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What Remains

Malmo, Sweden, 19th Century

It was the time of the Gilded Age. Railroad tycoons and mining magnates had huge new mansions filled with gas appliances and the new electric light. They had twelve cylinder motorcars. They traveled the world by steamship or under sail on yachts bigger than warships. The future looked glowingly bright, with new factories being built and as cities improved services, laying on water and sewers. Immigrants swarmed to America.

Among the immigrants were Scandinavians from Sweden and Denmark. Shortly after the Irish potato famine, grain crops failed in northern Europe. People starved in the rural districts. American ambassadors arranged for many people to make the long voyage to a land similar to the countryside they would leave behind, and groups emigrated to the St. John River Valley between Maine and New Brunswick.

John Anderson family, immigrants to Maine

It was harsh. The weather was subarctic, as bad as anything the Swedish immigrants had experienced, and more severe than the Danish families had seen in decades. The winter came early, and it seemed wise to build one large dwelling in New Sweden for all the group to share. Land would have to be cleared in the spring, and the deep acid soil amended with ashes, limestone, and manure. But the first concern was to survive the winter.

Supplies were brought in to the Capitol Hill dwelling house. It was two stories, with a kitchen. Most of the Swedish families were from farming stock, and they had been living a sixteenth century life before departing for the New World. A winter of isolation, cold and hard work didn’t worry them.  They carried on with their peasant traditions, having brought spinning wheels, knitting needles, loom hardware, woodworking tools, and other necessities. They settled in to making new wool clothes, furniture, and tools. They prayed, sang and occasionally argued. The months of long nights set in, and they went on with life, surviving on their traditional diet of grains, pulse, and pork.

Capitol Hill building

On the other side of the river, the Danish settlers would have more trouble. Most of Denmark was already cleared for farmland, and the immigrants did not bring clearing axes and other necessary equipment with them. The hills of New Denmark were covered with boreal forest, pines, maples, birch. They had expected fields ready for the plow. The Danes, too, built a communal dwelling, a loghouse of several rooms, and settled in for a grim, long winter.

Some of the settlers on both sides of the river had been weakened by illness and poor nutrition. Death was an ordinary event in peasant populations. Potential grave sites were chosen, just in case.

The Danes lost older people in the first couple of winters. Another death in the New Denmark Colony was of a stranger, who had walked up from the frozen river, apparently after sighting the smoke from the fires. He was sick, and weak. The Danes took him in, nursed him as best they could, and never understood a word he said except one: “Halifax.” He was coming from, or going to, Halifax. If it were his name, he would be an Englishman. He did not speak English, any Scandinavian language, German, or French. The Danes surmised he was a sailor, perhaps making his way to the only Canadian port he knew. He died after a few days, and they buried him in the little unmarked plot.

The old log house that was the first Danish building in New Denmark lasted a couple more generations. A community school was built on the same lot. The little cemetery, the first hallowed ground in the Settlement, remained unmarked, until one older resident insisted that it be identified and fenced. The actual location was lost to modern knowledge, so a best guess was made, and a suitable enclosure erected. Pragmatic Danes, gently satisfying the scruples of an elder.

The Swedes in Maine had a more difficult time on their mountain top. The Black Diptheria set in, and the youngest members, infants and children, were taken suddenly and in pain. Graves were dug at a distance form the communal house, and a monument was erected a few years later. Depression and grief subdued the new settlers.

Peasant children, 1860, by William Carrick

The Capitol Hill location in New Sweden is now a museum, as is the original settlement site in New Denmark. I did not spend much time in the New Denmark museum, but I was a museum curator near New Sweden, in the neighbouring village of Stockholm. At that time, the curator at the New Sweden museum was an old friend, a Baptist lady I had known since childhood, a former teacher. We would visit each other in the museums, compare items from the collections, and collaborate on grant proposals and community activities.

I knew my museum to be haunted. It was the original general store in the community. The family had lived on the second floor for years. There were many old artifacts from houses, and a few things brought over from Sweden, including immigrant trunks, small farm equipment, and clothing. There was a veterans’ room full of uniforms and ordnance. I don’t know who haunted the upper story, and occasionally ventured down to the kitchen while I sewed on a  treadle machine, or worked on rugs at the old loom, but he or she was noisy. Slamming doors, furniture moving, footsteps on the stairs. Volunteers of a sensitive nature did not like working alone. I am never bothered by ghosts. As my mother used to say, “It’s not the dead who can hurt you, but the living.”

Farmstead in Sweden, late 1800s

The Capitol Hill Museum building was a replica. The original had been struck by lightning and burned, and a duplicate erected from the original plans. It was sound and square. It was lighted by lovely big windows, a pleasure to visit. We did not expect ghosts. My understanding is that when a haunted building burned, the trapped spirits were released.

But one sunny summer day, I was over in the Old Colony, visiting with my colleague, Una. We worked a bit on the flax wheel, adjusting and renewing drive bands; I could spin, she did not know how. We discussed having the rug loom warped by another weaver. We moved to the other side of the floor, to retrieve a pair of wool hand-carders I was going to borrow for a demonstration.

Scandinavian-style spinning wheel

As we examined the carders, we heard a gentle step, and unexpectedly, a large baby pram rolled across the floor, coming to rest about seven feet from where it started.

“Well,” said Una. “Will you look at that!”

I have since pondered what that lone spirit was trying to tell us. That she was there? Was it a mother asking where her baby had gone? Was it a child, lost and forlorn, afraid because her parents were departed? I think of that sad monument behind the museum, and wonder if the the children are cold and lonely still.

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About Julie

Bishop of the church and religious order ICCO in The YOKE, based in Iowa City. Former Anglican parish priest, shepherd for ten years, artist, and writer.

2 responses to “What Remains

  1. Pingback: New Blog Post « Anglican, Plain

  2. grizoo2 ⋅

    Thanks for returning me to Strindberg’s Dalarna country. I brushed with it while working on his play “The Crownbride.” It’s as though Strindberg has come to life through you to chronicle Swedish pioneering in North America. Maybe it was his ghost that pushed the pram.

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