For a period during the first half of the 20th century, the tiny community of Cloverdale, WA, boasted the largest strawberry production in Western Washington. Situated along the southern outskirts of Kalama, Cloverdale was home to tight-knit Finnish families, the first of whom settled here around the start of the 1900s. During its heyday, there were nearly 40 family farms, which in one season produced more than 700,000 quarts of berries!
Basso, Hendrickson, Kangas, Lindula, Niemi, Pumala Pietila Warila – these are just a handful of the families who left Finland in search of something better, eventually coming to this beautiful setting along the Columbia River. In 1911, there were enough children living in Cloverdale to warrant replacement of the original one-room schoolhouse with a two-room building. It housed only the first eight grades. High school kids had to go into Kalama, which was a couple-mile walk or an easy horseback ride.
Over the next several years, more and more of the families focused their attention on raising a singular crop for market: strawberries. This ushered in big developments in the mid-1920s, as local farmers recognized that if they banded together, they could accomplish more and create a more financially secure environment, and thus the Cloverdale Cooperative Berry Association was established. A 3,000 barrel-a-year strawberry processing plant was constructed along with a co-op general store.
Of the store, a longtime resident recalled, “There was a big pot-belly stove in there, and you’d find a couple of the old Finns sitting around it.” You could buy clothes, canned goods, and if you forgot your school lunch, the resident said, “They’d make a nice sandwich and give it to you.” Another summed it up: “It was kind of like today’s Minute Mart, just the basics: bread, milk, dried goods and candy for the kids.” Charge it to your account.
The other community mainstay created in the mid-1920s was Cloverdale Hall (also known as Finn Hall), built by locals, all with donated labor. Once completed, it served the community in many capacities: funerals, local theater productions, co-op meeting, even church services. It’s the dance events that inspire the fondest memories, though.
“Remember the dances they had there?” another former Cloverdalian reminisced. “All the polkas! Oh, my folks used to take us out there when we were little, and that place would just bounce…. When the strawberry season was over, that would be a big deal there at the Finnish Hall.”
Cloverdale’s annual strawberry picking and processing season was a tremendous amount of work. Lots of extra hands were needed. Many kids and adults came from Kalama. Also, barges of Finns from outlying towns came down the Columbia to help. Finnish pickers were preferred, especially in the earlier days, since a lot of Cloverdale residents didn’t know English (or stubbornly chose not to speak it). At 3 p.m. every day, picking stopped for the traditional Finnish coffee break: hot coffee sipped through sugar cubes held in one’s mouth, along with pulla (fresh cardamom bread). At week’s end, the out-of-towners returned home, while others headed to a lively dance at Finn Hall. Then on Saturdays, men and women divided up for saunas on the various farms.
A grand festive community celebration marked the end of the season. Bands, dances, costumes, streamers, feasts and record-setting sized strawberry shortcakes were all part of the fun. In time, the festivities grew into city-wide events held in downtown Kalama, called the Strawberry Festival. These continued, off and on through 1951.
A blight in the early 1950s brought an end to Cloverdale’s great strawberry crops, and consequently a change in the composition of the community. Still a beautiful pastoral place, but it is no longer the Finnish enclave it was in previous generations.