I was sixty-seven before I learned that Grandpa Swanson wasn’t an only child.
It came unannounced and unforeseen, a letter from Sweden that would expand my world beyond my imagining; an introduction to a family, my family, that I never knew existed. The writer began with a brief introduction, then went to the heart of the matter: Was my father’s name Allan O. Swanson? Born…? Died…? Was my grandfather’s name Johan O.K. Svensson? Born…? Died…? If that is the case, we are cousins.
Your grandfather had nine brothers and sisters.
I composed a carefully worded email and sent it to the address included in his letter that I was certain was a ruse.
His reply arrived by email the next day and it was like someone poked me in the temple with a fork. It included the names, birth and death dates of ten siblings, the second oldest in the family is my grandfather. To seal the deal he included a copy of the very picture that hangs on the wall in my office. In it are my grandfather, grandmother, father, and uncle, until the arrival of the letter, the extent of my very small family.
How in the world could this be true? Mom and Dad, never talked about the family’s background, but to keep something like Grandpa’s nine brothers and sisters to themselves seems almost criminal. Neither of my sisters was aware of family beyond our small group. Perhaps, our parents were never told? Many of my Scandinavian friends tell me that their parents never talked about ancestral ties. We heard nothing of aunts and uncles unless they lived close by, and even then, there was never a glimpse into family history. Why were my grandfather’s siblings pushed aside, lost forever to a family not yet born. It was as though my past and that of my family had been hijacked. Why? Was there something being hidden, some nefarious deed associated with the family? Was some dark secret from the past being concealed?
The answer would lie with my newfound second cousin in Fårbo, Sweden. His name is Bosse Hjalteryd and his grandfather was Grandpa Swanson’s brother. Bosse has been studying the family ancestry for the past 25-years. Of necessity, his methods were old school: church records, Parish land records, courthouse documents, and viewing physical archives wherever they may be found. I was to learn that within our family were Dukes and Counts, Kings and Queens, actors, and farmers, and tradesmen, rich, poor, and everything in between.
It seems there was nothing to hide, no criminal past, nothing begging concealment. I think the reason for neglecting family history boils down to two possibilities. The first deals with Scandinavian stoicism, which includes the inherent desire for privacy and understatement of facts. Few that know the inner workings of the Scandinavian mind will argue that point. The second, and I believe it to be closer to the truth, is the mindset that developed as a type of self-preservation after leaving everything they knew and loved behind them when they immigrated to their new country. Many were in their teens and even more were in their early twenties like my grandpa. How difficult it must have been.
It would be left to me to explore Grandpa Swanson’s life and uncover details before they are lost forever.
* * * * *
The search started in my study where he stands erect and proud. A handsome man, ramrod straight in his uniform, saber hilt visible at his left hip, left arm hanging comfortably at his side, hand protruding from the festooned sleeve of the uniform jacket. He stands facing us, right forearm resting comfortably on a studio prop of a broken tree. He seems to be missing a good portion of the index finger on his right hand. Square-jawed and magnificent in the uniform of the Swedish Ranger Company 35, in which he served for five years. This is my grandfather, Johan Oskar Constan Svensson, as he was in the old country.
Hanging to the left of his picture is his U. S. Naturalization Certificate dated March 10, 1944. Personal description: age-67, sex-male, color-white, complexion-fair, eyes-blue, hair color-gray, height-5 feet 8 inches, weight-179 pounds, visible descriptive marks-right hand fourth finger amputated.
Born May 2, 1876, in Kristdala, Sweden, he arrived in America, May 6, 1903.
He is the reason we moved to the island.
* * * * *
Grandpa and Grandma Swanson were married on April 14, 1909, in Anoka, Minnesota, and they located to a farm in St. Francis. Grandpa Swanson was a farmer with all the skills necessary to be successful.
I have two clear memories of Grandpa.
The first finds me standing in the front yard of the island home with the family. The south-facing house sat about sixty feet from the narrow gravel road at my back. I was three years old and Grandpa was holding me. The charred ceiling boards in the largest screen porch I’d ever seen fascinated me as I wondered about the fire that had caused them.
The second, and most vivid, is of Grandpa cresting the hill from the hollow, scythe over his left shoulder, cotton shirt visible beneath bib overalls, brimmed hat pulled to his ears.
I have the feeling that he wasn’t a very happy person and had I been older I would have likely been afraid of him. His countenance was serious and in many photos, he looks stern and unyielding. Therein lies the dichotomy. It seems impossible that a man described in such a manner could raise a son as in love with life, as outgoing, respectful, responsible, and as downright likable as my father. I asked my older sister, Jill, what she remembered about Grandpa. Her reply, “He was another daddy.”
In a series of pictures of Grandpa as a young man, as well as those taken before the move to Minneapolis, he looks happy, almost cavalier in some. Only in the later years of his life does he appear to have changed. A serious injury to my grandma seems to have placed him on a downhill slope that prevailed until his death.
According to Jill, the injury occurred when Grandma fell from the haymow while putting up hay. My Rapid City Aunt, Margaret, writes that my grandmother was injured during a vicious storm. She was caught in the field and while running for the barn was hit by windblown debris. Whichever is true, she received a back injury that affected her mobility for the rest of her life. They left the farm and moved into a small house at 3458 Newton Ave. N., Minneapolis, in the early 1920’s.
With a farmer’s aptitude for things mechanical, Grandpa found employment at Waterman and Waterbury, a hot air furnace manufacturing company in Minneapolis where he was a member of The United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America, local 1140.
He paid the mortgage on the Newton house in full on April 21, 1938. The good feeling that must have accompanied outright ownership of the house was short lived. In 1939, my Aunt Margaret was pregnant with their third child when uncle Stanley, Dad’s younger brother, began falling behind and unable to keep up with his brother when the two went pheasant and duck hunting. Stan became weaker and weaker while suffering through test after test until he required hospitalization, finally passing away on the seventh of June 1940 of complications caused by testicular cancer. Margaret delivered another daughter, Bonnie, seven days later, to join Susan and Gwendolyn as the third of Stanley’s girls.
Grandma was devastated and Grandpa must have felt a deep sorrow for as long as they remained in that house. The Newton Avenue house stands today virtually unchanged from when they lived there in the 1940’s. They finally moved to the island in the spring of 1945. He bought lots 8 through 22, Block 7, Wychwood Edition (now 4650 Manchester Road).
Grandpa must have longed for the farm where familiar sounds and smells could permeate his senses. Where he could sit on an open porch in the evening and hear the frogs and crickets in their symphony of night songs. Where a man could burn his autumn leaves as naked branches jutted boney fingers pointing to the future in anticipation of the icy winds of winter. I can imagine the feeling that ran through him when he traveled to the island. How much it must have reminded him of his native Sweden. Back home, with the scarcity of land, he would never have been able to buy what he could in America.
It was wild. It was sparsely populated. He likely viewed it as his own little piece of heaven. Here was a place where he could improve the land: clear brush, cut timber, dynamite the stumps, tend the apple trees, and transform the hollow adjacent to the house into a space of beauty.
Dad and Grandpa worked on the house after Dad’s day job atStrutwear knitting Company in Minneapolis.
* * * * *
The island house, built at the turn of the century near the top of the hill, was designed as a summer retreat with a screen porch facing south and running the full width and halfway along each side. It had a screen door in the middle.
The West wing of the porch became the summer dining room and was accessed by French doors leading inside. The food always seemed to taste better when accompanied by a soft breeze and the earthy smell that hung in the air after a summer rain.
Mom and Dad moved us there in the summer of 1945. The first priority was to make the old place livable for our family, namely four adults and two children. To that end, Grandpa hired a carpenter with ties to the old country, the name of Swanson. Although, no relation to us, he was the framing carpenter who, much to Mom’s displeasure, became the finish carpenter for all the improvements that would be made.
The changes were made while we were living there, and it nearly drove Mom to an early grave. She had her own ideas of what she wanted, but Swanson pretty much ignored her requests, preferring to do things his way. His stock answer was simply, “Vell it’s flenty good enough fer a-ne-body.” My sister, Jill, remembers that Mom cried a lot during this period and the stress triggered her asthma, actually landing her in the hospital on numerous occasions. It got so bad at one point that they thought she might die.
Dad brought me to see her. The first thing I noticed entering the hospital room was the heat. It was the first time I’d visited anyone in the hospital and I expected to see doctors and nurses hovering over a well-lit hospital bed. What I saw scared the crap out of me. Heavy curtains covered the windows with only a floor lamp lighting the small room. Midway between the door and the covered windows, the bed was tucked against the wall. The mood was somber and as I approached at my father’s side my stomach tightened and my breath caught in my throat as I saw my mother, head elevated, a plastic oxygen tent over the top half of her body, her breathing labored. I stood mute the whole time, not knowing what a person does in that situation. Finally, we left the room and there was no doubt in my mind, no matter how I died, it would not be in one of those hot, dark rooms.
Back then, the prescribed home treatment for asthma relief was a product called Asthmador. It was a powder that came in a green tin with a pry-off, recessed cover. The powder was scooped from the tin with the cover, filling the recess, and then lit with a match. It would spit and pop without flaming and the resulting smoke was inhaled to open the airway. Poor Mom…she spent a lot of time hunched over her Asthmador.
Swanson the carpenter had a habit that drove Mom to distraction. The inside walls were plaster and lath. Swanson chewed tobacco. When you have a mouth full of tobacco juice, trowel in one hand, mixed plaster trough in the other, and you know you can’t spit on the floor, what do you do? Well . . . you spit in the plaster and trowel it onto the wall. Asthmador, here I come.
That first summer we got our water from a community well at Avalon. Dad filled a large metal can and it was ladled out to drink, or heated on the stove for washing dishes. Most times, we bathed in the lake, which Dad seemed to enjoy.
The summer homes on the island had no wells, hence no need for plumbing so the ubiquitous outhouse was found in close proximity to the main house. Ours was attached to the horse shed behind the house.
There was an abundance of forward thinkers in the early island years. One of our neighbors, in anticipation of running water, put in a kitchen sink with the drain simply running through a hole in the wall. Strictly temporary, nonetheless, providing the most succulent tomatoes you ever tasted, self-planted from seeds washed down the drain, they were ensured of enough water to grow to mammoth proportions.
Our house was seeing improvements. The bedroom on the east side was divided and a bathroom was created, toilet, sink, bathtub with shower, and a closet. They put in a well and plumbed the house from bathroom to kitchen, even adding deep sinks in the basement.
Swanson’s idea of a bathroom closet was the first cousin to a cave. A door dead center between the end walls led to tunnels on each side that stretched to the outside walls, closet rods at each end of the openings. The result was a space allowing about six garments to hang on either end of the five-foot-deep, thirty-inch wide tunnels. Where’s that darned Asthmador?
Grandpa had been living in the city for the past 26 years and must have felt liberated moving to the island. I think he was finally happy again. He had settled into the island house, which was now shared with his son’s family, and he had land to care for and home improvements to plan.
Imagine his joy at lighting the fuse and backing away a safe distance before the dynamite blew.
He died that winter.
* * * * *
I learned from my cousin Bosse that Grandpa Swanson was the second child born to Sven Petter Nilsson and Josefina Mathilda Nilsdotter. There would be seven to follow, all born in Kristdala, Sweden. Two of his brothers and one sister would immigrate to America, marry, and raise families.
Under an avalanche of information, I learned that in 1896, Grandpa’s older brother and first born, Sven August Herman, was the first to come, settling and finding work in Rock Island, Illinois, a favorite destination for Swedes at the turn of the century.
Grandpa joined him in 1903 at the age of twenty-six.
Three years later, Sven August Herman married Anna Louise Franke and they started their family in Rock Island, offering their home as the jumping off point for sister Ester Alfinda Elizabeth and youngest brother Gustaf Adolf.
Ester would go on to marry Martin Tillberg and start a family in Wisconsin. I have had newly discovered cousins from that marriage spend the night at our house where we jabbered, exchanging stories and examining photos into the wee hours.
Sven August Herman moved his growing family to Wisconsin as well. By 1930, he went by the name of Herman, they had moved to California where they raised their family, and where I discovered a large number of cousins living today.
There was one brother that remained a puzzle. Even with his twenty-five years of research experience, Bosse had run into a dead end trying to track down the youngest son, Gustaf Adolf Swanson, the last family member to immigrate.
Born 7 June 1889, the 1909 manifest of the ship he took to America, SS Lusitania, lists his destination as Rock Island, Illinois and his brother Herman, at 2837 6th Avenue. He was nineteen at the time. He next appears in the 1920 census as living next-door to Herman’s family in Wisconsin and is listed as an alien. From there, he seems to vanish without a trace.
It’s a funny thing about photo albums and assorted memorabilia. Something that seems meaningless can offer a precious clue into a family’s past. Pictures of faces that mean nothing to you suddenly take on immense significance when linked to another tidbit uncovered during your search and small pieces of paper with names that appear as gibberish can offer a priceless clue.
That’s what happened with Gustaf.
Among other attributes, my mother was a selective saver. Rare, was her writing on the backs of photos, preferring to lump them all into an extra thick cardboard box from Montgomery Wards. That box was a treasure trove of past picnics and family get-togethers, however, never a clue as to who was in the pictures. She also stashed legal documents, old letters, and bits of paper that were of special interest to her, thereby of irreplaceable value to me.
Of equal importance, were my grandmothers’ picture albums? Both Grandma Johnson and Grandma Swanson saved meaningful photos in albums, once again with no identification on the backs. I even found a couple of tintypes amongst the pictures of people from the old country. Rest assured, all of the pictures are in a safe place until another clue brings the subject’s identity to light.
Amongst a few letters and legal documents kept in a tin box, was a small, shirt pocket notebook with names, some recognized and some not, followed by an abbreviated address. With the mere recognition of its existence, I placed it back into the box. At the time of its discovery, I knew nothing of my extended family on Grandpa Swanson’s side.
In my search for Gustav Adolf’s history, I once again uncovered grandpa’s list. Alarms went off in my head when I read the eighth entry in the tiny notebook, “G.A. Swanson…Gerry, NY RR1.” In addition, my mother had saved a document from an attorney in Jamestown, New York, the seat of the county in which Gerry resided, regarding the settlement of the estate of one Gust Swanson. The executor of the estate was J. Pearl Swanson.
With that clue in hand, I began my online search for any history of a Swede name of Gust Swanson, living in Gerry, New York, while Grandpa was alive. Evidently, Gerry was a magnet for Swedes, because there were several.
Following fragmentary leads, I uncovered a cemetery inscription on the Internet that listed the organization and individual responsible for recording and posting data from that cemetery. After placing a phone call, I was advised to contact the local paper. I attempted to do so, and learned they had gone out of business years earlier. My contact encouraged me to get in touch with the Pendergrast Library, where archives from the defunct paper were kept. I drafted a letter of inquiry to the library as follows:
I am Dale Swanson, 68 years old, and am searching for a family member. His name was Gustav/Gustaf/Gust - Adolph/Adolf - Swanson. I believe he lived in Ellington and died, on or about April 19, 1949. He was born 7 June 1889, in Kristdala, Sweden, and emigrated 6 June 1909, to Rock Island, Illinois. I have a scratchpad from my grandfather (his brother), which indicates he lived in Gerry/Ellington in the late 1940’s. I believe he is buried in the Valley View Cemetery. I have no information telling me he was married, but my parents received notification from Jamestown regarding his estate. It was originated by J. Pearl Swanson. I believe he was married to J. Pearl, who died in 1966. The legal papers identified him as Gust Swanson, and I expect his obituary to be under that name. In addition to learning specificity of his death, I am trying to learn if he had children. If so, they are lost to the family. Any help you can give me will be received with gratitude. I would greatly appreciate contact, whether positive or negative, as applies to your ability to help me.
Then I waited.
A few weeks later, I received a reply in the mail from the library. With letter in hand, I rushed into the house, waving it over my head and excitedly yelled.
“I got a reply from the library in New York!”
I ripped open the envelope and inside was a photocopy of the short article that had been printed.
My breath caught in my throat as I read the bold heading:
FARMER FOUND HANGING SAID SUICIDE VICTIM - A verdict of suicide was issued Tuesday morning by Coroner Samuel T. Bowers after Gust A. Swanson, 59, of Ellington, was found hanging from a rope about 10:30 A.M. in the hayloft of his barn on the Ellington-Gerry Road…
It went on to give more details, but my reeling mind couldn’t get past the large print. What could have happened to make him end his life in this fashion? Although I didn’t know him, I mourned his death and wondered if he had children. None were mentioned in the article that seemed to serve as his obituary. To this day, I have not gone further on my search into Gust’s life, but there is little doubt that I will resume that search.
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