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Arriving in the 1800s: the Swedes of Portland

SOUTHEAST HISTORY


by: PHOTO COURTESY OF CHUCK MARTIN - Soder Brothers opened a grocery and confectionery at the corner of Miller and S.E. 7th, hoping to garner the traffic of school children after a summer afternoon swim in the Sellwood Pool. This 1922 photo shows, in the doorway, one of the Swedes who owned their own business in Inner Southeast. This store has long since been converted into a home, but is still located across the street from Sellwood Park.Imagine you are just 16 years old again, a young girl, and are leaving your own country to live in a land where people speak another language and have different customs and values than you are used to.

Or consider the responsibility required of you, as a young man, when your parents expected you to travel with your older brother aboard a ship setting out across the Atlantic, filled with immigrants from other European countries.

For close to seventy years many Swedish fathers, brothers, sons, and daughters – young and old – left behind the country they loved, and the family members they cherished, to forge a new life in a young upstart nation called America.

During the 1860’s Sweden, like many other European countries, was facing an economic collapse. Overpopulated, and with very little in farmland available, Swedish workers looked for alternative job opportunities. Others were seeking religious or political freedom from the authoritarian Lutheran Church of Sweden.

When newspapers began to report that the United States, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, was embarking on an industrial age, a new hope presented itself for the poorest of the poor. Cities were growing in America, railroads were extending across the country, and enterprising and energetic workers were needed to build this new nation.

With the American Civil War at an end, thousands of Swedish farmers, woodsmen, craftsmen, and fishermen left to journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World, seeking a new start in life.

Between 1850 and 1925, over 1.2 million Swedes left their homeland – settling in the American Midwest: Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and parts of Nebraska and Wyoming. But many found little opportunity or productive land there, and so they continued their quest westward, intent on finding viable acreage to settle on. The Pacific Northwest, in contrast, offered a vast richness of timber, abundant fishing waterways and fertile land.

Powell Valley and parts of Gresham east of Portland became one of the first Swedish settlements. The Fishing canneries of Astoria and the flowing waters of the Columbia River offered ideal fishing opportunities for those Swedes skilled in the maritime trade they’d learned back in the Old Country.

But backbreaking manual jobs were the only positions available for most of the newcomers. The rise of the logging industry helped boost the Oregon economy in towns like Clatskanie, Coos Bay, Bend, and Medford thanks to the sweat and muscle of Swedish laborers.

Prejudice surfaces

Many Swedish workers and their families had to adjust to the prejudices of small town folks, who felt immigrants were taking away jobs meant for them – while Swedish children were teased in school for the funny way they talked. With work available only in the timber and maritime industry, camp town life in the logging camps and long hours gillnetting fish along the Columbia provided both hardship and challenge for the new arrivals.

In Lars Nordstrom’s book “Swedish Roots, Oregon Lives”, the author gives a glimpse into the travels and hardships that Swedish immigrants encountered during this migration to the U.S.

He tells of Johan Einar Lindstrom, an apprenticed shoemaker in Sweden, who sought his fortune in the New World. But during the Great Depression in the 1930s, he could only find work as a logger with the privately owned Bridal Veil Timber Company.

Employees of the timber companies were required to rent housing, buy groceries, pay utilities and spend any discretionary income at the company-owned store. His son Nils Lindstrom recalls, “On January 2, 1931, Dad received 25 cents in pay for 93½ hours of work – which was all that remained, after everything he owed the company had been taken out.”

As timber jobs became sparse and fish canneries started to close down, many Swedes moved to Portland, where they became proficient in the building and construction industry. They hired on as longshoremen, and applied for a variety of maritime jobs along the Portland waterfront.

Swedish neighborhoods began forming around the northeast parts of Portland in the Albina, Irvington, and Overlook districts, and the men became proficient as carpenters, painters, plasterers, cabinetmakers, and stonemasons.

Swedes were hired for the building of the Ross Island Bridge in the mid 1920s.

Shoemaker, postmaster, and later real estate agent, Oscar H. Wallberg moved to Sellwood with his wife Matilada Soderberg-Wallberg in 1888, from their home in Illinois. Their first house was built on the banks of the Willamette River on Umatilla Street, where Oscar opened up a shoe store.

Sellwood, then, was a small community of only 775 people, and the townsfolk had such confidence in this extraordinary Swede that he served seven years as Postmaster of the Sellwood Post Office on 13th Street. He not only spent the rest of his life in the community, but always had a home on his cherished Umatilla Street.

Swedish families accepted their new country quickly, mastering the English language and encouraging their children to participate in local social and sporting events. While English was always spoken outside of their homes, Swedish was still spoken in the privacy of their homes when visitors were gone.

These Scandinavian immigrants brought with them many of their cultural values and traditions to share with their new American friends. The Mid-Summer Celebration, Easter Holiday, and Christmas were just a few of the celebrations in which Swedish foods, folk dances, and lively singing and music were offered for all who attended.

Swedish festivals were held at Gladstone Park, and later at Viking Park near the Sandy River at the end of the Stark Street Bridge. However, by the 1950’s, Oaks Amusement Park in Sellwood had become the favored location where visitors could take part in wrestling matches, yodeling contests, and listening to Knusel’s Orchestra.

Another person of Swedish extraction, who has become notable in his field, is Jonas G. Nordwall – born and raised in Sellwood. His father, Jonas Olaf Nordwall, had emigrated from Sweden when he was just fifteen years old. His mother, Wilda Anna Johnson Nordwall, grew up on a farm in Fisher, Washington, near present day Fourth Plain Avenue in Vancouver, Washington.

“We lived in our own Swedish compound on 8th and Nehalem in Sellwood,” Nordwall reflected. “My cousins Ivar Carlson and Greta Mantz lived on Spokane Street, and her other cousin Eric Carlson lived next door.” Influenced by the Swedish music in his youth, Jonas Nordwall is recognized throughout the United States and internationally as a renowned virtuoso organist.

Linnea Lodge, Harmoni Lodge, Nobel Lodge, and Alberta Lodge were all built by Swedish carpenters as social and learning centers for newly-arriving Swedes and already-resident Scandinavians to share the traditions they left behind .

The popular Norse Hall at 11th and N.E. Couch opened in October of 1928, and many Scandinavian dances were held there every Saturday night. The Henry Sjolins Orchestra hosted many of these social events, and countless couples admitted it was on the dance floor where they met and later married their first love.

Swedish pancakes and Swedish meat balls have now become Swedish/American food favorites, introduced by the women of the Old Country. But other traditional foods enjoyed by those of Scandinavian extraction but not as widely accepted by Americans of other heritages include rice porridge, pickled herring, lutefisk, saffron buns, potato dumplings, and cardamom rolls.

Membership in the Scandinavian lodges steadily declined as many Swedes volunteered for the military. While many halls and lodges were forced to close down, many Scandinavian-themed events still take place today.

Today’s festivals For those who have a bit of Swedish heritage, or are just interested in Scandinavian traditions and foods, here are a few festivals to visit: The Midsummer Celebration is held annually at Oaks Park, and the Scan Faire starts the first week-end of December, taking place at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

Norse Hall at N.E. 11th and Couch is one of the few lodges still providing dances and festivals for those wishing to enjoy a taste of traditional Swedish music, folk dancing, and choral singing.