Nearly 30 years ago when I was a teacher in New Hampshire, I met a young woman with an intriguing background.
Lisa’s northern Maine hometown sounded like a place of almost mythic remoteness. The fact that she had 106 first cousins only added to the mystique.
Our lives overlapped again years later in Bangor, Maine. That’s when I began to hear more about New Sweden, including its annual Midsommer Festival.
Last weekend, I finally made the northward trek to Maine’s Swedish Colony, little knowing how deeply the place would impress itself upon me.
I drove through wide sweeps of rolling farmland, a landscape not quite like any other part of the state — expansive, open and inviting. The local people, I found, share similar qualities. Not only was I treated to (literal) open-door hospitality in several homes, I soon felt wrapped into the region’s extended family, a family with 140 years’ worth of roots plowed into the soil.
In 1870, a U.S. government official, W.W. Thomas, went to Sweden to recruit colonists to settle in northern Maine, a region not unlike the Swedish countryside. Our government hoped to solidify its claim to the contested north woods territory through the creation of settlements. Colonists were to be given 100 acres — for free — if they agreed to clear and farm the land.
Thomas arrived in July of that year with the first group of 50 Swedes and he called their settlement New Sweden. Many hundreds more Swedes arrived over the ensuing years, settling in New Sweden and in several other towns in the area.
Although there has been blending with French Canadians and non-Swedish Americans, the richness of Swedish heritage is still astonishingly preserved and pervasive. It is also 100 percent authentic.
Lisa told me she once traveled to old Sweden. She was excited to see how different a “real” Swedish Midsommer celebration would be, but found something else.
“The dresses, the hair wreaths, the dances … everything was exactly the same. I could even hum along with the songs!” she said.
New Sweden’s Midsommer weekend is the real deal and the people who take part add to the gaiety of the occasion.
On Friday evening I joined Lisa’s parents, Clyde and Lina Jepson, for dinner, which of course included mashed potatoes. Clyde gave us a tour of his family’s potato cellar, part of what was once a 100-acre farm started by his grandfather with a little area cleared around a log cabin.
Saturday began with “Frukost,” a Swedish breakfast in the Thomas Park dining hall. A young man plunked out tunes on a battered piano while people filed in, many wearing traditional Swedish costumes. I sat across from a couple who have lived in the area all their lives.
“We just celebrated our 64th wedding anniversary,” Marilyn McDougal told me.
Up the road I wandered into the Capitol School Museum and gift shop, featuring old school desks and historic paraphernalia in addition to Swedish souvenirs and handmade items. I overheard a group as they walked in the building:
“I went to school here as a kid,” said a woman. “There were boys and girls bathrooms, and there was a knothole in the wall. We used to stick our fingers in the hole so the boys wouldn’t peek.”
“I don’t think that was a knothole,” laughed one of the men. “I think it was carved with a jackknife!”
Behind the museum sits the “Lindsten Stuga,” a reproduction of a simple log home from the 19th century. I also browsed the multifloor collection in the New Sweden museum, where I met the vice president of the historical society, Carolyn Hildebrand. I learned that New Sweden introduced cross-country skiing to the United States and that the boy whose illness inspired the creation of the renowned “Jimmy Fund” was Carl Einer Gustafson, a New Sweden native.
Outdoors the festivities were in full swing. Girls of all ages wove hair wreaths from flowers, visitors painted Dala horses, a Swedish-costumed troupe played folk music on violins and accordion, and children danced around a 20-foot Midsommer pole festooned with flowers.
It wasn’t just the bright gaiety of Swedish culture that charmed me; it was the enthusiastic embracing of family and friends, culture and history. Photographs, stories, and portraits of former generations are everywhere, not only in museums but also in people’s homes. History is real, alive and ongoing for the residents of New Sweden, and outsiders can easily be swept up in their powerful spirit of place, as I can attest. Somehow I ended up that evening in traditional Swedish garb, dancing my first Swedish waltz.
For me, that mythical town in the middle of nowhere became a very real somewhere indeed.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at email@example.com.