Next Stop: Worcester, Mass. – A Sesquicentennial of Swedes

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Next Stop: Worcester, Mass. – A Sesquicentennial of Swedes

Svenskamerika – A Continuing Series

Generations of Swedes that sailed their way to the promise of a new life in America in the second half of the 19th century found what they were looking for.  Farmers staked out fertile homesteads in the Great Lakes and the Plains, even as far west as California’s central valley. Fishermen settled astride the ocean coastlines or near lakes and rivers that would provide an ample living.  And as the Industrial Revolution began churning out opportunities in factories and workshops in big cities and small, industrious Swedes earned a reputation as hardworking and skilled laborers with the kind of ambition that their new country would reward. 

One of the manufacturing meccas of the late 1880s was the central Massachusetts town of Worcester.  The banks of the Blackstone River grew rows of smokestacks under which clothing, shoes, textiles, wire, machinery and much else were produced.  Fueling those mills and factories with muscle and grit were thousands of Swedes, so many, in fact, that you might hear the city more often pronounced not with a New Englander’s “Wooh-stah” but with a decidedly Swedish “Voorster.  In this installment of Svenskamerika, we look at 150 years of Swedish history in Worcester. 

Worcester’s first alpha male from Sweden was 17-year-old Carl Hanson who arrived with his new bride in late 1866.  With an ear for music, the Uddevalla native opened up his own music store on the city’s Main Street 11 years later, which earned him the distinction of becoming the first Swedish businessman in town.  By the time Hanson opened his doors, the population in the Swedish colony swelled to more than 200, many of whom found work at the city’s biggest employer, the Washburn and Moen Wire Works.  Before long, with more opportunity came more Swedish immigrants, especially from central Sweden, and by the late 1880s, the ranks of Swedes in Worcester swelled to around 5,000 and spiked to some 40,000 over the next three decades.  By the end of World War I, about one in every five residents of Worcester could claim Swedish ancestry.

For the most part, Swedes of the era assimilated easily into the rhythms of American life, but even so, many immigrants took pains to preserve Swedish traditions and find ways to stay connected to one another.  In fact, perhaps more than any Swedish stronghold in the nation, the Swedes in Worcester created new organizations that helped to keep alive the ways of life of Mother Sweden, and even more importantly, to create opportunities for kindred fellowship and a means for Swedes to help one another, especially the newly arrived immigrants.

Reflecting the mood of much of the country, several temperance societies, including the Nordstjernan, the Skandia Mutual Aid and Benefit Society and Quinsigamonds Väl were founded as the century came to a close.  Meanwhile, those perhaps less concerned with temperance started popular social organizations.  On one side of Lake Quinsigamond, where a concentration of Swedes had built Swedish-style villas along the shores, the Svea Gille club built a beautiful club house, as did the Engelbrekt Club on the opposite side of the lake.

One of the city’s most enduring Swedish organizations – one that is around still today – was founded in 1903: the Swedish-American Federation.  (Reflecting perhaps the august nature of its ambition, it’s worth noting that the organization was not called the Worcester Swedish-American Federation, but simply the Swedish-American Federation.)  One of the organization’s early responsibilities was to see that Prince Wilhelm of Sweden’s 1907 visit to Worcester received the proper attention and protocols it deserved, a solemn task that the federation did not take lightly.  A stone archway on Front Street was constructed strictly for the purpose of welcoming the prince, and when he arrived that August, he was feted by thousands of Swedish immigrants and their children.  After receiving the key to the city, the Swedish monarch proceeded to Mechanics Hall where he thanked the city for its hospitality.

Tombola

Today, the Swedish National Federation of Worcester – the name changed in 1911 – helps keep a sense of interconnectedness among the locals (you can like its Facebook page here).  It devotes most of its energy to hosting the annual Scandinavian Midsummer Festival, a one-day Swedish-themed party in June that features authentic costumes, dancing, food, crafts and even a game or two of Tombola, a game borrowed from Italy that is a lot like bingo.

Over the decades, federation meetings spawned ideas for more Swedish-based organizations. In 1915 the Skandia Credit Union opened its doors, later becoming the Skandia Bank and Trust Company. Next came a Swedish hospital seven years later (today it is Fairlawn Hospital).  The formation of the Swedish Charitable Society reflected the sense of care the larger Swedish family had for one another. Formed by a group of blacksmiths at the American Steel and Wire Company, each member of the society would contribute a nickel a week that would go toward helping newcomers settle in, aid someone in need and, at least in one case, provide benefits to the widow of a fellow factory worker.

Sports enthusiasts created amateur athletic leagues, forming the Scandinavian Athletic Club, among others, while others participated in the Scandinavian Literary Society, the Scandinavian National Singing Society and numerous other musical groups.  Churches, many with their services in Swedish, also took root, as did Swedish language newspapers. Among the most popular was the Svea, one of the most widely read Swedish newspapers east of Chicago for close to 70 years.  And, of course, the Swedes of Worcester ensured that there would be a proper resting place for relatives.  The lakeside Swedish Cemetery opened in 1885 and expanded in 1920.

Today, while Swedish domination around Worcester has been diminished over time, some of the institutions – the cemetery and hospital, the federation’s Midsummer Festival and the community around Quinsigamond Village – remain.  Most conspicuous, if not the most tasty, is the Crown Bakery & Café, founded more than a half century ago by Ake Lundstrom whose Swedish pastry recipes are today in the able hands of his son John.  Voted “best bakery” by the readers of Worcester Magazine and ranked #1 for desserts in the city by TripAdvisor, the Crown is preserving some of Sweden’s best culinary traditions, including marzipan cakes, butter cream tortas and Swedish coffee rings.  And if you’re there for lunch, make sure to try the Stubborn Swede, a sandwich of Swedish meatballs lathered in cranberry sauce and served warm.

The Swedish tradition in Worcester today dates to the arrival of a young piano tuner some 150 years ago.  The Swedes in town have been playing their own music ever since.

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