city, it sounds like. You were able to get around. And this is one of the places --
(Continuing) -- besides going downtown, you went to --
Yeah, I know there's several -- was it like an amusement park?
Yes, exactly. That's what it was, an amusement park. And it has a name, but I can't recall.
By Bitter Lake.
Uh-huh, all around the edge of Bitter Lake, partly on the other side. And the other places, we'd go downtown on the trolley -- well, later on they did get buses -- was to go downtown to work. On Monday nights and Saturday and Sunday, you could work for -- what was it? -- for about $3 an hour, or maybe less, at the Bon Marche after school. And working in the men's underwear wasn't all that much fun.
But they moved me up to cosmetics, and better jewelry. Oh, my, that was great.
And oh, they had the most beautiful theaters downtown at that time, you know. Like on First Avenue they had a beautiful theater with organs playing between the intermission. They had one -- oh, they must have had five or so of those big theaters and beautifully done inside. And we'd go down there and go to the movies and have some gooey dessert afterwards, and come back, you know, a couple of girls, the three of us. And we didn't have any problem with crime. You know, we didn't have any trouble. But it was a way to get around.
Then, later on in high school, we'd go down to -- on the bus -- all the way to West Seattle where they had also a -- it was kind of an amusement park, but they also had --
(Continuing) -- had swimming pools, and the one we used to like to go to was the swimming pool there on West Alki Beach that was outdoors, outdoor saltwater swimming pool. And we'd go down there and lay on the beach and swim in that pool all day. And it was an all-day trip. You'd go there and meet the boys and girls, then come back tired and sun burned in the evening. It was a long way to go from Ballard all the way to West Seattle on the bus. Youth has so much energy.
So, it sounds like that you did -- a lot of activities were outside of Ballard that you went to.
You felt comfortable, you know, traveling and doing that. Before when we talked, you mentioned -- oh, it just left my -- well, I'll come back to it. It was a place that you mentioned, it's up north, that there were --
No. Well, I'll think of it. It just sort of left me. Golden Gardens.
Yeah, was that a place where you would --
Oh, yes, that was wonderful. That was my really fun place to go with my mother and father and all their Finnish friends. Finnish people, like a lot of people, are clannish, and it was mainly because of their language. They would all contribute something to this big pot of stew. Go down there in the morning, bring their kids, bring their cards, and cook this stew there at the stoves, which are still there, and play pinochle. This was during the Depression days, so you just didn't have a whole lot.
And that's where I learned to swim, was right there on Golden Gardens, because, you know, I didn't want to sit there watching them play cards all day, so I'd go down to the beach and paddle around, and paddle around. And pretty soon I was able to swim all the way out to the raft, which they had at that time. That was a great activity for those people. They just had the best time for hardly anything. You know, they all got there somehow and laughed and joked and told stories. It was a good place.
Another interesting place that maybe you aren't aware of in Ballard is down Ballard Avenue at the far end, there used to be an ice arena. And I would spend three days a week, or evenings, going down there ice-skating. It's now, I think, a storage place or something. But it was, you know, a great activity. That was during the time of Sonja Henie.
And she was such an inspiration. So, you know, of course, you try to be like her, which I never did, but I did learn to ice skate. And other activities we had there was roller-skating.
At the same arena?
That was another place?
No, it was -- they might have had one in Ballard, but I don't recall ever going to Ballard. They had one in Greenwood at that time. So we'd go up there and roller skate. And then, when we got enough money, we used to take trips with somebody who had a car out to Pine Lake, which was out miles, you know. You'd go on those old dusty roads back there for picnics and camping, and they would just have a great time, you know. Now, I think the last time I heard, it's completely surrounded by houses. In those days it was just back in the toolies.
By the time I got to Ballard High School, and I came from Alaska on my third year, I hated it. I hated it the first year, because I came from a small school to a huge school. So all my friends were people whose names started with P. I was a Pekonen, P-e-k-o-n-e-n. So everybody around me was in the P's. They put you by alphabetical order. So I knew all the Petersons. Some of my best friends to this day are Petersons. And let's see, about Ballard.
Anyway, we got through that.
Well, how -- now, you went -- you were there your sophomore year? Was that your sophomore year? We've got your yearbook here, The Shingle.
In 1944. And "presents Alaska." Can you show me your picture?
Oh, great. I worked on this.
Oh, you worked on it?
What did you do?
I probably didn't do a whole lot, but I did something on that. I didn't do this art work. It would be under P.
Yeah. We're looking at the yearbook now, and . . .
It might be in this part because I did work on it.
So, were most of the people that you went to school with, did most of them speak English fairly well, but speak another language at home? What was your --
Oh, I suppose --
(Continuing) -- your experience in that?
(Continuing) -- they probably did speak other languages at home. Some of them. There were others that -- we had one Black student in that whole school.
In Ballard High School, just one Black student?
His name was Smith. The best family you ever could find. I went to the Ballard reunion here not too long ago, looked at the pictures, and it's almost the reverse. It's a nice school. I had a brick from this school, 'cause my favorite subject was horticulture.
You took horticulture in --
Uh-huh. Well, it was a gardening class.
They had a greenhouse in the corner. And I always felt so comfortable in there, so I spent a lot of my extra time by working in that greenhouse. And so, when they tore the building down, they were giving out bricks of the old school, and I said, "I want the brick from that greenhouse." And it's sitting right over there.
Oh. How many people were in your class?
In Ballard, yes.
I think I was talking to Mel about it, and he thought about 2,000. It was a big school. For me a very big school. They keep sending me Ballard Beaver information 'cause I'm a Golden Ballard Beaver.
What kind of classes did you take, other than the horticultures? That's very interesting to me because it's --
It kind of --
(Continuing) -- I don't think that's -- I don't know how it is today, but I know it was not taught very often.
No, it wasn't. But they had a greenhouse, and we had a teacher that could -- boy, this is in bad shape. I'm trying not to tear it apart. I couldn't tell you where I am in here.
Okay. That's all right. I just remember your yearbook and I remembered some of the drawings in here I thought were pretty interesting, and --
Yeah. Whoever did it was quite good.
Did you find that a lot of the students -- you came back in your sophomore year, and you were traveling around a lot, but it sounds like a really -- that was sort of something that your family did. And that this was not uncommon for people in Ballard because they -- because of their work?
I think it might be so. Yet there were others that never went anywhere. They stayed in Ballard their whole life. They're there to this day. You know, they really kept right in that one spot. But I think my mother and father were wanderlusts for [inaudible].
And it was mainly because of the work. So I always tell people I was born in a suitcase.
Tell me what -- I didn't get your father or your mother's name and what your father did.
Let's see. Well, my father's name was Victor Pekonen, P-e-k-o-n-e-n. And my mother's name was Lily. But her maiden name was -- God, what was it? Oh, well, anyway, it was Lillian Victor Pekonen. I'm one of those people that always put the lady's name first. Doesn't mean that it's more important, but anyway -- yeah, they were good people.
Three times a week they'd go to a dance, down at the Ballard -- not Ballard, it's right on 15th, and it was called the Veliasurra Hall. It was a Finnish hall, and, course, no babysitters; in those days, you'd take your kid with you. So they would have a -- sometimes a -- well, almost always live music. Somebody knew how to play a violin or play a piano or something. And they'd play like crazy. And my mother and dad were just dancing around out there having a good time, and I'd be sleeping in the -- something, right next to the band. And if the band stopped, I would wake up. As long as it was playing, I slept like a baby.
So, they went to these dances three times a week?
Uh-huh. They loved to dance. That's where they met all their friends.
And you got to hear the music, too, the live music.
Uh-huh. By the time I was old enough to walk, I was out there dancing with my dad. That was fun. They also had a stage in that old hall where they put on plays. So some of the people would perform, and they would put on plays and all kinds of programs. That was a wonderful back stage. I used to crawl around that back -- going through all these powder puffs and lights and pretending I was a star.
But it's no longer there. It did finally have to close 'cause the membership stopped, you know, getting smaller. And the last time I heard, it was a tavern. Then they finally folded up and made it into an apartment or something.
Now, what was the name of that again?
Veliasurra Hall. Finnish Brotherhood, that Veliasurra Hall. Now they have all their doing, Finnish doings, at Nordic Heritage Museum. Many times a year they have something going on. They have a lot of good information in the museum about all those Scandinavian countries and their immigrations and why. And so, I really am glad to have that heritage museum there, and I hope they never go anywhere else.
Although, I hear they are.
Was everything spoken in Finnish there at that club when you did the plays and things that you remember when you were playing?
Yes, everything was.
Were you ever in a play there?
I might have been. I might have been, you know, some little kid in a skit. And even later on, when I was already married and we had the two kids, we tried to get Norman to be -- play his trumpet there one time for a gathering, but he was so shy, he didn't want to do it. Diana has been there. Now they -- as I say, they moved to the Nordic Heritage Museum, but they also have -- right in Ballard they have a Finnish Lutheran church, which is very active with Finnish gatherings. I go every November to that Nordic Heritage Museum and get all my coffee bread for the Christmas season, 'cause there's some woman there that can bake that coffee bread so good. I buy every one I can find, and I put it in the freezer.
What makes it different?
Cardamom. And good hands. You know, it's got to be all kneaded, kneaded, and you've got to feel it, and it's just right. Mel and I have tried to bake it, no way. No way. My mother makes wonderful coffee leippa they call it. Finnish -- it's Cardamom, that's the secret thing. I go down to the market and buy it in bulk and come home and grind it. I just like to walk around and smell it.
And your mother made that a lot?
All the years. She had -- she just knew how we had been -- she'd been making it since she was little, all her life. She had just the right touch, you know. She just knew when it was ready to bake and do this and do that. It just went right over my head. I missed that whole thing. But, you know, Diana can make it really well. Skipped a generation. I was glad about that.
And did your mom -- what other things did your mom make that was really good that you remember?
You mean cooking-wise?
Oh, she made all kind -- bread. She -- bread, she'd make her own bread, and a lot of good soups and stews. And being the only child, I was chunky until I was 33, because my mother made me eat my plate clean. Had some milk and -- oh, gosh. I remember that. She was a wonderful sewer. Oh, she had taken some sewing school when she was in Finland, and she could just sew like a dream, and all these things were just perfect. Just perfect, you know. None of this wishy-washy type of sewing that I do. And there again, it skipped a generation; Diana can sew really well, but I can't.
I want to get up a minute.
Oh, yeah, please.
And show you something here. See this costume here?
Oh, it's lovely. Let me just -- I'll bring this over. I'm looking at a dress that Helen's holding up. And you can tell me about it. I'd like to hear about it. It's just lovely. It's beautiful.
Well, it was brought from Finland, given to my mother by her sister. And it's handmade, hand-woven. All this, hand-woven wool. And not only that, but it's -- you know, they grew, grew the wool. This, you put around your head.
It's like a -- it's a red kind of lace?
And you put it around your head sort of just to --
Just for decoration, yeah. And if you have certain kind of beads, you'd wear them. But each district has their own design.
Each district from Finland --
(Continuing) -- has their own design.
So this one came from Perra Seina Joki, which is near my mother's home. This is a hand-stitched apron, which some of them wore --
Oh, that's beautiful.
(Continuing) -- in front.
This is an all-white apron. Looks almost -- is this linen?
I don't know. I don't know.
It's just lovely, beautifully done, with little flowers on it, white -- has pockets. It's very pretty.
Well, it's been in my cedar chest for years, and I finally got it out and aired it up a bit.
Oh, it's lovely. So when you go to a dance, you can go and say, I know that this person's from this particular district because of the design?
That's right. And I was really surprised to see that same costume down there at that Finnish town called Nasselle, Washington. They have some dinky town, thousands of people there for this celebration. It was really something. ....