When I asked around about someone interesting to interview in New Sweden, Ralph Ostlund’s name came up — retired potato farmer, avid dancer and cross-country skier, world traveler, citizen of the year, irrepressibly energetic 89-year-old. Ostlund had never heard of me when I called to ask if I could visit with him and tell his story in the paper, but he replied instantly:
“OK. Do you know where I live?”
When I arrived at Ostlund’s home on the Friday of New Sweden’s Midsommer Festival, he bounded out of his chair on the front porch to greet me and commenced a tour. Outside, his vegetable garden was well-tended, with several thriving potato plants — “Cobblers, Katahdins, and Green Mountains.” Inside, we went straight to family photos — six generations’ worth. Ostlund filled in stories to go with them.
There were his grandparents, his parents on their wedding day, and a picture of Ostlund with his parents and eight siblings.
“I’m the only one still living from this group,” he said, and he moved right along to children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. “So. I’m proud of my family. They’ve all done well.”
It is a wonderful family, but I was interested to hear more about Ostlund, so he put on a pot of coffee and we sat in the kitchen of the home he has lived in since the 1950s.
Other than a few years working in his father-in-law’s sawmill in Connor (a few miles away), Ostlund has lived all of his 89 years in New Sweden. His family spoke only Swedish when he was a boy, as did most of his neighbors and his minister.
“I thought Swedish was our language when I first went to school.”
You can still detect a Swedish accent in Ostlund’s speech, which only adds to his charm. He loves to talk and tell stories, both from his distant and not so distant past. And though there has been plenty of hardship and loss, Ostlund is contagiously upbeat about people and about life. That is probably why, during the course of the weekend, I saw smiles bloom whenever townspeople saw him, or even when I mentioned Ostlund’s name.
“He’s kind of a legend around here.”
“He really is a marvel.”
Ostlund has been a lifetime contributor to the town of New Sweden — as winter carnival organizer, planning board member, and general handyman.
He squeezed our interview between festival duties. It’s no wonder that he was once named citizen of the year.
Ostlund and some of his relatives have worked to restore his original family home to its 1920s condition. Electricity and plumbing were removed, old furniture replaced. Exposed wall boards reveal a layer of Swedish newspapers from the 1800s used as sizing. The building was open to visitors over the festival weekend.
“All the children were born right in the home,” Ostlund told me. “We bathed in the pond. Our pond was the busiest place in New Sweden. Everyone came to swim. … In the winter we cut blocks of ice and sold it; that was one of our businesses.
“When I was young New Sweden was booming. There was a saw mill, shingle mill, barrel factory. My brother and I used to make barrel bottoms.”
At age 13, Ostlund was a water boy for a road crew, and he has been working various jobs and farming ever since. But Ostlund has also always known how to have fun. Two things stand out in his life as his sustaining joys — cross-country skiing and dancing.
“I s’pose I could ski just as soon as I could walk,” he said. He skipped skiing for some years when he was working and raising his family, even while he was running the annual winter carnival races. But Ostlund began skiing seriously again in his 50s. He also took up running.
“After that, I don’t know how many races I skied in and ran in, but it was a lot.”
He did not mention the fact that he won a lot of those races, but someone had tipped me off, so I asked. Though he didn’t allow me to take a photo, he showed me two shelves full of trophies in the back of a closet, including one from the 85-and-over division.
“I still ski, but not very good. … I can’t take hills and corners like I used to do.”
Ostlund also loves to dance, and fondly remembers going to town dances as a young man. Like many from his generation, he met his wife at a dance. He even danced on stage quite a bit with a Swedish dance group.
Sometimes he even dances alone.
“When it’s cold and miserable, there’s only so much exercise you can get walking in the house, so I put Swedish music on and dance in the kitchen,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
Ostlund lost his wife Edith about 12 years ago.
“I don’t know how I ever landed such a good woman,” he said. “It was a big loss. But my life didn’t end there. My life goes on. She wouldn’t have wanted me to give up.”
Ostlund sure hasn’t given up. He gardens, he bowls, he takes part in town events, he travels with his family all over the country and the world. In recent years he has been to Germany, California, the Gaspe Peninsula, Hawaii, and finally to Sweden five years ago with his daughter and granddaughter.
I asked which place he liked the best, and his answer was quick: “New Sweden!” and he laughed. “But they were all good, every one of ’em.”
Before I left, with a smile and hug from Ostlund, he told me, “I’m a rich man without money. Good health, family, what more could you ask for?”
Well, he might ask for an occasional trek on skis and a rousing Swedish Hop. With that, life is complete.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at email@example.com.