Journey to a new life: The history of Swedes in Worcester
Every one of us is different, and as such, each of us sees the world through our own eyes and from our own unique perspective born of our experiences. I’m one who has always believed that if we turn a blind eye to the past and fail to acquire a sense of from whom and where we originated, we can never really hope to have a clear understanding of who we are today in this time and place.
America is a nation of immigrants. It is who we are, for we are all part of those who went before us. Our ancestors played a paramount part in forging our identity and our sense of self long before we were even born. The diversity of our people is at the heart of who we are as a nation, and it is the source of our strength and our greatness. And yet, in so many American families, the faded remnants of ancestry and ethnic heritage – those bits and pieces that tell of our past – are tucked away, gathering dust in musty old boxes in attics and basements underneath piles of junk.
However, the families of Worcester’s large Swedish-American community have, in their midst, one who has spent years compiling a chronicle of their history.
Eric Salomonsson, a Swedish-American author, historian and prep school teacher who was born and raised in Worcester, has written a new book, Swedish Heritage of Greater Worcester, that records the history of his people. The book tells of the Swedes’ migration from Scandinavia to Worcester starting in the 1800s and of the Swedish-American identity that has, across the generations, morphed into what is today a purely American identity. According to Salomonsson, this identity shift and transformation serves as a key point in differentiating and setting apart people of Swedish ancestry from other ethnic communities in the greater Worcester area.
“Swedes are really not known for being good at promoting themselves. They just don’t do it. They are quiet and hardworking. Whereas many people today from other groups will say, ‘I’m Irish-American’ or ‘I’m Italian-American,’ Swedes of today are a bit different. They will say to you ‘My grandparents were Swedish’ or ‘My ancestors were form Sweden. ’” He added, “Swedes in these times see themselves not so much as Swedish-American but much more as being pure American. When their ancestors came here, they just wanted to become good Americans.”
To chat with him is to hear the passion in Salomonsson’s voice as he speaks of the Swedes in Worcester and his sadness that the volumes of assorted family histories and cultural treasures from past generations lay sleeping in the attics, basements and garages of their descendants. With a palpable twinge of sadness in his voice, he said, “They have so much of their Swedish heritage locked away in some old shoebox. It’s just sitting there, and they don’t know what to do with it.”
Many from the Swedish community give these personal cultural treasures to Salomonsson, feeling that he’ll know what to do with them, and he’s more than happy to accept these gifts from the past. Seen through his eyes, such things are precious links to the past. In a way, he’s Worcester’s keeper of the Swedish culture keys. He wishes that there were more documents from these immigrants who made Worcester their home so long ago. For there was a time when a wave of Swedish immigration and resettlement washed over Worcester, spawning what is today a sprawling tight-knit community around Quinsigamond Village, Vernon Hill, Belmont Hill and Greendale. By the early 1920s, the Swedish-born population of the city and its outlying areas had swelled to about 20,000, and with the second generation also at about 20,000, the Swedes made up one-fifth of Worcester’s total population. Swedish organizations and associations sprang up all over the city. Such groups were not only to foster cultural camaraderie but also to be a force in helping to address the unique immigrant needs around language, employment and assimilation into a new culture that was, at first, so foreign and different to them. These things were of great concern across much of the burgeoning Swedish community in those days. Many of these organizations and clubs still exist to this day in Worcester, but not as they once were.
The Swedish-Worcester story is one that is not well known, but it is worth telling. It reads a bit like the script from a Hollywood TV mini-series. At the dawn of the 20th century, people from every corner of the globe saw America as a far-away place. A yawning, stretching industrial and agricultural giant that was suddenly stirring and awakening from its slumber, as it made ready to take its place front and center on the world stage. It was the time of the country’s larger-than-life President Teddy Roosevelt, and America was a rich new land of hopes and dreams, where virtually everything was in rich abundance. So America opened its doors to the world, and in 1900, the country was awash in immigrants, the Swedes among them.
One of the places where the legions of newcomers came was Worcester. This city that is the hub of Central Massachusetts became home to the largest Swedish immigrant population in the eastern United States. The Swedes were quiet, hardworking, fair-haired, hearty Nordic descendants of the Vikings. They spoke in a pleasant sing-song cadence, and they came to settle here because they were attracted to the jobs that the steel and ceramic shops of Worcester provided. For millions of Swedes at the turn of the century, Worcester was the gateway to a new life. In the 1850s, Swedes had left behind their homeland in search of religious freedom and higher-paying jobs. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the critical shortage of good farmland in Sweden was not a problem.
The Swedes brought a unique and innovative spirit with them to the Worcester community, and they were catalysts in forming many successful companies that are still viable and competitive in the marketplace of the 21st century. The Norton Company, of Worcester, is but one example of Swedish contributions that proliferated across the disciplines of local markets, hospitals and bakeries. Finally, Salomonsson decided to uncover that history and those contributions.
“The inspiration comes from a deep desire to promote and share the contributions and achievements of the local Swedes. I think that both in Worcester and within national Swedish-American circles, the story of Worcester is one that is largely overlooked,” he said. “This book, I hope, helps to accomplish telling part of that story. I hope that it raises awareness among both local Swedes and those who have an interest in history.”
He speaks of his desire to do what he can to preserve the Swedish past through the old letters, diaries and photographs that he collects and catalogues. He also feels that changing times are playing a large role in contributing to the vanishing cultural history of a people.
“Technology is a double-edged sword. While on one hand it’s great, people don’t gather together and talk to each other as they once did. Today, it looks as though we’re heading to a place where Facebook has replaced church suppers.”
While Minnesota and the American Midwest became the heartland of the Swedish-American economy, the Swedes have played a vital role in Worcester. When Swedish people first arrived on U.S. soil, like so many countless of other newcomers to America, they, too, faced discrimination. They often found themselves on the receiving end of racial stereotyping and prejudices. The difficulties that many of them had in learning English gave rise to the hurtful and inaccurate expression, “A dumb Swede.”
However, in the final analysis, what is at the core of the Swedes is their strength of purpose, their pride in themselves and a collective desire to become a viable part of the American experience right here in Worcester. To become what Eric Salomonsson characterizes in his book as being “The Good American.” For the Swedes of Worcester continue to realize the rich and bountiful life that was little more than a distant dream to those who went before them and who, through their gritty determination and hard work, paved the way for those who followed in their footsteps.
Swedish Heritage of Greater Worcester
By Eric Salomonsson
The History Pres
All photos reprinted with permission from Swedish Heritage in Greater Worcester by Eric Salomonsson. Available from the publisher online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or by calling 888-313-2665.
Paul Collins is a freelance writer from Southborough.