Why 'Swedishness' Still Matters to Rockford

As the Swedish Historical Society of Rockford celebrates its 75th anniversary, it looks to the future as well as the past. But what does ‘Swedishness’ really mean, and how is it still influencing Rockford today?

If America is better described as a patchwork quilt than a melting pot, Swedish immigrants have contributed a big bolt of cloth to the Rockford region.
Swedes didn’t establish the community in the 1830s – New England-born “Yankees” did that – but Swedes began arriving by the trainload in 1852, the year Rockford incorporated, and heavily influenced the city during its most formative years. Within decades, they helped to transform a small settlement into one of the most prosperous U.S. centers of industry and climbed to prominent positions both in public and private sectors. What’s more, they recognized early on the importance of maintaining their identity as Swedish Americans.
“Part of knowing where you’re going is knowing where you came from,” says Michael Lunde, president of Rockford’s Swedish Historical Society (SHS), which celebrated its 75th anniversary this year. “Knowing about the strengths that various immigrant groups have contributed to our city can only help us to be wiser going forward.”
The strong connection between Sweden and America isn’t just a thing of history, either. SHS members believe Rockford’s “Swedishness” is playing a positive role as Rockford transforms itself into a place that once again attracts the best and brightest.
“Swedish immigrants came here from across the globe seeking to transform their own lives, and, on the whole, were very successful at it,” notes Leah Nelson, former director of SHS’s Erlander Home Museum. “In the process, they helped Rockford to become a booming city that attracted people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds because it had good jobs to offer. Today, Rockford is again becoming more globally aware, a stronger player in the global marketplace. This is very important to its future health.”
Nelson is among those who prefer the patchwork quilt analogy to the term “melting pot.”
“The beauty of America is in the way each culture contributes its ideas and traditions to the bigger picture,” she says. “The term ‘melting pot’ implies those traditions must be done away with. We’re better off when we bring our traditions together and share them with one another – not just the Swedes, but every ethnic group. We’re all richer for this exchange, and it’s a wonderful aspect of being American. The Midtown Ethnic Festival & Parade held this past September on Seventh Street [on the International Day of Peace] was a great example of this. It was wonderful.”

Getting to Know Sweden

Preserving Swedish culture is the mission of SHS. It’s also interested in strengthening mutually beneficial relationships between Swedish and Rockford organizations in art, culture, tourism and business sectors.
“We’ve worked together to retain ‘Swedishness’ in Rockford because we think it’s worth hanging onto,” Nelson says. “And I’m not talking about some kind of club for blonde-haired, blue-eyed people. Sweden is a very accepting place full of people from across the globe.”
In fact, nearly 20 percent of present-day Swedes were born in another country. Nelson points to two Swedish students recently enrolled at Rockford University, Gresa Shosholli and Shammeran Benjamin. “One was born in Kosovo, the other in Iraq, but they’ve grown up as Swedish citizens. When I say ‘Swedishness,’ I’m talking about traits we admire in Swedish culture – things like being content to have just enough, rather than always needing more. Little habits like sitting down to savor your coffee, in the morning, rather than taking it with you, on the run. Swedes are interested in living well-balanced lives. Most speak at least two languages. They have six or seven vacation weeks each year, so they travel, are more globally aware, less nationalistic and more empathetic to what’s happening in the rest of the world.”
Sweden has long enjoyed a reputation for innovation and is one of the most digitally advanced nations in the world. Skype and Spotify are two recent exports.
“Recycling and sustainability are a way of life in Sweden,” says Nelson. “Swedes take a longer view, when it comes to co-existing with natural resources.”
Along with the recent popularity of Stieg Larsson books (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.), Sweden is known for its natural beauty, eco-friendly and clean design principles (think IKEA), pop music sensations and a knack for adapting to new opportunities. Swedes embrace science and technology.
Swedish citizens enjoy broad personal liberties and demand government transparency. Freedom of the press has been celebrated since 1766. All major religions co-exist in Sweden and the right to religious freedom was made law in 1951, although the Church of Sweden, which is Lutheran Evangelical, enjoyed special status until 2000. At that time, Sweden became the first Nordic nation not to embrace a state church.
“There are seven political parties and each is equally represented in Sweden,” Nelson explains. “There’s a broad exchange of ideas.”
About 75 percent of Sweden’s lively research and development activity is financed privately. Sweden leads the world in environmental technology and nanotechnology research; companies like ABB, Sandvik and Höganäs have become global market leaders. Per capita, Sweden ranks No. 2 in annual new patents and produces more engineers than any nation except Japan.
The Swedish form of government is Social Democracy. About 90 percent of production is in the private sector, but the state decides how 50 percent of all revenue is spent. Providing education, health care and day care is considered essential to maintaining a competitive workforce.
Sweden was hit hard, like many nations, during the 1990s recession. It rebuilt its economy into one of the European Union’s strongest, without extreme austerity measures, in part by branding itself as a world leader in climate and sustainability technology. Private industry and government work together to align goals.
Sweden also is a world leader in technologies that address sanitation and a growing scarcity of clean drinking water. “More than 1,000 children per day die because this is only a dream for them,” Deputy U.N. Secretary General Jan Eliasson recently told  a Sunday morning talk show host, as he held up a glass of drinking water. Eliasson has been a guest of Rockford’s SHS and Erlander Home Museum; he is the former Swedish ambassador to the U.S. He knows about the extraordinary hospitality Swedish guests receive in Rockford.
The global marketplace is vastly more complex today than it was just a decade ago, and Swedish entrepreneurs make their global prowess work for them. Before Spotify and Skype, the Swedes invented and successfully marketed products like safety matches, the pacemaker, the three-point seatbelt and Volvo automobiles. Sweden also ranks No. 8 on the 2015 World Happiness Report.
“Who wouldn’t want to be associated with Sweden?” asks Nelson. “A lot of things are going right in Sweden.”
But that wasn’t always the case.

Why They Came

In the 1850s, Sweden was a poor agricultural country that lagged behind those who embraced the Industrial Revolution. It didn’t start revving up its economic engine until the 1870s. Crop failures, a fast-growing population, an oppressive Protestant state religion and a general belief that hard work wouldn’t get you ahead, in Sweden, motivated about 1.3 million Swedes to emigrate to the U.S. between 1850 and 1910.
“Only the eldest son stood to inherit land from his parents,” explains Regina Gorham, former curator at Midway Village Museum, Rockford. “So if you were a third or fourth son, your prospects were dim.”
The decision of any European to emigrate to North America required no small amount of courage, given the risks. The voyage could last from a few weeks to many months, depending on weather and luck. “Third-class passengers were crammed into the bottom of the boats, where diseases spread quickly,” says Gorham. “Many didn’t survive the voyage. Those who did arrived in New York or another East Coast port, where they underwent mandatory health checks for lice and illness. If you were found to be ill, you might be sent to a quarantine area or you might find yourself on the next boat back to Europe.”
Once here, many Swedes boarded trains heading west, where the U.S. government doled out land to people willing to tame it. Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois attracted Swedes who had heard about the good soil, rich forests and a climate similar to their homeland.
Just why so many Swedes wound up in Rockford is unclear, but most historians believe that land-starved, rural-born Swedes rejected big-city Chicago life and chose instead to ride to the end of the line – which happened to be in Winnebago County. In Rockford: An Illustrated History, the late author and historian Jon Lundin suggests that if the end of the line had been elsewhere, Rockford may have missed out altogether on the Swedish ingenuity that contributed so much to its prosperity.

Making Their Mark

Whatever their reasons for settling in Rockford, Swedes comprised 25 percent of the city’s 14,000 population by 1870. Many had expertise in farming, business and woodworking. A strong work ethic, a willingness to adapt, frugality and a desire for social equality are traits associated with Swedes then and now.
Asked if anything surprised her during her research, Gorham says she was surprised to learn how long local Swedish Americans held onto their Socialist ideals.
“It wasn’t just the first few generations. People were openly Socialist well into the 1900s, more than 50 years after the emigration began,” she says. “One of Rockford’s mayors was Socialist, and a leading U.S. Socialist newspaper was printed in Rockford.” The desire to more equally share wealth influenced the way many furniture companies evolved in Rockford.
“The earliest craftsmen who arrived in Rockford opened solo businesses and sold furniture and cabinets to fellow settlers,” says Gorham. Some went to work in Yankee-owned workshops but resented the low percentage of profit they received. The idea of 25 or so Swedish craftsmen pooling funds to open small furniture factories took root. “The employees had a real stake in making things work and toughed out bad times more willingly,” says Gorham. The combination of skilled woodworkers, plentiful local lumber, good river and rail transportation and a fast-growing Midwest market added up to a furniture-making boom.
“The Great Chicago Fire in 1871 only intensified this, as people looked to Rockford while they rebuilt,” says Gorham. “There were hundreds of these factories. Some closed during the Panic of 1893, but many survived well into the 1930s.”
Many Rockford workers enjoyed excellent leadership from men who were exceptional at finding bridge loans to keep fledgling businesses afloat. Best-known among them was Swedish immigrant P.A. Peterson, who arrived in Rockford as a poor six-year-old in 1846 and died a beloved multimillionaire in 1927, having helped scores of Rockford companies to thrive, among them BorgWarner and Sundstrand. Despite personal setbacks, like losing $300,000 during the Panic of 1893, Peterson’s work ethic, integrity and savvy business head led him to wealth and status; his word was enough to convince bankers to extend credit. He also encouraged a spirit of generosity in Rockford. He once wrote that the accumulation of wealth “is a curse to anyone who fails to distribute the reasonable part of it day by day to the unfortunate.” He remained true to these sentiments rooted in “Swedishness” all his life and inspired altruism in others.
Furniture Row, as it was called, grew up between Seventh and 12th streets, near the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad tracks on Railroad Avenue. Later, New Furniture Row sprang up several blocks south of Seventh Street, on 18th Avenue, along the Illinois Central tracks built in 1888.
Some products came to be identified exclusively with Rockford, such as the side-by-side writing desk/bookcase designed by Robert Bauch, of the Central Furniture Company, which led to Rockford’s nickname “The Bookcase Town.”
Furniture and cabinetry often required fasteners and other hardware, so support industries like metalworking shops developed. Industry captains like Peterson, who had profited from wood products but foresaw the depletion of local forests, began investing in these metalworking industries, believing they were the way of the future. And they were. By 1940, only a handful of furniture companies remained.
“Many companies we know today first developed as offshoots of the furniture industry,” says Gorham. Among them are National Lock, Amerock, Greenlee, Rockford Tool, and Sundstrand.
Through much of the 20th century, they provided good jobs to Rockford families until a new emigration began – this time of Rockford manufacturers to overseas locations.
Soon after the Swedes arrived in the 1850s, Kishwaukee and Seventh streets evolved into thriving Swedish colonies.
“Some of the early-generation Swedish immigrants never did learn to speak English because they really didn’t need to,” says Gorham. “You could find everything you needed on Seventh Street.”
By most accounts, Yankees and Swedes got along well. It wasn’t uncommon for Yankees to back inventive Swedes who lacked capital. Such was the case when Rockford businessman Ralph Emerson backed the efforts of John Nelson, whose genius at improving the knitting machine led Rockford to dominate the U.S. hosiery industry, starting with Nelson Knitting Co.
Swedes had an easier time assimilating than many ethnic groups that followed, but they nonetheless worked hard to “Americanize” themselves.
“The social structure of the city hadn’t yet been established; they weren’t met with the kind of rejection other waves of immigrants would feel in later years,” says Gorham. “At first, for Swedes, it was all about being American. Then, once the first and second generations were established, there arose a concern about preserving Swedish culture. By then, many Swedish Americans had never been to Sweden. They only knew Swedish relatives through letters. Travel was still difficult and expensive. Various groups formed to preserve Swedish traditions, such as the Sveas Soner Singing Society. Swedes have a history of enjoying choral music, especially during long winter months.”
Construction of the Sveas Soner Singing Society building at 326 Seventh St. began in the early 1890s. Because of the Panic of 1893, the building was left unfinished. In an act of civic generosity, a local businessman purchased it, finished it and rented it to the singing society until the group could purchase the building. It had a second-floor music hall where the men’s chorus sang. Sveas Soner hosted vaudeville acts, orchestras and Swedish musicians, enriching Rockford’s cultural life.
“All the Swedes are jolly fellows and all the Swedes can sing,” reads a sign hanging in the Many Faces, One Community exhibit at Midway Village Museum. The exhibit explains how various ethnic groups established themselves and interacted with one another in Rockford. It includes a mini Swedish furniture factory and a streetscape representing Seventh Street businesses in their heyday.
Over time, Swedish Americans assimilated with other cultures and their ethnic districts dissipated. But many Swedish American families still hold tight to the traditions passed down from their ancestors. The Lunde family is among them.

Embracing ‘Swedishness’

Longtime SHS member Barbara Lunde is proud that her son Michael serves as the society’s current president and that her grandsons Matthew and David have learned the Swedish game of KUBB and the skills of woodcarving and blacksmithing. Asked how she interested her son and grandson in their ancestry, Barbara says, “They had grandparents who loved their heritage and had a passion for preserving it. They shared this in a kind and loving way.”
Michael adds, “What’s in your genes is partly what makes you who you are. You can’t ignore that. It’s very fulfilling to enjoy the simple things in life that come naturally.” His sons have put their Swedish skills to good use during Boy Scout projects, including work done on Swedish Historical Society properties.
“One value Swedes traditionally have embraced is the idea of keeping your hands busy,” says Barbara. “Scandinavian men and women were known for their wide range of skills and craftsmanship and some of this naturally grew into innovations during the Industrial Revolution. For example, Vikings were adept at knitting. It was a very practical skill to have when you were out on long, cold ship voyages. Many of the developments in warp and woof machines in the hosiery industry can be traced back to people who first were good with their hands.”
Barbara likes to dispel a few misnomers about Scandinavian culture, too. “Let’s talk about the dala horse,” she says. “The dala horse is not a big deal to Swedes – it’s a big deal to tourists who think it’s important to Swedes. It’s a symbol.”
She also likes to remind people that “not all Scandinavian food is white and bland. After all, our Viking ancestors were world explorers who brought home coffee from Turkey and spices and flavorings from all over the world.” When she hosts Swedes, she serves sweet rolls laced with cardamom, a reminder of the daring Vikings in their Nordic bloodline.
Like many local Swedish American families, the Lundes have hosted Swedish guests many times through the decades.
“Rockford is known for its exceptional hospitality to Swedish visitors,” says Barbara. “When Swedes come through the Midwest, they visit many cities, but they often make a point of staying overnight in Rockford. We take people to see the old furniture district, Midway Village Museum, the Erlander Home; we take them to Stockholm Inn, and to see the Swedish angel statues at Anderson Japanese Gardens.”
The SHS 75th Anniversary Gala was April 24 at Rockford’s Prairie Street Brewhouse. “Forty delegates from Canada and the U.S., representing the Swedish Council of America, helped us to celebrate as they celebrated their 40th anniverary,” says Barbara. Guests toured Rockford highlights and the weekend culminated in a ribbon cutting at the SHS’s new Nordic Cultural Center.
“That’s the thing about Rockford,” says Barbara. “When it comes to Swedish ancestry, and people who still celebrate it, Rockford is pretty special.”