“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it,” German author Johann Wolfgang Von Goetheone once said. There are some people who give so much of themselves their lives seem short by comparison. Minna Kuuskoski was such a person.
Anyone who has traveled up Market Street in the last 20 years likely noticed the troll cottage tucked away at Market and 23rd—the big “U.S.Trolls” sign outside beckoning their curiosity. Inside, Minna would take visitors on a magical trip to Trolldom, a world where problems are solved with humor, ingenuity, and choosing to do the right thing. Her stories gave lessons we all could use a little reminding of now and then.
The building was a denture-maker’s office and a tattoo studio before Minna and her family occupied it. Their initial prescence in Wilmington coincided with the craze for the small, rubber trolls with wild-colored hair in the early ‘90s; yet, the Kuuskoski family offered something much more wonderful than a passing fad.
The family developed Fauni Trolls in Finland after World War II. Helene, Minna and Johannes’ mother, began making trolls at the kitchen table from scraps of fabric. Within a few years, she had two children and built the business into a piece-work factory surrounded by a theme park filled with actors in troll costumes. Eventually, they had the third largest tourist attraction in Finland.
Just think about that for a moment: from the kitchen table to a national tourist attraction, all while raising two children. It not only takes dedication and hard work but an incredible vision and ability to say yes when opportunities come along.
Just as they were riding that high crest of the wave, the storm broke. The family lost the business to the Finnish supertax. It would be hard for most to recover emotionally from trauma like that—the family lost everything.
Minna and Johannes literally grew up in Trolldom. Their house was in the middle of the theme park, and the piece-work factory was on the same property. Bitterness did not pervade the Kuuskoski household. They had the opposite response: hope radiated out the door every time I visited the store in the front room of their house. They held the key to success in life and business. Entrepreneurs can’t be scared; it’s about going out on a limb and making things happen.
Helene, Minna and Johannes immigrated to Canada with hopes of winning the visa lottery into the U.S. The Kuuskoski’s kept making trolls by hand in Buffalo, and when they finally got visas for the U.S., they settled in Wilmington over two decades ago. They rebuilt the troll business and steadily planned for attempts to reopen the theme park.
Hard work seems to be the watchword of the Kuuskoski family. They accomplish so much through sheer determination. The family started with scraps in a country devastated by World War II, built an empire and were forced to rebuild their business—not once but twice—in a new country. During their time in Wilmington, they raised the next generation of their family who have gone on to college and graduate school. Whether they realized it or not, they symbolize the “American Dream.”
When times got rough for trolls, Minna took on a second job selling vacuums. Still, she continued story time and performed at local elementary schools. While in the presence of someone living up to their true purpose, it’s difficult to immediately understand the power of what’s being seen. The ripple effect of that message spreads throughout the world—maybe not on a grand scale like with Stephen King but on a more personal level. When Minna told troll stories, she shared a world where there was enough love for everyone and joy in sharing. She taught that true learning was about trying something new. Trolldom let imaginations soar to a place where evilness was selfishness, and where real magic is what you share between friends.
The trolls of Trolldom helped me get through some tough spots in my life: times when I needed someone to cuddle and to take on imaginary adventure away from my fears. I am not alone in this. For the children of our neighborhood, the troll cottage brought a little bit of old-world magic to our lives. We could walk down the street to the toy store, hear stories, and go home with handmade toys filled with love. Green Nose, the plant psychiatrist troll, Trumpet Nose, the poet leader of Trolldom, Honey Lips, the inventor troll with his “Trolls Royce,” and many others have brought great joy to many lives. They might not have achieved the fame and recognition of Barbie or GI Joe, but I think for those of us whose lives were touched by the trolls, the impact is deeper and more lasting. The message will stick.
Minna never married. That really surprised me for a long time because she was one of the most nurturing people I ever knew. After meeting her nephews and niece, I understood: Minna gave her compassionand love to everyone around her regardless of age or station in life. She cared for Helene, the family matriarch, for years and lavished affection on her niece and nephews. I never once had a conversation with Minna that didn’t make me feel completely welcomed into her heart. I wish I could live that way, too.
I just thought it would go on forever. I wish Minna had enough time left to make the theme park happen, and for the trolls, which are the legacy, to live beyond her with other people producing them and telling their stories. I have very few regrets in life, but we had planned to do a book of Minna’s troll stories with Old Books’ in-house micro press. Originally, I hoped to do it this year with plans for a release in the fall. Due to money, we decided to put it off until next year. I really wish we hadn’t, so Minna could have held it in her hands before she left us.
There is a bit of Minna we share with each other everyday: Troll magic is a smile, troll magic is laughter, and the more you share it the more you have to share.