Swedish roots run deep (with video)ROUND LAKE — Välkommen till Vihlen huset. That’s the Swedish phrase that might be used to welcome a visitor to the home of John and Vona Mae Vihlen in rural Round Lake. John is of 100 percent Swedish heritage — his four grandparents having emigrated from Sweden to the United States — while Vona Mae, although of German descent, is “Swedish by marriage.”
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
ROUND LAKE — Välkommen till Vihlen huset.
That’s the Swedish phrase that might be used to welcome a visitor to the home of John and Vona Mae Vihlen in rural Round Lake. John is of 100 percent Swedish heritage — his four grandparents having emigrated from Sweden to the United States — while Vona Mae, although of German descent, is “Swedish by marriage.”
“My dad’s parents came over after being married,” said John about his paternal grandparents, Franz and Anna Vihlen. “My mom’s parents (Emma and Klaus Carlson) came to the Moline, Ill., area and married a couple years after they arrived.”
Vihlen doesn’t exactly sound like a Swedish name, and there’s a good reason. The original family name was Anderson.
“When my grandfather came into the compulsory military service, there were so many Andersons that they were encouraged to take a different name,” said John, who has no idea how his grandfather came up with the new surname, which to him sounds French.
The Anderson/Vihlen clan came from a large farm in Sweden, with an impressive house that boasted servants’ quarters. But they signed a note for a friend, became liable for the debt that wasn’t repaid and were eventually forced to sell the property.
“Some of the Swedish came here for political reasons because they didn’t like the government, some came for religious reasons and some came for financial reasons,” said John. “They wanted to go to the land of milk and honey.”
His maternal grandfather did well for his family, building and selling houses in the Quad Cities area before dying at quite a young age and leaving his widow to provide for the family. She worked as a servant for Mr. and Mrs. John Deere.
Frank and Anna Vihlen already had two sons when they came to America; John’s dad, George Vihlen, was born here in 1897.
“My grandfather worked for the Rock Island Railroad, and somehow he probably learned that there was 80 acres up here for sale,” explained John about how the family ended up in Round Lake. “They came here and worked hard. My grandmother wove rugs and sold garden produce that she hauled into Round Lake, two miles away.”
So how did their son George meet a girl living in far-off Moline?
“There was a family living here by the name of Lilligren who had relatives in Moline,” John explained. “They set them up. My mother was coming up to visit. The meeting place back then was church, and he asked her, ‘Can I take you home?’ They got acquainted, then proceeded to write letters every week. They both saved the letters, and we still have them.
“At first it was just friendly,” added Vona. “Toward the end, they were saying ‘hugs and kisses.’”
“After one year of writing letters, they set a wedding date, and he went down there to get her,” John continued.
John grew up in a household where both English and Swedish were spoken.
“My grandmother lived in the same house with us, so I grew up with two languages,” he said. “When Grandma’s friends would come over, they preferred to talk in Swedish. I could listen and understand them, even converse with them. Think about it: That was 50 years after they came to the new country, but when they wanted to relax and talk, it was in the mother tongue.”
Vona, who grew up in Round Lake where her father was the barber and town clerk became “Swedish by marriage” when she and John were married 57 years ago. They dated for three years before that, so John figures he gets credit for giving her 60 Christmas presents over the years.
The Swedish immigrants kept many of their traditions alive in the new country, the Vihlens noted, so those are the ones they’ve passed along to their own family of three daughters and grandchildren.
“What brought a lot of Swedes to this area is that it’s so similar to southern Sweden. They felt quite at home here,” John said. “One of the things that binds us together is the traditions we carry out.”
The Vihlens are active members at Worthington’s First Lutheran Church — once known as the Swedish Lutheran congregation — a compromise between John’s Swedish Covenant upbringing and Vona’s Missouri Synod Lutheran. At FLC, the Vihlens have been instrumental in the church’s annual Lutfisk supper (the Swedish spelling is without an e), especially overseeing the preparation of the controversial fish, which they both enjoy.
“You have to boil it in water for about five minutes,” said John about getting the texture right. “If you boil it too long, it gets overdone and jelly-like. We have quality control and don’t serve it if it’s overdone. We’ve gotten a lot of compliments from died-in-the-wool lutfisk eaters.”
“I like it with butter AND cream sauce,” said Vona. “We tell all our kids they have to eat a little bit or lose their inheritance.”
“We always keep some in the deep freeze,” added John. “If she feeds me lutfisk for lunch, I know she’s got a chore in mind for me after lunch, gardening or something.”
The Vihlen family has also kept the tradition of Santa Lucia Day (Dec. 13), during which the oldest girl in the family goes around and serves the rest of the family breakfast in bed, and also carry out the ritual on each family member’s birthday. The Vihlen girls all portrayed Santa Lucia during the church festival, too.
John and Vona Mae have been to Sweden four times, visiting the original family farm and forging connections there with distant relatives.
“We have one relative that I’m really close to, because he’s exactly my age. His grandmother and my grandmother were sisters,” said John about his distant cousin, Karl-Arne Samuelsson. “They live such a similar life there, face the same problems. I think I’m closer to him that if I’d had a brother or cousin living in Chicago or New York.”
During their travels, the Vihlens have collected many Swedish souvenirs, including the distinctive hand-painted Dala horses, Julboks (goat figures made from straw) and fine glass and china made in the southern part of the country.
“The history of the Dala horse is from the 1700s when the men couldn’t go out in the wintertime they’d sit in the house and carve these horses for the children,” noted Vona. “It was really interesting to watch them carve them then dip them in this red paint and then hand paint each one individually. Each one is different.”
Before they set out on their travels, the Vihlens took language courses at the local college, giving John a chance to bone-up on his dormant Swedish skills.
“When we were going to travel over there, I was sitting on tractor thinking about it, and I realized I couldn’t even remember how to count to 20,” John recalled. “How could I forget that? I had to get some help.”
The late Myrt Hand was the teacher, and she helped him to remember the language that he describes as “sing-song.” Most of their classmates are no longer around, John lamented.
“I think there are very few people in our county that can converse in Swedish,” he said.
But John was able to make himself understood in the country of his heritage, and he and Vona Mae use it routinely around the house.
“We know enough Swedish so we can regularly say one-line phrases,” Vona said, giving a couple of examples, such as “Did you lock the car?”
Between the language and the many souvenirs of their travels to the homeland, the Vihlen Swedish heritage is very much in evidence in their rural Round Lake home.