A Spiritual and Cultural-Historical Journey
from Pirita to Vana-Vastseliina

Pilgrim’s route


The Village of Vetla lies near the middle course of the Jägala River. Our journey continues across  Perila–Jäneda Road, which joins Piibe Road at Jäneda. A new bridge spans the Jägala River at the same spot as before the war. In 1941 the old bridge was blown up by the retreating Red Army who used the scorched earth tactics; after that the traffic was directed over an emergency bridge, which was not wider than the width of a lorry. The new bridge was built in the 1960s.
On the right hand side, just before the bridge, there is a monument to the Battle of Vetla, which took place during the War of Independence, and the inscription on it reads: „Slow down, bare your head. The enemy, threatening Estonia’s independence and freedom, was defeated here on 5–6 Jan. 1919”. The Battle of Vetla was one of the decisive battles, after which the Estonian army began its counter-offensive.

A story told by Hans Poomann, who participated in the Battle of Vetla, goes like this:
„In early January 1919, a small group of armed local men were standing here on the hill with the double purpose of defending the bridge and fending off an advance to Tallinn (ca. 55 km along the road) of the nearly 200-man strong Viljandi Red Riflemen battalion, which was stationed at Jäneda Manor (ca. 9 km from here). In the early morning a three-man reconnaisance group approached the bridge from Jäneda. They were betrayed by their peaked hats decorated by large red star badges. When it was clear that there was no larger army approaching, the enemy was destroyed. A battle was said to have taken place on the edge of the forest, where the Village of Vetla ends.”
Hans did not participate in this battle, as he had to join his troops. After being wounded at the Narva front Hans was convalescing on his home farm of Allika, in the Village of Jõe.
The three fallen soldiers are said to have been buried to the left of Vetla–Voose Road (ca. 50 m from the road); there is a granite stone memorial put up to the fallen Viljandi Riflemen.
The monument to the War of Independence at Vetla, erected in 1932, was dismantled and thrown into the river in October 1940, from where it was salvaged and put up again in 1942; however, it was destroyed again in the Soviet times. In January 1990, when the 71st anniversary of the Battle of Vetla was celebrated, the memorial was restored and re-opened.

Those who remember people and events from before the Second World War have passed away, but oral memories have been preserved. Alvar Gellert, whose grandfather Artur Pungas was a border guard in Lake Peipsi area, lives in Vetla.

The Päevaleht (The Daily) printed a news item on 9 February 1938: „Yesterday, on 8 February at 7 a.m. our border guards from the Nina border outpost went on a regular patrolling mission on Lake Peipsi. The patrol consisted of Sgt. Pungas, Head of the Nina Border Guard Service and Corporal Kaio. A local man came with his horse and sled to transport them. Nina outpost is 15 km away from the Estonian-Russian border marked on the ice of the lake (…)
The patrol was to return to the border outpost by 8 p.m. last night. The patrol did not come. (…) At 3 a.m. it was reported from the Oudova Soviet Russian border outpost that on Tuesday 8 Febuary at 4 p.m. three Estonian border guards had illegally crossed the Russian border on the ice of Lake Peipsi with the aim of capturing some Russian fisherman and taking them to Estonia. The Estonian and Russian border patrols exchanged fire and in the skirmish the three Estonian border guards and their horse were killed.”
This seemed very suspicious and the Estonians formed a commission to investigate the conflict. The Deputy Chairman of the Estonian commission was Major Juhan Labidas, Head of he Peipsi Border Guard Service; he was one of the first to be deported in 1941. The investigation proved that the Estonian patrols were captured 4 km across the border on the Estonian side and they had been put on a motor sled. The traces led to the Russian side where the three Estonians had been machine-gunned. Artur Pungas had seven, Valdemar Kaio eleven and the local man Vassili Eva eight bullet wounds. The fishermen from Piirissaare had heard the shooting. The Russian side refused to participate in the investigation and the bodies were returned three days later, on 11 February.


The burial expenses of the victims were covered by the Republic of Estonia and the funeral service was held at the Vanemuine Theatre in Tartu. The Estonian government avoided offering any comments as to this act of terror. Very soon it was clear that compliance and submission in the relations with the Eastern neighbour has catastrophic results for Estonia…
Tiit Lääne, Maaleht No. 7, 11. November 1992.

One of the water mills on the Jägala River was in Vetla. To the left of the road before the bridge there is a two-storied house in good repair, which was built in the 1920s by the new owner of the Vetla mill Hugo Pärnamäe (before the Estonianisation of names – Permasson). As a young man Hugo worked at Ravila Manor, which, from 1849 until its expropriation in 1919, had belonged to the von Kotzebue family, to the brother of the famous explorer Otto von Kotzebue. Hugo received his academic education (agronomy) in Germany, which was paid by the lord of the manor.
After the War of Independence Hugo became the owner of the Nirgu water mill. Nirgu lies on the Jägala River, too, about 4 km upstream from Vetla. While working there Hugo was able to save money and, with the help of a small bank loan, he bought the Vetla water mill.

The first thing he did was to replace the old water wheel by the Alfa Laval turbines ordered from Sweden; the turbines worked until the end of the Soviet era. The dam and the turbine canal were reconstructed.  The bigger turbine drove the flour and saw mills and turned the electrical generator which in turn drove the engines in the carpentry shop, on the opposite bank of the river. After the working hours the big turbine was stopped and the small turbine turned the generator – providing the  nearby farms at a distance of about 2 km with electricity. As the business expanded and there was labour shortage, buildings to house workers were constructed. One of them near Hugo Pärnamäe’s home survives. During the last war the flour and saw mills were burnt down. The mills were quickly reconstructed during the war and there were plans to modernise them. Now new people live and work here.

In 1944 the mill owner Hugo Pärnamäe together with his wife Lilly and three daughters fled to Sweden. One of his daughters with her family left for Australia later, the second, unmarried daughter supported Estonian nationalist causes in Sweden. The third daughter, Inna, lives with her husband Olev Mathiesen and two sons in Borås, Sweden. Inna and Olev founded two affiliated foundations of the Estonian National Culture Foundation. Both were created in memory of Hugo and Lilly Pärnamäe with an aim of advancing historical research in Estonia.

In 2003 the hydro power plant was reconstructed. Next to the dam stand the ghostly ruins of the former mill, reminding us of enterprising men in the past. And, willy-nilly, the magical lines from a poem by Hando Runnel „There’s a Mill upon the Waters” are brought to mind.

Ago Papp