Johan August Renhold Nyman—1887 to 1965

My grandfather, Johan August Renhold Nyman, was a Swedish-Finn who emigrated to the US about 1910. (Find out more about Swedish-Finns at the Swedish-Finn Historical Society.)

On his second Declaration of Intention application (May 24, 1941), he states he came in through Seattle, arriving on the SS Victoria from Canada. On an earlier Declaration of Intention dated July, 28, 1911, he states that (using the name August Nyman) he left Liverpool, England for Halifax, Nova Scotia on the "Corsican" and arrived March 26, 1910. From Halifax, he traveled by train on the Canadian Pacific Railway to the West Coast, then took the "Princess Victoria" into Seattle sometime in the spring of 1910.

The Corsican


Over the years he told stories to my mother (his son George's wife), Mary Ferrill Nyman, though many are at odds with existing documentation. The life story of John Nyman as he told it started with his birth in Helsinki. At a very young age, 8 or 9, he went off to sea. His daughter, Mabel tells a story of his being hidden from the Russian soldiers by his captain while docked in Helsinki. The captain had rolled him up in the sails while the Russians searched the ship. She also mentioned that he used to drive his mother to work in a buggy. He told of his father, a fireman, who was killed on the job and his mother who worked as a cook at the Palace in St. Petersburg as a cook for Czar Nicholas II. He said he had been all over the world and through Tierra del Fuego, and his adventures included a shipwreck and rescue.

However romantic his life may have been, there is no documentation to support most of it. Johan August Renhold was born August 2, 1887 in Helsinki to a seaman's daughter, Johanna Koll Ranck, who was born December 28, 1865 in Nykarleby. He was baptized on August 6 by Pastor Otto Hahl at the Lutheran Church in Helsinki. Witnesses were students, Maria Mörk and Matilda Sjöman. There is no father listed on the Lutheran birth record.

The absence of the father's name is intriguing and annoying to say the least. Often on the Lutheran records, a notation of "oä" is made when a birth occurs out of wedlock. There is no such notation here. So the questions come up:

More research into the Helsinki records may shed some light on the origins of his father.

It isn't known exactly what Johan's mother did while he was very small. From a variety of postcards, however, it is clear that she was established in Helsinki for most of her life and corresponded with her only son until her death. Only one envelope with several small photographs survives. According to records kept at the Central Register of the Lutheran Church in Helsinki, Joanna was a maid servant when John was born. As a Swedish-Finn, she spoke primarily Swedish so John learned Swedish probably first as his mother tongue.

As far as education is concerned, his was modest. His formal education ended when he went to sea, so it's likely that he went to school for just a few years. Despite that, as with many Swedish-Finn emigrants, he was fluent in Finnish, Swedish, and English. As a seaman and ship's carpenter (timmerman), he was capable of swearing in all three. He corresponded consistently with his mother for more than 40 years.

If Johan went to sea at a young age, it isn't known exactly when. His obituary says that he started his seagoing career as an apprentice shipwright at the age of 12. That would have been about 1899. He said he went all over the world. In any event, he did return to Finland by 1909 because there is a postcard from him to his eventual business partner, Axel Wickstrom, and another addressed to him in Helsinki at Båtmans gat, No 4. ("Boat owner´s street"). At that time he was going by the name of August Nyman.

Model Ship - Johanna

A postcard photograph from that period shows a 3-masted clipper ship in a glass case. with a framed photo of him on top of it. The name of the ship? Johanna. According to John's WWII draft registration he provided financially not only for his own young family, but for his mother as well.

Where did the Nyman surname come from?

So where did the name Nyman come from? Did he became a "New Man" in a new country? Or did he take a name that had a connection with his family? I don't have any answers to this question. During the 1960s, my father told me that he had a Swedish cousin, Gunnar Nyman. Gunnar worked at the Swedish Embassy in Rome and his wife's name was Bruna. He corresponded with them intermittantly and also with Victor and Mia Nyman in Stockholm. After my grandfather's death, he quit ... he really wasn't interested. I think Victor Nyman may have been a half-brother of my grandfather, but have at this time absolutely nothing to corroborate that. Victor Nyman and Axel Wickstrom were friends, both were Swedes, and both lived in Helsinki. The story is opaque and needs to be unraveled, but will take traveling to Helsinki and rummaging in records there ... a daunting task for someone with few language skills. That and the name Victor Nyman is like being named John Smith here.

Axel Wickstrom—Friend and Business Partner

John Nyman & Axel Wickstrom

At about age 21 or 22, young John decided to go to America. How or when he met Axel Wickstrom is unknown, but it is clear that he knew Axel in Helsinki before they immigrated. As noted, Johan arrived in March 1910 and Axel arrived in August 1910.

They evidently went together to declare their Intent to naturalize on July 28, 1911 before the Clatsop county clerk of the Circuit Court.

The story via Mary Nyman though was that John came through Ellis Island and Axel went and got him out. However, there is absolutely no record for either of them at Ellis Island using any permutation of either of their names so it's unlikely. Could they have come earlier?

About Axel. His birthplace is unknown, but he was born about 1882 to a Swedish family. It's possible that Johanna worked for the Wickstroms or for a friend of Axel's family, Victor Nyman. In any event, he arrived in the United States at age 28. When he died in 1930, his obituary says he was survived by his mother and several sisters. His wife, Sophia Heikka, saved many of his postcards and they have tantalizing clues about Axel's life. From the postcards, Axel was in naval/military service engaged as a shipwright during the early 1900s and was stationed in England at least part of the time. Axel traveled quite a lot, but it isn't clear if he went back to Finland. They tended to go to and fro by sea quite a bit ... the early 20th century Scandinavian equivalent of taking the train.

Johan's mother, Johanna, knew Axel and send holiday cards on at least two occasions.

It's also not clear what type of role Axel played in the boat building business. Axel lists his occupation as a carpenter on the 1920 US Census. I think he may have been the more gregarious of the two and postcards between Axel and John lead me to think he may have been the "marketing/sales" guy with John responsible for the day-to-day managment of the business.

From 1910–1914, after immigrating, Axel worked as a shipwright for various shipping companies up and down the Columbia River. By 1917, he and John had set up their own business in Astoria.

Coming to the USA

In 1910, my grandfather emigrated and settled in Astoria, Oregon. He started a boat building business with Axel Wickstrom building boats for individuals, the US. Coast Guard, and other companies. He even build a pleasure boat for Mr. Meier of Meier & Frank fame.

Astoria teemed with Scandinavians in those days, especially Finns and Swedes. The young immigrant men came to Astoria and got themselves hooked up with families that ran Finnish boarding houses. I imagine that was probably common to other areas where there were dense concentrations of them. So my grandfather, who was about 23, started building boats.

John Nyman - St. Helen's Shipyard

August Nyman morphed into "John" Nyman sometime between 1910 and 1915.

As a boat builder, John was a perfectionist and very driven. As a young man, he was vain, relatively successful, and may have thought himself somewhat better than some of the other Swedish-Finns with whom he primarily dealt. His brother-in-law, John Ruitta didn't like him and thought him "dishonest." I'm not sure what lead to that assumption. He was inclined to enjoy his alcohol ... leading later to a downward spiral into alcoholism, but he also liked to have fun and play.

At work though, he was extremely demanding. His sons were both drafted to work in the boat building shop and George, at least, found the work tedious especially when working with his father who demanded that he sand until the wood was as smooth as glass. Thinking he was finished, George was often sent back to sand more because it wasn't smooth enough.

In 1917, all adult males were required to register for the draft, regardless of nationality or citizenship. John missed the deadline for the draft registration and was roundly castigated as a slacker. He turned himself to the County Sheriff and his step-father-in-law, Henry Krum, posted his bail. He was required to appear in the Federal Court in Portland for sentencing.

Failing to register for the draft was a serious breach of the social contract during WWI and the newspapers pilloried offenders. For three days, his name appeared on the front page as a result.

John's reason for missing the deadline was that he had been working from 5 am to 9 pm six days a week. The judge, stating that John's work was important to the war effort, sentenced John to only 18 hours in the Multnomah County jail.

The deadline for registration was June 1. John's first son, Ray August Carl Nyman, was born just a couple days earlier. It's possible that what with a new baby and the upheaval that goes with it, he may have lost track of time. Maybe he wasn't getting enough sleep.

John & Maria Nyman

Maria Susanna Ytterberg

My grandmother was Maria Susanna Ytterberg and she was born March 18, 1892 in Brookfield, Washington. Her parents were Swedish-Finns from far northern Finland.

I don't know how my grandfather met my grandmother. Possibly their paths crossed at the boardinghouse level or they may have been introduced. In the 1910 census, Maria worked as a labeler in the salmon cannery. Sophia Heikka, who eventually married Axel Wickstrom, also worked as a labeler. Sophie lived next door to Maria's home so they may have been friends.

My grandparents were married right before Christmas, 1915.

My grandfather bought Maria's mother's house and installed her as mistress of her childhood home. A grand, state-of-the-art, nickel-plated Monarch wood stove graced the kitchen. The front parlor had a brand new mohair sofa and a player piano. He gave his new bride pretty jewelry and a Singer sewing machine. For working-class Swedish-Finns, the John Nymans did pretty well.

Axel Wickstrom married too. His wife was Sophie Heikka. Sophie was one of the most beautiful women I have ever known. Drop-dead gorgeous, but very kind and sweet. The Wickstroms lived close to the Nymans and the boat building shop was just down the road on Young's Bay. The Wickstroms never did have any kids.

Family Life

John Nyman & children

My grandparents had three children, a girl and two boys. Their prosperity and domestic stability was short-lived. After a couple years of illness, my grandmother died in 1927, leaving my grandfather with three young children.

Wickstrom died in 1930. The boat building shop had burned to the ground in 1925 and despite continuing work, Wickstrom's death was the third blow in five years of loss. The stock market crash of 1929 decimated John's investments. I would like to say he kept a stiff upper lip, but the truth is John Nyman found solace at the bottom of a bottle and though he continued to work, he just seemed to have lost the will to start over. In about 1933, Sophie Wickstrom moved into John's house and became his housekeeper. She stayed with him for thirty years until her death. They didn't marry.

As a result of the catastrophic years from 1925 to 1931, my grandfather began drinking and the family really fell apart. Maria's sister, Ida Riutta, did her best to fill in the gaps, but she also had her own large family to take care of. Nevertheless, my father attached himself to the Riutta clan ( Ida had 10 kids) so when serving up supper, my dad was just one more kid in line. Another sister, Esther, wanted to take Mabel to raise, but John wouldn't hear of it. Sadly, that was a terrible mistake, because Mabel lost guidance that would likely have changed the trajectory of her life.

Despite his shortcomings and failures as a parent, John managed to do the best he knew how to do. When asked about his father, the oldest son, Ray, said he was a good father. Ray was a restless student in high school and though he did well enough, he wanted to be a fisherman. So, at age 14, John let Ray quit school, bought a fishing boat and hired a captain to teach him how to fish. Ray fished out of Astoria and Alaska for 50 years.

George's relationship with his father was typical of adult children of alcoholics. He was a driven caretaker and teetotaler. As the younger son and youngest child, it was his lot to take care of his father so far as his father would let him. Every weekend, he would drive to Astoria from Portland to visit and check in to make sure "the old man" had what he needed. More often than not, John would be drinking—his preferred drink was Four Roses whiskey—and George would turn right around and go back to Portland. This relationship prevailed until John's death in 1965.

From a grandchild's point of view though, John was a pretty good grandfather, all things considered. He got down on the floor and played with us and gave us toys. He would take one of the oak press-back side chairs and pound on the seat of the chair ... miraculously, pennies would come out of the chair and roll across the floor! We were of course delighted by this and lost no time collecting our loot and spending it on penny candy at the little gas station next door. The same miraculous penny production occurred with the "penny tree" next to the driveway. Grandpa John would stroke the leaves and pennies would come out of the leaves. It was many years before I knew that bush as a laurel ... it was always a penny tree to me.

Going to Grandpa John's house was not a highlight of my childhood because it was complicated by things I couldn't understand. But I was fascinated by the front parlor with its old sofa, player piano, and portrait of my grandmother. A stern portrait of my great-grandmother Johanna looked down on us disapprovingly. (Her hair was dark and combed back. With the plain white collar and black bodice, I thought she was a priest ... which made NO sense to me at all.) All the books were in Finnish and the house smelled like fish, coffee, and geraniums. By going through my grandfather's bedroom, I could get to my grandmother's room, which Sophie faithfully cleaned, but never changed. It was dark and contained all of Maria's belongings including her treadle sewing machine and a diamond-shaped mirror. It was a room of sorrow and mystery. I loved going through her things. No one ever chased me out. I was in a time capsule dating back to the 1920s. The basement was filled to the rafters with stuff. I don't believe Grandpa John ever threw anything away.

Invariably, there would be fish and potatoes for supper. Lakslåda with fresh salmon, potatoes, and milk baked in the Monarch oven. I don't recall anyone eating anything else. But who can argue with fresh wild salmon?

My mother disliked the water in Astoria (too much chlorine, she said) and refused to stay at Grandpa John's house. To keep peace in the family, my father bought a beach house in Manzanita for us to use. Even though we had to drive two hours from Portland, it was customary for the whole family to traipse down to the Union Steam Baths on Saturday night for a sauna. My mother (descended from a long line of Puritans) refused to sauna with anyone else, so my father would rent a private sauna. Afterwards, all clean and warm, my sister and I would get an orange or grape NeHi soda.

Eventually, old age took its toll. Sophie died in 1963, sitting in her rocking chair in the kitchen. Her heart just stopped. Sophie was buried in one of the six plots that Grandpa owned ...a stone's throw away from her husband, Axel Wickstrom. Grandpa John, without someone to take care of his domestic concerns, plugged away for the next couple years and finally died in February 1965 at the age of 78. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery next to Maria.

It amazes me that I have any story at all, because these people didn't talk about the past or their families. It was old stuff and even though they continued to correspond with family in the "old country" their focus was on the present and future ... not a past that was laced with things no one could do anything about. Somehow, I managed to ferret out bits and pieces here and there. My favorite bits are the ones that describe the personalities of the individuals. The kids didn't speak English until they started school. My dad was still able to speak Finnish years later when he'd meet up with another Finn. They had a distinctive sound to their speech. Often people would ask my dad where he was from.

On learning English: One day, one of the kids came home fussing about school and speaking English, and Uncle John Riutta declared that no one was to speak Finnish any more. English only. And that was the end of the Finnish language for the Riuttas.

Family Diagram

The following shows the family including children and grandchildren of Maria and John Nyman. (Names are clickable as pages are added to this site.)

Family Tree Link to Maria Ytterberg page


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