(Jon McGinty photo)

Scandinavian Cemetery and the Swedes of Rockford

Rockford’s Scandinavian Cemetery contains more than 22,000 graves, with each one representing part of our region’s history. Uncover dark truths, amusing anecdotes and meaningful stories affiliated with the site.

(Jon McGinty photo)
(Jon McGinty photo)

Swedes began emigrating to the U.S. in the 18th century, but the greatest number arrived during the 1800s. By 1900, Sweden had lost a million people, more than 95 percent to the U.S., and mostly to the Midwest. Sweden sent a larger portion of its citizens abroad than any other Western European country except Ireland and Norway.

The Swedes emigrated to escape poverty, find religious freedom, express political beliefs or seek adventure. They brought with them a strong work ethic, many special skills, and deep-rooted family traditions.

The first of several thousand Swedish immigrants arrived in Rockford in 1852. Among those two-dozen weary travelers were John Nelson, S.A. Johnson and P.A. Peterson, three of the city’s future industrial leaders. While in transit, a Lutheran minister in Chicago advised them not to settle in the city, but take the train west to the end of the line to a more suitable farm community.

At that time, the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad (later the Chicago & Northwestern) terminated in Rockford, since a railroad bridge over the Rock River wasn’t yet completed. The steam locomotive that brought the train to Rockford, the Pioneer, is currently on display in the Chicago Historical Museum.

Rockford’s first Swedish settlers got off the train at a small station on the corner of Fourth Avenue and South Fourth Street, east of Kishwaukee Street. Later travelers, unable to find rooms to rent, set up a tent city nearby, which became known as kohagen (cow pasture) and later as Swede Town. As more Swedes arrived, the enclave expanded eastward to Seventh Street and 14th Avenue (now Broadway).

The area became such a well-known destination for Scandinavians that children of later immigrants arrived safely with tags attached to their clothing, stating simply, “Kishwaukee Street, Rockford, Illinois.”

After the Civil War, Rockford’s Scandinavian population expanded rapidly, and by the 1870s, 3,500 Swedes occupied Swede Town. Although many Europeans emigrated to escape persecution and discrimination, they often inflicted it upon each other here.

The Irish, whose arrival to Rockford preceded the Swedes’, often confronted the “new” minority with fistfights on Rock River bridges, perpetuating the east-side, west-side rivalry that continued to color local history for years. Swedes were called “square heads” or “Olies.”

This discrimination also continued into death. The East Side Cemetery (now called Cedar Bluff) allowed Swedes to be buried there, but only in the low-lying soggy areas. In 1872, a delegation of the Swedish community offered to purchase a portion of higher ground, but the East Side Cemetery board denied their request.

“That’s when the Swedes decided to establish their own cemetery,” says Bruce Olson, the fourth generation of his family to operate Olson Funeral and Cremation Services, and a member of the Scandinavian Cemetery Board of Trustees. “John Erlander, founder of the Union Furniture Company, was leader of the group. They went out into the country and bought five acres of nearby farmland.” It became the nucleus of the 55-acre cemetery located at 1700 Rural St., Rockford.

The cemetery name is “kind of a misnomer,” says Olson. “The name was not intended to exclude others, but to emphasize that they welcomed Scandinavians. Every ethnic group is served by the cemetery today.”

The Death Book, an ancient ledger kept in the cemetery office, lists the name of each deceased person buried there, the date and location of their burial, and the cause of death. Early entries show that infants and children represented nearly one-half of the burials, reflecting the limits of medical knowledge in that era.

“There was a peak of deaths in the mid-1890s, due to a bad cholera outbreak,” says Olson. “The townspeople were probably getting their drinking water from the Rock River.”

But this mortality rate was dwarfed by the influenza pandemic of 1918 that killed as many as 100 million people worldwide. Within a period of five weeks that autumn, 2,300 people died at Camp Grant, a nearby Army training facility south of Rockford, plus several hundred Rockford residents.

“Everybody was overwhelmed by the disease,” says Olson, “from the medical community to general services to cemetery people, anyone that dealt with human tragedy.”

Olson’s paternal grandfather, Fred C. Olson Sr., was called to Camp Grant to assist with the disposition of hundreds of bodies.

“[The pandemic] was probably the most significant event the cemetery ever had to deal with,” says Olson. “The disease took whole families. Some families were all buried in two caskets. Most of those graves are located in an area just west of the cemetery office. It looks empty because there are few headstones, but it probably contains more graves than any other area.”

The flu also claimed Bruce Olson’s pregnant grandmother, Ada, who died at age 28, leaving behind an 18-month-old son, Bruce’s father, Fred Jr.

Since its founding in 1872, the Scandinavian Cemetery has grown to contain more than 22,000 graves. According to Kirsten Spurlock, cemetery manager, the facility averages 10 to 15 burials every six months.

Olson attributes the good condition of Scandinavian Cemetery to good leadership throughout its history. When a grave is sold, a certain percentage of the fee is put into the “perpetual care fund” (endowment fund).

“Our board has always put more money into the endowment fund than required by the state,” says Olson. “That strategy, and wise investment, has provided a consistent stream of income to operate and maintain the cemetery.”

While still a repository for the remains of loved ones, cemeteries have changed over the years. Prior to 1955, cemetery lots were sold to families, and had space for five to 10 graves, says Olson. Then, people began requesting smaller lots and fewer upright markers. This made cemeteries easier to mow and less cluttered in appearance.

“Late in the 1990s, we established a Cremation Garden with a gazebo,” says Olson. “Many people viewed a cemetery plot as wasteful, but still wanted a location for remembrance.”

Jon Carlson, current president of the Scandinavian Cemetery Board of Trustees and owner of J. Carlson Growers, flew to Denver with Olson to view a cremation garden and gather ideas.

“As a result, we added a small walking path, an ‘executive’ area, and a granite wall for inscriptions,” says Carlson.

“Families can purchase an individual marker, or have their loved one’s name inscribed on the wall,” says Spurlock. “We also don’t require an urn or a vault, for those who wish to scatter cremains. You can also scatter them on an existing burial site.”

Carlson’s grandfather, Gilbert A. Johnson, is buried in Scandinavian Cemetery. A well-known architect in Rockford, he produced designs for many significant buildings from the 1920s to the 1960s, including Lincoln Junior High, the Manufacturers National Bank (now Rockford City Hall), and the Swedish-American Bank (now occupied by the Rockford Public Schools administration).

As environmental concerns grew, “green burials” developed. Traditional burials place the deceased in a metal coffin encased in a concrete vault in the ground. A “dark green” burial uses an all-wood biodegradable coffin placed in the ground without a vault. As the coffin degrades, however, the grass above collapses, making it difficult to walk or mow the area. A “light green” burial uses the same type of casket, but with a concrete dome on top, to prevent soil from collapsing.

“We spend a lot of time and money on the ‘look’ of the grounds, spraying for weeds, paying an arborist to prune the big trees, controlling the selection and placement of trees,” says Carlson. “It’ a well-maintained cemetery/park and it shows.”

Future plans include landscaping the new entrance on Guilford Road. The original entrance closed in 2018. Additions to the cremation garden and a possible veterans’ memorial area also are in the works.

“It’s a special place, with all that local history represented,” says Olson. “Five generations of my family are buried there. That’s holy ground.

Much of Rockford’s history is represented in gravesites and markers in Scandinavian Cemetery. The Rockford Historical Society often organizes cemetery walks, with members portraying historical figures at their gravesites. The cemetery entrance is now on Guilford Road. Here’s a sample of who you can find:

John Erlander (1826-1917)
One of Rockford’s earliest Swedish entrepreneurs, he arrived in 1854 and started the first Swedish retail establishment, a tailor shop. He built the first brick house for a Swedish family; today it houses a museum and the Swedish Historical Society. Later Erlander was a co-founder of the Union Furniture Company (1876), Rockford’s first cooperative. He was instrumental in organizing the Scandinavian Cemetery in 1872.

Sven August Johnson (1831-1921)
Johnson, a tailor, arrived here at age 20, also in that first group of Swedes. He became a partner in Erlander’s tailor shop for almost 30 years. He invested in several other businesses and was the first Swedish member of the Rockford City Council.

Levin Faust (1863-1936)

Faust was a mechanic in Sweden before emigrating in 1887. He and several others salvaged equipment from an industrial fire in Rockford and used it to start their own business, Mechanics Machine Company. He developed and patented a universal joint and truck transmission, and later a cabinet lock made by National Lock. Faust was a major investor in a luxury hotel on State Street, named in his honor, but lost a fortune in the Great Depression. He guided many major industries in Rockford.

David Sundstrand (1846-1927)
Sundstrand was a young boy when his parents brought him to Rockford. He grew up in Swede Town, learned the machinist trade at Ingersoll Milling Machine and became an expert toolmaker. He conceived the idea of a 10-key adding machine and was granted a patent in 1913. Sundstrand Adding Machine Company eventually morphed into Sundstrand Aviation, Hamilton Sundstrand, and now Collins Aerospace, a major employer throughout Rockford’s history.

Henry Bloom (1884-1974)
Bloom was born in Rockford to Swedish parents, became a pharmacist and served in local government for many years, including as an alderman for 11 years and mayor for five terms. He was an organizer of the Progressive Party in Rockford, and, as mayor, dealt with the Great Depression, rationing, city vacancies caused by World War II, and the polio epidemic of 1945.

Swan Hillman (1887-1965)
Hillman was born in Sweden and emigrated at age 15. He came to Rockford while touring as a strongman in a vaudeville company. Hillman joined with friends in 1929 to start Rockford Screw Products; by 1955, his factories were producing between 5,000 and 6,000 types of fasteners. He helped establish Greater Rockford Airport and co-founded WREX-TV.

Fred C. Olson Sr. (1888-1975)

Olson was born to immigrant parents from Sweden, grew up in Rockford and entered his father’s mortuary business in 1908 at age 19. He played an important role during the influenza pandemic of 1918, when several thousand people in Rockford and at nearby Camp Grant died from the disease. He served as Winnebago County Coroner from 1920-28, and was president of the Scandinavian Cemetery Board.

Bert “Fish” Hassell (1893-1974)
Hassell was born in Marinette, Wis., to Swedish immigrants, grew up in Rockford, got his pilot’s license at age 20 and became a stunt pilot. A crash in Lake Michigan earned him his nickname. He was a flight instructor in World War I, flew nighttime bootleg whiskey runs during Prohibition and used Sinnissippi golf course as a landing field. In 1928, he and co-pilot Shorty Cramer tried to demonstrate the Great Circle route to Sweden from Rockford, but ran out of gas over Greenland, walking 14 days before being rescued. His plane was transported to Rockford in 1968, restored and put on display at Midway Village Museum. Hassell served in the Air Force during World War II and helped to establish the DEW line of defensive radar.

P.A. Peterson (1846-1927)

Peterson came to Rockford with the first trainload of Swedes in 1852 as a 9-year-old, and went on to become one of Rockford’s most important citizens. He founded, financed and/or served as CEO of more than 50 Rockford corporations, including Union Furniture, Haddorf Piano, National Lock and Sundstrand Machine Tool. He was one of the first industrialists to recognize that metalworking was the way of the future as local timber supplies for furniture-making were depleted. Peterson was a major philanthropist. On the day of his funeral, factories and businesses throughout the city closed in his honor.

Recommended Reading

The following were sources for this article:
Big Town, Little City, Pat Cunningham (2000)
Rockford: An Illustrated History, Jon Lundin (1985)
Rockford Swedes – American Stories, Neil Johnson (1993)
Sinnissippi Saga: A History of Rockford & Winnebago County, Hal Nelson, ed. (1975)
A Swedish-American Family, Rudolph E. Peterson (1978)
Swedish Newcomers Who Helped Build Rockford, Don Swanson
Swede Town, Jon Lundin (2002)
We, the People of Winnebago County, Hal Nelson, ed. (1975)