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Column: Agnes Sterling and Worthington's Swedish roots

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WORTHINGTON — Agnes Sterling was chief bookkeeper for the city of Worthington for 44 years. She began work in 1912 — 102 years ago — and continued until 1956. She worked in the old City Hall on Third Avenue and the new (yes) City Hall at the corner of Third Avenue and Ninth Street. (New: City Hall is nearly 80 years old.) There really ought to be some kind of plaque which recalls Agnes Sterling’s extraordinary service, but Worthington doesn’t do this kind of thing.

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After retirement, the longtime bookkeeper began work on a family history that branched into a history of Worthington, the community Agnes knew well. She told of how the Stairlings of Sweden became the Sterlings of Worthington.

Nobles County emerged as a Swedish community from the beginning. In particular, there were six men from Sweden who went to work for the St. Paul & Sioux City Railroad at St. James in April 1871. The Swedes worked at laying tracks from St. James southwest to Iowa. Briefly, the immigrant gang left the railroad and walked to Nobles County to make homestead claims on land that came to be parts of Bigelow Township and Indian Lake Township. (The Swedes were Erick Mahlberg, Elof Nordquist, Hans Nystrom, Ole Nystrom, Charles Wickstrom and Peter Wickstrom. I knew Peter Wickstrom from days delivering Daily Globes; he was a gentle and genial man.)

Swedes in Nobles County. Young Swedes. But not in Worthington. Not in that time. Agnes picks up at this point where Swedes — Sterlings among them — made homes in Worthington. She noted that Worthington was uneasy with immigrants, and immigrants were not wholly welcome. The first Worthington residents were largely Yankees, American-born pioneers from New England, the East and the prohibitionists of the National Colony Company of Ohio. To begin with, the old line Yankees did not mix with the Swedish speakers — even though the Swedes worked at learning English.

Agnes noted, “It is strange that the ‘colonists’ from Ohio, who founded the town back in 1872, seemed to have so little interest in the lakeside property. Instead, they built their homes on the other side of ‘Main Street.’ In fact, on Okabena Street, several blocks to the north, the well-to-do families built their somewhat pretentious ‘Queen Anne’ homes…”

This was to the Swedes’ delight. The Swedes treasured the prospect of homes along the water. So it came to be that, by the turn of the 20th century, Worthington was two communities — the ‘Colonists’ or Yankees on the high ground, the Swedes between Main Street and Lake Okabena. Agnes could name the Swedish settlers along Lake Street house by house: Emil Johnson, August Swanson, Gustaf Sterling, Alfred Sterling, Reynold Olson, David Anderson, August Falk, Carl Sahlbom, Charlie Sterling, Gust Gustafson, Svante Kindlund, Svante Kall, Ole Grundsten. “And I could continue on the next street and call the names of the Swedish families that occupied almost every house…”

Two Worthingtons. Although some Swedes joined with the Swedish Lutheran (First Lutheran) congregation on Fourth Avenue, many joined in organizing their own Swedish Mission Congregation at the corner of Ninth Street and Sixth Avenue in “Little Sweden.” Although Worthington had grocery stores and hardware stores, the Swedish community patronized the new Swedish Mercantile Co., which later became Hub Mercantile, The Swede Store.

One evidence, noted before, of the fact that two communities had come to exist:

The Burlington (Rock Island) Railroad proposed laying its tracks on Worthington’s north side, in sight and sound of those Queen Anne houses. The old Yankee population, George Dayton among them, persuaded the railroad’s directors to change their plan and to lay their track along Lake Street, just across the street from the Swedes’ homes. (“That’s such a scenic route…”) So it came to be that the steam locomotives pumped their black smoke over the clothes lines of the tidy Swedish homemakers.

Railroad representatives noted at the outset of negotiations that lake shore residents surely would protest trains rolling just across a street from their houses. One response was, “Let ‘em protest; they’re only a bunch of darn Swedes.”

It took Worthington a generation to erase prejudices which came exist. Finally, David Anderson from Lake Street was elected to Worthington’s City Council.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.

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