Living in Aroostook County has given me a kind of heritage envy. I am sure my ancestors had compelling narratives of the hardships they endured in coming to a strange land, but they arrived so long ago their stories have been lost.
Descendants of immigrants to northern Maine and adjacent New Brunswick, however, know their roots, especially the Acadians and the Swedes. Tales of their migrations to the region are told and retold, strengthening cultural heritage with each retelling, affirming for each family and individual an identity in their ethnic history.
My sense of separateness resurfaced recently when I read in a brochure that I am scheduled to talk to a downstate historical society about growing up in a Swedish community. This came as a surprise, since I grew up in a nonethnic suburb of Battle Creek, Mich.
But there it was in print for all to anticipate. Maybe I could pull it off. Certainly I masqueraded as a Swede at many a Midsommar festival during the 10 years I lived in Westmanland (a suburb of New Sweden), dancing in traditional costume and helping serve at smorgasbords. Maybe I should talk about how I became a pseudo-Swede. Perhaps I could interview people who did grow up in a Swedish community or relate all I learned about Maine’s Swedish history after I was welcomed into their community as a transplant.
Weighing these options caused me to reflect on how I became aware of cultural heritage and how I came to appreciate its connection to a country after I married a Swede. I knew all of my ancestors were from England, but our family traditions had nothing to do with our British roots. My husband’s family celebrated its cultural heritage with foods, language, decor, stories, dances, clothing and personal characteristics similar to those of the Norwegians portrayed on “A Prairie Home Companion.”
I didn’t even know the name endings “-son” and “-sen” differentiated between Swedes and Danes. Yet, whenever we moved to a new place and needed professional services, such as a doctor or dentist, my husband would look for Swedish names in the phonebook. He could trust a Swede.
Then we went to Sweden and experienced the homogeneity of an entire country steeped in the same traditions. The idea of a melting pot took on new meaning when we returned to the diversity of the United States, landing in New York where we were dazzled by restaurants and churches of dozens of countries clustered in one place, as well as the many languages heard on the streets.
Several years later, when we wanted a more rural lifestyle than we had in Concord, N.H., we decided to move to the Swedish colony of less than 1,000 in northern Maine. The people of New Sweden, Stockholm and Westmanland welcomed us warmly, dispelling our fears of being “from away.” They seemed genuinely pleased that we were willing to take on the task of restoring an old farmhouse originally built by Swedish immigrants. They even said our interest in their culture renewed their own interest and pride.
Northern Maine’s Swedish colony has one of the most well-documented migrant histories in the state, beautifully portrayed in the New Sweden Historical Museum. Residents celebrate not only the annual Midsommar festival in June, but also the anniversary of the colony’s founding in July, the pre-Christmas Santa Lucia festival in December and Julotta on Christmas morning.
These celebrations continually renew the history of the Maine colony and the traditions of the old country, educating all generations of Swedes and non-Swedes alike. To live in the community is to know something about Swedish culture.
I was proud to don the costume of the Swedish province for which Westmanland, Maine, was named. I loved learning and performing traditional dances and speaking what few Swedish words I could with those who understood them.
During our years in Westmanland, we could hear Swedish spoken on our eight-party telephone line. Residents who could speak the language fluently offered to teach those who wanted to learn or be refreshed. Swedish linguists once came to New Sweden to study the language in Maine because it retained ancient dialects erased by mass communication in the old country.
Every newspaper and magazine article I wrote about the community deepened my appreciation of the 51 men, women and children recruited by Maine Commissioner of Immigration William Widgery Thomas of Portland to leave their homeland in 1870 and pay their own passage into an unknown future in northern Maine. Thomas had served in Sweden as war consul under President Abraham Lincoln. He knew the language and believed the hardy Swedes were well-suited to fulfill his dream for populating the north country.
Thomas called the first settlers “mina barn I skogen” (my children in the woods). Many of their descendants still live in the community. And people who move into the colony as we did come to identify with its unique history as a 19th century intentional community.
So, while I can’t tell the historical society about growing up in a Swedish community, I can certainly describe growing into one. And if anyone thinks I am really Swedish, I’d consider it a compliment.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.