Column: From Stefanson to Swanberg, and to Worthington
WORTHINGTON — There used to be quite a few Swanbergs living at Worthington.
I was reading about Swanbergs lately. The sire, the founding father, had rare stories.
He was born in Sweden — 60 years later he remembered the place: Hardlund, Kall socken, Jemtland. It is listed in Wikipedia, but you have to know Swedish.
Sweden began building railroads in 1845, 15 years before Gustavus Stefanson was born. Young Gustavus attended school until he was 15, as most Swedes did in those days. He then went to work for the government railroad. Government railroad: Sweden calculated what it would cost to pay railroad companies to buy routes and lay tracks and build bridges and buy locomotives and rolling stock and pay workers — plus the cost of mail subsidies, troop movements etc. It was decided it would be cheaper to have the government build and operate Sweden’s railroads.
Gustavus, still a boy, took a job as a clerk in a government railroad warehouse. He worked behind a counter checking out supplies to rail workers. When he was 17 years old — 1875, when Worthington was 3 years old — the young clerk enlisted in the Swedish army. He was assigned to a company of 135 men stationed on a Swedish island. A remote place in a remote place.
Gustavus’ enlistment ran out after 27 months. He had his eye on America. He sailed into New York harbor on Nov. 17, 1881, with no knowledge of English, and he bought a rail ticket for (where?) Worthington — in Minnesota — a place he had heard of from Swedish acquaintances, a place where you can get by speaking Swedish. This was hard to do in New York City.
A thing to note is that the young man climbing from the train in front of the Worthington depot was no longer Gustavus Stefanson. He was Gustavus Swanberg. Sweden was wrestling with a confusion of Petersons and Johnsons and Nelsons and Carlsons and Andersons. The Swedish army required every “son” to take a new name. Any name, as long as it did not end in “son.” Gustavus went from Stefanson to Swanberg.
The Scandinavians were doing this kind of thing. Ed Blixt, long a partner in the Tellander-Hagge Ford garage on Worthington’s 10th Street, told a story of his family coming to together to decide on a new name. They opted for blixt — lightning. I believe the same was true for Eric Paul, who proved to Nobles County that this is a place for growing and marketing choice apples. Eric Paul, a pal of Gustavus Swanberg, had been Eric Paulson. The Thomases — Harold Thomas — I believe they had been Thompsons.
Gustavus walked out of the depot and along 10th Street for the first time with his “Swedish handicap.” Like the people at New York, the people at Worthington were English speakers, although the young man did find some Swedes along the way. He went to live with homesteader friends, and he enrolled in the little white frame country school in Bigelow Township. He was surrounded by kids and was too big to fit in a school desk, but he was resolved to learn English. A new teacher came to the little school the second winter. Hannah Peterson. You would guess: Gus and Hannah fell in love and married. Gus had a permanent English teacher.
He learned the language and — eventually — he became principal owner of Swedish Mercantile, a name he changed to Hub Mercantile. Hub was one of Worthington’s prominent businesses, one of the big department stores.
There were five children. Gwendolin. And Stanley and Edmund and Franklin, and Lester and Leslie, the twins.
Hub Mercantile was one of the places where Swedes and natives came together and learned to associate with one another. The owner could speak both languages.
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.