April 23, 2018
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Navy admiral finds Swedish roots in Aroostook log home

By Kathryn Olmstead, Special to the BDN

Adm. Gregory G. Johnson never forgot his Aroostook County roots. His career in the U.S. Navy took him all over the world, ultimately as commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, headquartered in London, and commander of Allied Forces in southern Europe, headquartered in Naples, Italy.

But the Westmanland native always valued his origins in the Swedish community of northern Maine. So when his mother, Carolyn Johnson, informed him that the log house in New Sweden where his father and grandfather were born might be destroyed after the farm was sold in 1987, he said, “That’s part of our heritage. Don’t you think we ought to save it?”

The house had not been lived in since the 1950s. The roof had caved in and the windows were broken. But it still exemplified the distinctive 19th century Swedish timmerhus — timber house — built by the Swedes who founded northern Maine’s Swedish colony in 1870. It had been in the Johnson family for a century. So save it they did.

Greg and his wife, Joy, were living in Jacksonville, Fla., at the time, and he was dividing his time between Florida and Norfolk, Va., where he had staff duty conducting naval training flights. He contacted former Westmanland neighbor Ronald Nelson, who agreed to dismantle the log structure, numbering each timber so the building could be reassembled at some time in the future. The logs rested for a decade in a barn near the New Sweden property where the house had stood.

The Johnsons began thinking about moving the logs from New Sweden after they bought a saltwater farm in Harpswell in 1992. They envisioned a little guest house or summer cottage — what the Swedes call a sommar stuga — located between their farmhouse and the tidal New Meadows River that spills into Cundy’s Harbor.

They hired Larry Totten of West Bath to haul the logs from the barn in New Sweden to the Johnsons’ barn in Harpswell. He made the 300-mile trip twice in the late 1990s.

In the winter of 2003-04, Totten followed Nelson’s numbering system to reconstruct the walls of the cabin on the floor of the barn, creating an inverted structure with the logs above the windows on the bottom and the sills on top, enabling him to determine which timbers needed to be replaced.

Predictably, rot had deteriorated logs at the base of the cabin, so Totten cut down trees to replace them, letting the fresh wood dry for a year. He bought vintage tools such as those used in the 1800s to hew timbers with flat sides, rounded tops and concave bottoms, typical of the Swedish timber house with logs fitted together tightly.

When it was time to reconstruct the dwelling on the site outside, the Johnsons had decided to double the size of the 19-by-26-foot structure and make it a year-round house with two additional bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full basement, radiant heat in the floor and an efficient wood-burning stove.

Totten began construction in 2004 and had it framed in by 2005, when he was called to another project. Bob Moulton, formerly of Caribou, completed the finish work in time for an 80th birthday celebration for Greg’s mother in July 2006 — the first official event in the house that included four generations of the family.

“The finish work was inspired by the house of Carl Larsson in Sweden,” Johnson said, crediting Joy with the interior design reminiscent of the home of the famous 19th century Swedish artist they had visited in Sundborn, Sweden. She also found ideas in books showing the simplicity and detail of Larsson’s interiors.

“It has been incredibly rewarding,” said Johnson, who retired from the Navy in 2004. The house has been a gathering place for the family and he said it always causes them to reflect on lives of previous generations. “As you get older, you realize how important it is.”

The log house also has inspired him to “get serious about genealogy” as he recognizes that “the last connective tissue we have [to ancestors] is my mother and Dad’s brothers and sisters.”

He still refers to the narrow area near the original home’s pantry as the “birthing room” where his father, Gordon, and grandfather Joseph were born. It was near the stove where he imagines the midwife heating water for the deliveries.

“We call the house “Farfar’s Stuga,” Johnson said, explaining the Swedish word for a paternal grandfather is farfar — father’s father.

As a “quirk of history,” Johnson notes that the Swedes first settled in Maine in 1870 because the state’s governor at the time, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, wanted to stem the decline in population as Mainers began to move west. He engaged Portland banker and landowner William Widgery Thomas, who knew Swedes and the Swedish language having served as an envoy under President Abraham Lincoln, to return to Sweden and recruit hardy people to settle in northern Maine.

Today a cabin built by one of those Swedes sits just eight miles from a statue of Chamberlain in his hometown of Brunswick.

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 can be reached at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.

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