An estimated 40% of Rockford residents could once claim Swedish ancestry, and many of them were settled in one part of town. Join Jon McGinty for a look at life and culture in Rockford’s Swedish district.
Swedes began arriving in Rockford in 1852, part of a mass migration of Europeans which peaked in the 1880s, then trailed off for the next 40 years. During that time, Sweden lost a million emigrants, mostly to the Midwestern United States.
The Rock River was the reason the first Swedes settled here, not because of its scenic beauty, but because the Galena & Chicago Union railroad had yet to build a bridge over it. Urged by a Lutheran minister in Chicago to avoid the overcrowding and disease of his big city, eager passengers rode the rails to the end of the line, Rockford.
They alighted on a wooden platform at a depot on the corner of Fourth Street and Fourth Avenue (now Northwestern Park) next to Kishwaukee Street, which became the epicenter of Swedish settlement in Rockford. The depot was replaced by a more permanent brick building in 1911, which still stands today. (See sidebar at the end).
From tents and makeshift shelters to homes, businesses and industries, the settlement (soon called Swede Town) expanded over time to encompass almost 70 blocks of the city’s southeast side. It covered the area bounded by Kishwaukee Street on the west to 11th Street on the east, and State Street on the north to 20th Avenue on the south.
By 1900, nearly 145,000 Swedes lived in Chicago, making it one of the largest Swedish cities in the world. That same year, first- and second-generation Swedes in Rockford totaled 12,420, about 40 percent of the city’s inhabitants, but unlike in Chicago, they settled close to one another. In 1930, now with 35,000 Swedes, some described Rockford as “the most dense Swedish settlement concentration in urban America.”
The Swedes brought with them a strong work ethic and various skills which led to the growth of many industries and businesses in the community. The original handful of immigrants included such future entrepreneurs as P.A. Peterson and John Nelson. By the time he died in 1927, Peterson was the owner, founder or CEO of more than 50 enterprises in the city. Nelson invented and marketed a knitting machine, which entirely revolutionized the hosiery industry and helped to make Rockford a hot destination for thousands of job-seekers.
Swedish woodworking talents led to the growth of furniture manufacturing businesses. Several were founded on the cooperative model, whereby workers owned the business through salary contributions and executives were elected by them.
Factories originally clustered on the west side of the river along a millrace; the area was known as the Water Power District. When Forest City and Union Furniture companies burned to the ground, they both relocated to the “Swedish side of the river,” creating what became known as “furniture row,” one on Railroad Avenue, another on 18th Avenue, from Seventh Street to 11th Street.
In the second half of the 19th century, Swedish businesses as well as residences, organizations and churches grew along Kishwaukee Street and 14th Avenue (now Broadway), but the heart of the Swedish enclave became Seventh Street, Sjündegatan, or sometimes Snüssgatan (snuff street). From State Street to Railroad Avenue, Swedish-owned businesses thrived. In fact, it became a necessary skill for employment that an employee speak fluent Swedish. (Swedish was still offered as an elective in East High School in the 1960s – the author of this article took it for two years!)
“Seventh Street became a bustling economic hub for the Swedes,” says Alix Fox, executive director of the Swedish Historical Society. “Swedish banks, bakeries and shops were right there as they came off the train. It became a catalyst to inviting them to stay where they were immediately welcomed. The train depot was a ‘welcome wagon’ for more Swedes to keep coming.”
From 1910 to 1920, that six-block stretch held seven Swedish churches, two Swedish banks, two Swedish concert halls and numerous commercial businesses such as Lundstrom & Peterson Paint, Ekberg Dry Goods, Skandia Hardware (later Nicholson’s), Eklund’s Smorgasbord Restaurant (later Sweden House Restaurant & Hotel), Christenson’s Furniture and the Lud Cafe (later the Brad-Lynn, then Stockholm Restaurant).
Seventh Street was officially designated “Swedish American Way” in 2002 by Jan Elasson, Swedish ambassador to the U.S.
Since every Swede in Sweden was born into the Lutheran Church, many emigrated to the U.S. to obtain freedom of worship. Here they could organize their congregations independently, without state supervision or religious taxes, and be freed from Lutheran doctrine if they so chose.
Between 1855 and 1905, at least nine Swedish congregations were organized within Swede Town. Some of their buildings still remain, although denominations may have changed. They include:
• Swedish Lutheran/First Lutheran: organized 1854; present building 1884, 225 S. 1st St.
• Emmanuel Lutheran: organized 1882; present building 1922-23; 3rd Avenue and 6th streets.
• Zion Lutheran: first meeting 1883; present building 1885; 5th Avenue and 6th streets.
• Salem Lutheran: organized 1907; present building 1917; 6th Street and 16th Avenue.
• Tabor Lutheran: organized 1925; present building purchased in 1935; 12th Avenue and 19th Street.
• Swedish Mission Covenant: organized 1875; building erected 1889; Kishwaukee Street and 3rd Avenue. Congregation moved to Wood Road in 1959; current resident: Nankasar Sikh Temple.
• Swedish Evangelical Free Church/First Free: Organized 1884; last building in Swede Town 1905-06; 4th Avenue and 6th Street. Moved to new building on Spring Creek Road in 1980.
• Swedish Baptist/Temple Baptist: Organized 1880; building at 5th Avenue and 8th Street built in 1908; now Living Faith Tabernacle. Congregation moved to East State Street.
• Swedish Methodist/ Bethany Methodist: Organized 1861; building at 8th Street and 3rd Avenue built in 1920; currently home to Faith Walkers Assembly.
Clubs and Organizations
At the turn of the century, many Swedes came to Rockford with backgrounds in the trade union movement.
They joined lodges and fraternal organizations for friendship and mutual monetary assistance in troubled times. Swede Town held no shortage of such institutions with growing memberships.
Some of these clubs focused on a particular activity, such as men’s chorus, which held a traditional place in Swedish culture. These included the Svea Sonor Singing Society (1890), the Lyran Singing Society (1893), and the Swedish Music & Sick Fund (SM&SF-1899). Svea Sonor’s opera house (326 Seventh St.) burned down in 1980; Lyran and SM&SF halls still stand at 1115 Fourth Ave. and 1019 Third Ave., respectively.
The Independent Order of Good Templars (IOGT- two lodges), the Independent Order of Vikings (four lodges) and the Independent Order of Vasa (three lodges) each had several facilities for their membership, many of which were constructed in Swede Town. Activities included dances, banquets, ceremonies and picnics at their rural camps located south of Rockford on the Kishwaukee River.
Swedish Socialist Organizations
The U.S. Depression of 1893 forced many cooperative factories in Rockford to go out of business or downsize. At the turn of the century, Swedish socialist societies were organized as a way for workers to express their frustration with low pay and bad working conditions.
The first of several socialist clubs in Rockford started in 1906. In addition to political activism, the Swedes ran a “Saturday school” which taught English, humanistic values and fine arts activities. One of their meeting halls was at 405 Seventh St.
Their anti-war stance led to the arrest of 137 members in 1917 who refused to register for the draft. Most were sentenced to one year in prison.
Two members of the Swedish Socialist Workers’ Club, Herman Hallstrom and C. Henry Bloom, later became two of Rockford’s longest-serving mayors, each serving five terms in office.
On New Year’s Day in 1920, 186 people (mostly socialists) were arrested in Rockford on suspicion of subversive activities. Similar raids occurred in 37 other cities, but Rockford’s total was by far the largest.
Later called the Palmer Raids (after the U.S. attorney general of that day), they were part of the Big Red Scare that swept the nation in the wake of World War I and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Eleven people were indicted, but only one was put on trial, Arthur Person. His defense attorney was the legendary Clarence Darrow. Person was acquitted, and charges against the others were dropped.
The idea for a Swedish hospital in Rockford started in 1910 with a letter to the Swedish newspaper, Svenska Posten, by a reader who suggested such an idea’s time had come. To get the ball rolling, he included a $1 contribution.
The original building opened on Charles Street in July 1918, with a capacity of 55 beds. A school of nursing was added in the early 1940s. Many additions and specialties have been added over the years. The hospital is now part of UW Health in Madison and has a capacity of 333 beds.
Swedish Historical Society of Rockford
Rockford’s Swedish Historical Society grew out of a New Sweden Tercentenary Committee which formed in 1937 to help celebrate the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the first Swedes in North America.
In May 1938, the committee organized a huge coffee party in the Seventh Street business district, at which 10,000 cups of coffee were served, and the Augustana College choir performed.
The climax of Rockford’s observance was a visit by Prince Bertil of Sweden in July. He toured three factories and the News Tower during the day and spoke to 6,000 persons gathered on the lawn of Swedish-American Hospital that evening. Later he was guest of honor at a banquet in Hotel Faust.
“The Society owns and operates the Erlander Home Museum, 404 S. Third St., and the Nordic Cultural Center at 327 S. Third St.,” says Alix Fox, executive director.
John Erlander was one of Rockford’s earliest Swedish entrepreneurs, arriving here in 1854. He was a co-founder of Union Furniture Company (1876) and was instrumental in organizing the Scandinavian Cemetery (1872). His home, now the Museum, was one of the first brick houses constructed in Rockford.
“In 1952, Todd Erlander [no relation to John], then prime minister of Sweden, came to Rockford to dedicate the home as a museum,” says Fox. “He commented on how much like Sweden Rockford was – the atmosphere, climate, community. And in 2016, the mayor of Lincöping, Sweden, took a tour of downtown Rockford. He said the Swedes here spoke ‘old Swedish’ and sometimes it felt more like Sweden than Sweden!”
The Nordic Cultural Center houses the administrative offices of the Society, as well as meeting space for events. The Museum includes artifacts from the Erlander family, as well as related items from Swedish immigrants in Rockford.
Events run by the Historical Society include:
• Midsommar Fest: (third Saturday in June) Outdoor music, dancing around Maypole, food vendors, market of Swedish-related items, some new and some used.
• Festival of Lights (first Friday in December): A children’s choir sings carols in Swedish and a Lucia Queen wears a crown lit with candles to celebrate the return of light into the darkest part of the year.
• Jul Marknad (First Saturday in December) Christmas market of related Swedish holiday items, vendors, music and food.
• Crayfish Party (end of August) “It’s a late summer harvest celebration, held in the backyard of the Nordic Cultural Center,” says Fox. “This is a traditional Swedish party where crayfish slurping is expected, singing is mandatory and paper hat and bib attire is required!”
Seventh Street Fall Festival
The Seventh Street Fall Festival was initiated by local businessmen and became an October harvest tradition for many years. It provided numerous booths of food and games, rides and performances, and lasted until the early 1960s. The festival faded away, along with many of the businesses that sponsored it, when increasing competition from shopping centers like Rockford Plaza, Colonial Village, North Towne and Machesney Park drew a majority of customers away from the Swede Town area.
Midtown District Association
One group of community stakeholders helping to improve the Seventh Street area is the Midtown District Association (MDA). Incorporated in 2008 and partially funded by TIF monies, the Association currently has a membership of nearly 20 businesses, organizations and individuals.
“We are one of the last truly neighborhood business districts left in Rockford,” says executive director Ronn Mooney. “Our mission is to help rebuild the area to make it a safe and attractive place to live, work, shop and visit.”
The Association occupies the restored train depot at 703 Seventh Street, the building where many of Rockford’s Swedes first glimpsed their new home. Built in 1911, the depot fell into disrepair after the railroad abandoned the line, was restored and now belongs to the Rockford Park District. MDA leases office and meeting space from them. The restoration includes a simulated ticket booth and an exposed wall area which reveals the brick work underneath.
To enhance the sidewalks along Seventh Street, MDA has installed 35 large concrete planters, which they maintain all summer. They also have an ongoing facade improvement program, where they will partially fund any costs to businesses wishing to remodel their street-side building.
From April through September, MDA co-sponsors a monthly “Cars and Coffee” rally for auto enthusiasts in the parking lot of the Rockford School District office, the former Amcore Bank building. That lot is also the setting for the Midtown Farmers Market, held every Thursday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., June 4 through September 30 this year. Katie’s Cup is the co-sponsor for both events.
“We are also planning to launch a community involvement program this fall,” says Mooney.
For more information or to obtain a copy of their newsletter, contact midtowndistrict.org or go to their Facebook page.
Midway Village Museum Exhibit
One way to experience the history of Swede Town is to visit Midway Village Museum’s Many Faces, One Community exhibit at 6799 Guilford Road in Rockford. Phase one, a train depot and furniture factory, opened in 2012; the immigrant house and ethnic business district were completed in 2014.
“Museum staff collected 56 oral histories, representing immigrants from 25 countries, including Sweden, to create the exhibit,” says Laura Furman, curator of collections at the Museum. “The exhibits are also interactive, with many ‘hands-on’ opportunities to learn about Rockford’s immigrants.”
While the exhibit emphasizes the diversity of Rockford’s ethnic heritage, a simulated business district, an immigrant home setting, and a Swedish furniture factory all show examples of Swedish culture and traditions that were brought to the United States.
Seventh Street Commercial Historic District
The Seventh Street Commercial Historic District has been listed with the National Register of Historic Places since 2005. It encompasses 83 buildings which have historical and architectural significance. It is generally bounded by Charles Street on the north, Sixth Street on the west, Keith Creek on the south and one half-block east from Seventh Street on the east.
The buildings exhibit many popular architectural styles of the late 19th and early 20th century, including Italianate, Romanesque Revival, Beaux Arts, Queen Anne and Victorian, and range in date from 1870 to 1956.
“Commercial growth along Seventh Street began at the south end, near the train depot on Sixth Avenue,” says Gary Anderson, local architect and historic preservationist. “This is unlike other areas which grew from the city’s center outward.”
According to Anderson, registering buildings with the National Register makes it easier for would-be developers to obtain Historic Tax Credits (HTC) to help finance the restoration and re-purposing of existing buildings in Historic Districts.
A good example of this is the Crescent Building (502-508 Seventh St.), now home of Lantow Lofts and Katie’s Cup. Built in 1895, the three-story Italianate style building was saved and re-purposed by Zion Development Corporation, under the direction of Brad Roos, who acquired the property in 1999 and renovated it from 2004 to 2006.
It now contains market-rate housing upstairs, with a deck on the roof, separate garage, and street-level commerce below. Katie’s Cup has been a substantial influence to stabilize the neighborhood, serving as a restaurant, meeting place and performance venue.
The Midtown Lofts, 401-411 Seventh St, originally Queen Anne style altered to Classical Revival, also utilized such credits to redevelop an empty building into 14 residential loft apartments, as did the office of Northwest Quarterly Magazine, 222 Seventh St.
Founded in 1982, Zion Development Corporation has done much to redevelop the Swede Town area, especially by rehabbing older homes to make them available for low-income and market-rate housing. They have invested more than $27 million in the neighborhood and done much to welcome and support immigrants who followed Swedes to the area in recent years.
The following books and papers are resources for this article:
• “Big Town, Little City,” by Pat Cunningham (2000)
• “Rockford Swedes – American Stories,” by Neil Johnson (1993)
• “A Swedish-American Family,” by Rudolph E. Peterson (1978)
• “Life in Rockford’s Swede Town,” by Don Swanson
• “Swedish Newcomers Who Helped Build Rockford,” by Don Swanson
• “Swede Town,” by Jon Lundin (2002)
• 7th Street Commercial Historic District Nomination Form (2005)