TABLE ROCK, Neb. — Finnish photojournalist Markus Jokela discovered this farm town in 1992 at the end of an index finger.
He and his writing partner, Ilkka Malmberg, had been assigned by the largest newspaper in Finland to do a story about small-town life in America during the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World.
So Malmberg closed his eyes and pointed at a map of the U.S. His finger landed on southeast Nebraska.
Nearby Tecumseh, with a population of about 1,700 at the time, was too big, and Elk Creek, with 116 people then, was too small. So, they headed to Table Rock.
“Table Rock. 308 inhabitants” was the headline on their first story, published in 1992.
“By the end of their first day here, everyone knew who they were and what they were up to. Word gets around pretty quick,” said Missy Freeman, a local hairstylist.
Freeman was among the Table Rock residents, also including former State Sen. Floyd Vrtiska, who showed the Finns around this old Czech town, now down to 258 residents.
They met local residents grabbing the morning mail, gathering for the homecoming football game, and gabbing at the local feed store.
“We just walked around and knocked on doors,” said another guide, Sharla Sitzman, a retired federal attorney. “He just wanted people who were going about their daily lives.”
They shot photos of town character Myron “Snappy” Kent in his overalls, of the rescue squad answering an accident call, and of a three-legged dog named Puppy, yawning as he sat atop the hood of a car parked on the town square.
“He’s famous in Finland,” Freeman said.
Now, 25 years later, the Table Rock photos have won an international award, and may soon be compiled in a book.
After publishing a “Return to Table Rock” story in the Helsinki-based Helsingin Sanomat newspaper in 2009, Jokela said he became interested in turning the visits into a book. He’s returned three other times, at his own expense, the last being about a year ago. Sadly, Malmberg died last fall of pancreatic cancer.
But Jokela, in an email last week, said he’s forging ahead. The preliminary layout for the book is done and a publisher retained, he said, “but some money is still lacking.”
Not lacking was the quality of the photos. The Table Rock project won third place recently for long-term projects from the World Press Photo Foundation.
Jokela, 64, is no ordinary photographer. He’s covered famine in Darfur, the tsunami that struck Sri Lanka in 2004, and the aftermath of the Iraq War.
But ordinary life in small-town USA kept luring him back.
“What struck me about Table Rock was the sense of community, the way that people take care of each other,” Jokela said. “When something bad happens to someone, for example when someone’s wife dies, the neighbors take care of the family.
“That was something that interested me, that feeling of belonging together,” he said.
The rural Nebraska habit of waving at the driver of an oncoming vehicle or someone walking down the street really had an impact on Jokela and Malmberg. Finns are more reserved, Jokela said, and would wave only at people they know.
“They said they discovered they had a cousin on every block,” Freeman said.
Over the years, just about everyone in Table Rock got to know the Finns. Freeman and her family became friends.
One of the first photos Jokela shot was of Freeman’s 3-month-old daughter, Kelly, sitting in the lap of her grandmother, Patty Stevens, at the Table Rock hair salon and gathering spot, Freeman’s Hairitage.
Years later he and Malmberg returned for Kelly’s wedding. A photo from the wedding was featured in the series that won the award, and in a book published by Jokela.
“To Missy, the first person to meet every time I come to Table Rock,” he wrote in a book he gave to her.
Jokela and Malmberg also got a ride around town in a muscle car, a 1977 yellow Chevelle owned by Freeman’s son, Connor. Laying down rubber may have been part of that ride.
Jokela said that rural Finland has some similarities to rural Nebraska: Kids grow up and often move to bigger communities in search of jobs.
But, he said, in Table Rock he noticed that some young people eventually move back to raise their children in a “safe environment.”
A lot has changed in Table Rock since the photo project began in 1992. Many of the older residents pictured have passed on. The local school has closed, as has the town tavern. The town square, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has nearly as many museums (an 1893 Opera House, a Pioneer Museum and the town’s old newspaper office are among them) as working businesses.
Jokela said he’ll be back when his Table Rock book is published.
“Maybe I put a slideshow on the screen of the senior center,” he said. “If it’s still there.”
Table Rock, about 85 miles south of Omaha, still has a thriving historical society.
Every year between 300 and 500 schoolchildren come to a Living History Day on the town square that features a blacksmith, a steam-powered thresher, baking with a wood stove and other pioneer crafts.
The society also maintains nine museums.
The Table Rock Argus newspaper museum looks just as it did when the paper closed in 1974. And the old Opera House still has some of its original stage scenery. There are also museums dedicated to the town’s veterans and its Czech heritage, and an old log cabin and Catholic church.
Sitzman, who is a board member of the historical society, can also tell a heck of a ghost story. Ask her about the three horse thieves who were hung over for three days.
For more information, call 402-839-3003 or email TableRockHistory@gmail.com.