Film Chronicles Stories of Maine's Swedish Immigrants. Listen to the interview with Dan Olson and Brenda Jepson from MPBN radio 4/15/11
116 Station Road
PO Box 33
New Sweden, ME, 04762
Carolyn Hildebrand firstname.lastname@example.org
280 Main Street
Stockholm, ME 04783
John & Rosemary Hede
1149 New Sweden Rd.
Woodland, ME 04736
A Continuity of Tradition and Identity based on Cultural Activism, Revitalization, and Dynamic Insider/Outsider Relations
The Swedish Colony is comprised of the adjoining towns of New Sweden, Stockholm, Westmanland, and Woodland, all located just northwest of Caribou, Maine. The landscape is one of woodlands interspersed with open fields, farms, and sparsely populated rolling hills. Large and attractive roadside signs indicate the boundaries of the Swedish Colony. Since the Colony was first settled 130 years ago, and many people of non-Swedish heritage have lived and continue to live within the Swedish Colony borders, one might wonder what it is that makes the region distinctly Swedish today.
Through numerous field interviews I have observed a distinct Swedish-American heritage within the Colony which, though changing over time, has been continuous since its 1870 inception. However, these Swedish traditions and Swedish roots have not grown wholly on their own, as a by-product of modern development. Swedish traditions and a Swedish sense of identity have been maintained in large part through the cultural activism of local residents who have actively promoted local cultural and historical pride and awareness. This culminated in what I'll call the revitalization period of the 1970's. And to this day, a relatively small number of people work to keep traditional culture and arts visible. Woven throughout this history is a complex relationship between Swedish Colony local "insiders" and people from away--including people of Swedish and non-Swedish heritage, as well as Swedes from "the old country" of today.
The first bold move of a kind of cultural activism to do with the Swedish Colony was the very way in which the town of New Sweden, first in the Colony, was established. Throughout the 1850's and 60's Maine's statewide population, and especially its northernmost population, was in decline. The State Government assigned lieutenant of immigration W.W. Thomas to address the problem. Having great respect for what he called "the Swedish integrity," Thomas went to Sweden to recruit immigrants to live in the northern Maine woods. Recruits had to be literate, able to farm, and able to provide character references from their local church parish. They were also expected to pay their own fare to get here. In return, each received 100 acres of land and an opportunity to be part of the "American Dream." The first group arrived and settled New Sweden in 1870, with more groups arriving over the next 30 years to settle Stockholm and other nearby communities.
And so began the history of Swedish-American heritage in the region. Two important aspects of the orchestrated move to this location are noteworthy. First, the livelihoods and lifestyles of the original Swedes and their descendants were determined by the economy of the region. At first focused on self-sufficient farming, the Swedish Colony soon became engulfed in the wood manufacturing industry that swept across northern Maine around the turn of the 20th century. Millwork became popular and common products were clothespins, plywood, lumber, and, at one time, the region was promoted as the "veneer capital of the world." As the mills grew, so did the influx of French-Canadians.
The second result of moving to this exact location is that it created what native resident John Hede calls a "pocket." The area has always been rural to the point that it is somewhat insular, allowing Swedish traditions and identities to more easily remain intact. On the other hand, Caribou, as a larger economy, is close enough to have kept the Swedish Colony from experiencing mass exodus in search of work when the mills eventually shut down. (Mill closures did cause many to leave in search of industrial work in other areas of dominant Swedish immigration; mainly Worcester, MA. But a good many were able to stay and the community remained.) It is not an overstatement to say that, if W.W. Thomas, once known as "Father of the Swedes," had settled "his children" in Caribou, the subsequent years of economic and social flux in Caribou would have heavily diluted the Swedish cultural presence. The hue of Swedish color in the Swedish Colony is stronger because time has acted more slowly on its location.
From the beginning, the culture, language, and traditional arts imported with the Swedish immigrants were fading. As is often the case in other places, many local residents with local heritage look back and lament the loss of language and gradual disconnection from traditional culture. However, many local people also say they recognize that one reason for this "loss" was that the original immigrants were trying their best to assimilate American ways and become fully "American." In an era before cultural and racial diversity was widely considered valuable, these immigrants thought themselves more successful if they and their children were less distinctly Swedish--at least outside of the home.
For example, nearly all members of second and third generation Swedish Colony families I interviewed said that their own parents didn't teach them the Swedish language. Even fewer taught their own children Swedish. Silas Gustafson was born to Swedish parents in Minnesota and married New Sweden native Marylin Strid. They moved to New Sweden in the early 1950's to raise their own family. Only half-jokingly Silas says "We were so stupid. We never taught our kids Swedish because it never occured to us. Now I don't know if our grandchildren will be connected to the language or culture at all." He adds, "My wife and I don't even speak Swedish with each other unless we're around the grandchildren and we don't want them to know what we're talking about."
This pattern of language loss was reinforced at the area schools where local residents remember students being punished if the teachers caught them speaking Swedish. Kids would use Swedish slang in private; But it was frowned upon in public.
Another specific sign of assimilation was that a predominant musical and social past time was the weekly brass band concerts at New Sweden's Thomas Park, (named after W.W. Thomas). This reflected a popular trend of the late 1800's and early to mid 1900's, especially in New England communities. Judging from sheet music and performance notes, the "New Sweden Band" repertoire seems to have been similar to others across the country; marches, waltzes, arrangements of classical pieces, and popular tunes. This signifies the community's strong identification with American popular culture of the day. However, the Swedish dance music tradition (described elsewhere in this report) existed alongside the bands, even if it drew smaller crowds than the band. And Lorraine Jepson, daughter of Henry Anderson who was the leader of the band through the middle of the 1900's, remembers hearing arrangements of Swedish tunes, including the "Swedish Anthem."
Swedish Colony residents have long been American in their day to day participation in modern life. But they embody "Swedishness" in shared personality traits, shared family and immigrant history, and whenever they choose to cooperatively enact any traditional cultural activity in private or public.
The attitude of the early immigrants is understandable. One assumes that they believed that, for what they readily sacrificed in cultural identity, they gained in social participation status within educational, economic, and political realms. But this mostly one-sided leaning didn't last long. The formation of the New Sweden Historical Society in the 1920's is the first significant indication that some of the local residents had become very interested in preserving aspects of traditional Swedish-American culture. This period can be seen as the first step toward the particular kind of self-conscious and self-promoting bi-culturalism that defines the Colony today. Around the same time the historical society was established, the annual Midsommar Celebration gained reinvigorated status among locals, as well. This celebration, known in short as just "Midsommar," is a traditional Swedish holiday held on the summer solstice and includes the decoration of the Maypole with wildflowers. The event is held publicly in New Sweden and has includes traditional Swedish music, dancing, clothing, and food. The unofficial, yet diligent local historian of the Colony, Richard Hede, says that the New Sweden Midsommar is the longest running (since the 1870's) continuous manifestation of the celebration in the U.S.
As the early twentieth century progressed, the Swedish-American residents of the Swedish Colony evolved into a more fully bicultural community and became more solidly entrenched in the broader northern Maine landscape. For example, throughout most of the 20th century, the Swedish-American students were known to be frequent valedictorians at Caribou High School, attesting to their successful adaptation. The men were known as excellent skiers and excellent baseball players. Most men and women could dance American popular and traditional Swedish dances.
As this process unfolded, relationships within the Colony and with non-Swedes evolved as well. Rosemary Hede says that, even to this day there is a pattern of friction between Stockholm and New Sweden that goes back many years. She remembers that when Stockholm needed a new elementary school in recent years, some educators and local government representatives suggested building a combined school on the Stockholm-New Sweden town line for practical reasons. Residents on both sides were adamantly opposed to the idea. Maintaining its own very small elementary school, (Stockholm's has just over 30 kids), presumably contributes to each town's sense of individual identity. Part of that identity, according to Rosemary, is that "the towns don't always get along. It's just been that way."
Likewise, the town of New Sweden has had its own internal divisions. Route 161 runs North-South and on each side of that road were railroad tracks. On the west side the Aroostook Valley Railroad ran and had its siding station where goods were transferred, bought and sold. This side of Route 161 was known as the AVR siding. On the east side ran the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad with its own siding station, known as the B and A siding. As New Sweden developed, many original settlers and descendants of original settlers staked out property on one side of the tracks or the other. Territorial differences ensued and apparently continue somewhat to this day. Besides a few personal battles inappropriate for inclusion here, I found very few specifics as to why the B&A and AVR side of town had their dislikes and distrusts between each other. It does not seem that economic differences played a major role, although economic competitiveness between the stations may have. One person suggested that religious differences played some role. But mostly I heard that family differences held over from previous generations of Swedish immigrants has been the dominant cause of friction.
Several local residents also remember the Ku Klux Klan being active and well-supported in the early part of this century. (Although it might make more interesting reading, I've refrained from including any names or public positions in this discussion. Such information is irrelevant to our understanding how the Klan operated in another era.) Since there were virtually no non-whites living in the region, the main targets were Irish Catholics and French-Canadian Catholics. More than one person remembers witnessing burning crosses across the street from the Stockholm Catholic church; And evenings when Klansmen were donning white robes in various barns; And children being forbidden to date or marry non-Swedes. Jerry Nelson is a local resident who explains that this aspect of local history was related to a national trend of anti-Papal sentiment. Many non-Catholics feared that the Pope and the Catholic church were becoming too powerful in political arenas. As was the case with Klan societies throughout the country, the Swedish Colony Klan seems to have been intent on intimidating and diminishing the local presence of "outsiders."
The Swedes were certainly no longer the new foreigners who were just trying to fit in. By the 1910's, some forty years after the first arrival, the Colony had firmly established its identity, in part, by defining who was on the "inside" and who on the "outside." It's not an unusual progression of community life in American history.
However, an interesting twist in this history comes later in the century when "outsiders"--people of Swedish and non-Swedish heritage moving into the Colony--played such a central role in revitalizing and maintaining the distinctly Swedish traditions--the "Swedishness"--of the region. Up to the 1950's the Swedish Colony was economically strong and culturally active. Midsommar Festivals, ski marathons, barn dances, and church masses including Swedish hymns in the Swedish language were still very present. But as the 1960's began, local industry began to disappear. As more young people moved away seeking work, television and popular culture kept people entertained at home more and more. Many locals recall that by the mid-1960's the Midsommar Celebration had faded into an annual observance within the Lutheran Church, rather than a public event with a festival atmosphere. Adella Johnson and Silas Gustafson, local musicians who performed Swedish dance music regularly in the area, both remember how Midsommar, hall dances, informal music, and dance sessions gradually fell away as past-times during the 1960's. (See elsewhere in this report for detailed discussion.)
Adella, Silas, and many others mark the mid-1970's as a time of rebirth in activity and awareness of traditional music and culture. They cite Paul Carlson and David Anderson, both non-Colony natives, as major sources of that revitalization. Both connected strongly with their own Swedish heritage while studying (separately) in Sweden during college. David moved to the Colony in the late 1960's and Paul in the early 1970's. Along with reinvigorating the Midsommar Celebration, Paul helped introduce celebration of the traditional Santa Lucia holiday, still observed annually in the New Sweden school. His wife, Karna, continued to grow Monica Soderberg's children's Swedish dance group, "The Little Folk."
It would be misleading to attribute this resurgence wholly to one or two people. These developments took cooperative efforts and talents. But the influence of Paul and other newcomers initiated a shift in the way traditional culture was valued and acted out. The period represents the beginning of a new era that valued cultural diversity (i.e. bi-cultural expression or display) for its own sake. With roots in academia (i.e. study abroad programs) this trend toward diversity and revival was occurring in urban and rural communities nationally.
This new cultural value system transformed the Midsommar Festival into a cultural event to remember and resemble the past. (See elsewhere in this report for detailed discussion.) It was no longer a natural outgrowth of the community existing in proportion to the sheer number of local people who took an interest in organizing or attending. Annual attendance today is usually 400-500 people including many traveling long distances from in and out of state. Midsommar requires work on behalf of a relatively small number of people. These people are agents for maintaining the Swedish presence within the region; cultural activists doing cultural activism to keep local heritage visible. (Including native residents Richard, John, and Rosemary Hede, Rena Hultgren, Mabel Todd, Shirley Sjosted, and other individuals who devote time and energy to some aspect of local cultural preservation.) Other examples of this range from the Swedish Colony road signs to Discovery Research. Richard Hede is currently working on a Swedish Colony booklet that will be part historical and part "tourist information." The two have become intertwined in today's environment of "cultural promotion."
Richard suggests that the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial was partly responsible for this period of resurgence of local tradition. Organization and presentation of bicentennial events, booklets, and exhibits sparked many to "look backwards" more than they had ever done before. The Stockholm museum was also founded at this time. Later, in 1989 and 2000, the Colony organized reenactments of the Swedish immigration to Maine, complete with horse drawn wagons following the route taken by settlers in 1870.
Nancy Holmquist-Roble, originally from New Sweden, is a singer and former leader of "The Little Folk." She says that many of the revival celebrations and events since the 1970's have taught her and other local natives "why we do the things we've done at home since we were kids."
Several other transplants to the Swedish Colony are central to the current traditional arts and culture landscape. Steve Boody is a fiddler of non-Swedish heritage who learned the repertoire and has performed regularly for Midsommar, "The Little Folk," and religious services.
Alma Huddleston, also of non-Swedish heritage, moved to New Sweden twelve years ago and is one of the keyboardists for the Covenant Church. As part of her repertoire she plays Swedish hymns occasionally at church. She has an even greater traditional repertoire she plays at funerals for mostly older residents whose families request Swedish hymns.
Brenda Jepson moved to the Colony just six years ago, having lived in central Maine and London, England. She feels a strong connection to her Swedish heritage and, as a filmmaker, she has helped preserve and promote local "Swedishness." For instance, her current project is a documentary of last year's immigration reenactment. Brenda states, "There is an insider-outsider thing going on here. But the outsiders who come here by way of marriage or whatever get involved and keep the tradition evolving."
Kate Scheidler, born in Ireland and raised in Scotland, played guitar with Steve Boody and taught at Stockholm elementary until moving away recently. It was Kate who said, "I see they are trying to keep their culture alive and I want to support that. They asked me to play guitar and dress in Swedish costume for Midsommar and I said ‘sure I'll be a Swede.' If I can be a Swede anyone can," she says with a laugh. That is a change. The sight of a red-haired Irish woman in Swedish dress playing at Midsommar would have confounded many from earlier generations in New Sweden.
This has been the pattern over the years; Swedish Colony blood and culture within its borders is diluted by the outside influence of modern life and popular culture; While "Swedishness"--evidence of the Colony's distinct cultural history and character--is also continually boosted by the outside influence of individuals.
Without outside influence since the 1970's it appears that the region's Swedish traditions would be far less active and visible. Throughout the last century there has been a strong enough sense of "Swedishness" to draw in interested newcomers. Paul, David, Brenda, and others have gravitated to this place because of its unique Swedish-American character. And in doing so, they have helped reshape and perpetuate this character.
It is noteworthy that nearly all of the local residents "from away" say that most of their close friends are also people "from away." There remains a thin veil that separates settler descendants and very long-time residents from more recent "immigrants" to the Colony. It seems to maintain a subtle status-like division within the community. Echoing the sentiment of others, one person says that, "Everyone is nice to each other. It's just that, if your family isn't from here, people are welcoming but not inviting, if you know what I mean."
It's not that mean-spiritedness prevails; One recent "immigrant" speculated that an attitude of friendliness is simply balanced by a value placed on privacy and an ideal regarding the "purity" of New Sweden's "Swedishness."
Report on Discovery Research Fieldwork in the Swedish Colony by Matthew Shippee Contractor, Maine Arts Commission, Traditional Arts Division June, 2001. (413) 628-0159 email@example.com. This report was funded in part by a grant from The Maine Arts Commission, the New Century Community Program, and the National Endowment of the Arts, a federal agency. The New Century Community Program is a collaborative initiative of seven cultural organizations providing matching grants and technical assistance to Maine communities. Funded by the people of Maine, the program seeks to assist towns in developing their cultural and educational resources