Digital History>Voices>Social History>A Swedish Emigrant's Story

A Swedish Emigrant's Story: Axel Jarlson
Independent, LV (Jan. 8, 1903), 88 93.

I can remember perfectly well the day when my elder brother, Gustaf, started for America It was in April, 1891, and there was snow on the ground about our cottage, while the forest that covered the hills nearby was still deep with snow. The roads were very bad, but my uncle Olaf, who had been to America often on the ships, said that this was the time to start, because work on the farms there would just be beginning.

We were ten in the family, father and mother and eight children, and we had lived very happily in our cottage until the last year, when father and mother were both sick and we got into debt Father had a little piece of land about two acres which he rented, and besides, he worked in the summer time for a farmer. Two of my sisters and three of my brothers also worked in the fields, but the pay was so very small that it was hard for us to get enough to eat A good farm hand in our part of Sweden, which is 200 miles north of Stockholm and near the Baltic Sea, can earn about 100 kroner a season, and a kroner is 27 cents. But the winter is six months long, and most of that time the days are dark, except from ten o'clock in the morning to four o'clock in the afternoon. The only way our family could get money during the winter was by making something that could be sold in the market town, ten miles away. So my father and brothers did wood carving and cabinet making, and my mother and sisters knitted stockings, caps and mufflers and made homespun cloth, and also butter and cheese, for we owned two cows.

But the Swedish people who have money hold on to it very tight, and often we took things to market and then had to bring them home again, for no one would buy.

My uncle Olaf used to come to us between voyages, and he was all the time talking about America; what a fine place it was to make money in He said that he would long ago have settled down on shore there, but that he hoped some day to be captain. In America they gave you good land for nothing, and in two years you could be a rich man; and no one had to go in the army unless he wanted to. That was what my uncle told us.

There was a school house to which I and two of my sisters went all the winter for education is compulsory in Sweden and the schoolmaster told us one day about the great things that poor Swedes had done in America They grew rich and powerful like noblemen and they even held Government offices. It was true, also, that no one had to go in the army unless he wanted to be a soldier. With us all the young men who are strong have to go in the army, because Sweden expects to have to fight Russia some day. The army takes the young men away from their work and makes hard times in the family.

A man who had been living in America once came to visit the little village that was near our cottage. He wore gold rings set with jewels and had a fine watch. He said that food was cheap in America and that a man could earn nearly ten times as much there as in Sweden. He treated all the men to brandvin, or brandy wine, as some call it, and there seemed to be no end to his money.

It was after this that father and mother were both sick during all of one winter, and we had nothing to eat, except blackbread and a sort of potato soup or gruel, with now and then a herring. We had to sell our cows and we missed the milk and cheese.

So at last it was decided that my brother was to go to America, and we spent the last day bidding him good bye, as if we should never see him again. My mother and sisters cried a great deal, and begged him to write; my father told him not to forget us in that far off country, but to do right and all would be well, and my uncle said that he would become a leader of the people.

Next morning before daylight my brother and my uncle went away. They had twenty miles to walk to reach the railroad, which would take them to Gothenburg. My uncle had paid the money for the ticket which was to carry Gustaf to Minnesota It cost a great deal about $90, I believe.

In the following August we got our first letter from America. I can remember some parts of it, in which my brother said:
I have work with a farmer who pays me 64 kroner a month, and my board I send you 20 kroner, and will try to send that every month. This is a good country. It is like Sweden in some ways. The winter is long, and there are some cold days, but everything grows that we can grow in our country, and there is plenty. All about me are Swedes, who have taken farms and are getting rich. They eat white bread and plenty of meat The people here do not work such long hours as in Sweden, but they work much harder, and they have a great deal of machinery, so that the crop one farmer gathers will fill two big barns. One farmer, a Swede, made more than 25,000 kroner on his crop last year.

After that we got a letter every month from my brother. He kept doing better and better, and at last he wrote that a farm had been given to him by the Government. It was sixty acres of land, good soil, with plenty of timber on it and a river running alongside. He had two fine horses and a wagon and sleigh, and he was busy clearing the land. He wanted his brother, Eric, to go to him, but we could not spare Eric, and so Knut, the third brother, was sent He helped Gustaf for two years, and then he took a sixty acre farm. Both sent money home to us, and soon they sent tickets for Hilda and Christine, two of my sisters.

People said that Hilda was very beautiful. She was eighteen years of age, and had long shining golden hair, red cheeks and blue eyes. She was merry and a fine dancer, far the best among the girls in all the country round, and she could spin and knit grandly.

She and Christine got work in families of Minneapolis, and soon were earning almost as much as my brothers had earned at first, and sending money to us. Hilda married a man who belonged to the Government of Minneapolis before she had lived there six months. He is a Swede, but has been away from home a long time. Hilda now went to live in a fine house, and she said in her letter that the only trouble she had was with shoes. In the country parts of Sweden they wear no shoes in the summer time, but in Minneapolis they wear them all the year round

Father and mother kept writing to the children in America that now they had made their fortunes they should come home and live, but they put it off. Once Gustaf did return to see us, but he hurried back again, because the people thought so much of him that they had made him sheriff of a county. So it would not do to be long away.

I and my sister Helene came to this country together in 1899, Hilda having sent us the money, 600 kroner. We came over in the steerage from Gothenburg, on the west coast. The voyage wasn't so bad. They give people beds in the steerage now, and all their food, and it is very good food and well cooked It took us twelve days to cross the sea, but we did not feel it long, as when people got over the sea sickness there was plenty of dancing, for most of those people in the steerage were Swedes and very pleasant and friendly. On fine days we could walk outside on the deck Two men had concertinas and one had a violin.

When we trot to Minneapolis we found Hilda living in a large brick house, and she had two servants and a carriage. She cried with joy when she saw us, and bought us new clothes, because we were in homepsun and no one wears that in Minneapolis. But she laid the homespun away in a chest and said that she would always keep it to remind her.

I stayed with Hilda two weeks, and then went out to my brother Knut's farm, which is fifty miles northwest of Minneapolis. It was in August when I reached him, and I helped with the harvest and the threshing, He had built a log house, with six windows in it. It looked very much like the log house where my parents live in Sweden, only it was not painted red like theirs.
I worked for my brother from August, 1899, to March, 1901, at $16 a month, making $ 304, of which I spent only $12 in that time, as I had clothes.

One the first day of March I went to a farm that I had bought for $150, paying $50 down It was a bush farm, ten miles from my brother's place and seven miles from the nearest cross roads store. A man had owned it and cleared two acres, and then fallen sick and the storekeeper got it for a debt and sold it to me. My brother heard of it and advised me to buy.

I went on this land in company with a French Canadian named Joachim He was part Indian, and yet was laughing all the time, very gay, very full of fun, and yet the best axman I ever saw. He wore the red trimmed white blanket overcoat of the Hudson Bay Company, with white blanket trousers and fancy moccasins, and a red sash around his waist and a capote that went over his head.

We took two toboggans loaded with our goods and provisions, and made the ten mile journey from my brother's house in three hours. The snow was eighteen inches deep on the level, but there was a good hard crust that bore us perfectly most of the way. The cold was about 10 below zero, but we were steaming when we got to the end of our journey. I wore two pairs of thick woolen stockings, with shoe packs outside them the shoe pack is a moccasin made of red sole leather, its top is of strong blanket; it is very warm and keeps out wet I wore heavy underclothes; two woolen shirts, two vests, a pilot jacket and an overcoat, a woolen cap and a fur cap. Each of us had about 300 pounds weight on his toboggan.

Before this I had looked over my farm and decided where to build my house, so now I went straight to that place. It was the side of a hill that sloped southward to a creek that emptied into a river a mile away.

We went into a pine grove about half way up the hill and picked out a fallen tree, with a trunk nearly five feet thick, to make one side of our first house. This tree lay from East to West So we made a platform near the root on the south side by stamping the snow down hard On top of this platform we laid spruce boughs a foot deep and covered the spruce boughs over with a rubber blanket We cut poles, about twenty of them, and laid them sloping from the snow up to the top of the tree trunk. Over these we spread canvas, and over that again large pieces of oilcloth Then we banked up the snow on back and side, built a fire in front in the angle made by the tree root and, as we each had two pairs of blankets, we were ready for anything from a flood to a hurricane. We made the fire place of flat stones that we got near the top of the hill and kindled the fire with loose birch bark. We had a box of matches, and good fuel was all about us. Soon we had a roaring fire going and a big heap of fuel standing by. We slung our pot by means of a chain to a pole that rested one end on the fallen tree trunk and the other on the crotch of a small tree six feet away; we put the pan on top of the fire and used the coffee or tea pot the same way we made tea and coffee in the same pot. We had brought to camp:



Cornmeal, 25 pounds $0.47
Flour, 100 pounds 2.00
Lard, 10 pounds 1.00
Butter, 10 pounds 1.80
Codfish, 25 pounds 2.25
Ham, 12 pounds 1.20
Potatoes, 120 pounds 1.40
Rice, 25 pounds 2.15
Coffee, 10 pounds 2.75
Bacon, 30 pounds 1.50
Herrings, 200 1.75
Molasses, 2 gallons .60
Axes, 3 3.55
Toboggans, 2 3.25
Pair blankets 5.00
Pot, coffee pot, frying pan 1.60
Knives, 2 .75
Salt, pepper, mustard .15
Tea, 9 pounds 2.70
Matches .10
Pickax 1.25
Spades, 2 3.00
Hoes, 2 2.00
Sugar, 30 pounds 1.80
Snow shoes, 1 pair 1.75
Gun 9.00
Powder and shot .65

Total $55.42

"Jake," as we all called the Frenchman, was a fine cook. He made damper in the pan, and we ate it swimming with butter along with slices of bacon and some roast potatoes and tea "Jake," like all the lumbermen, made tea very strong. So did I, but I didn't like the same kind of tea The backwoodsmen have got used to a sort of tea that bites like acid; it is very bad, but they won't take any other. I like a different sort So as we couldn't have both, we mixed the two together.

The sun went down soon after four o'clock, but the moon rose, the stars were very big and bright and the air quite still and so dry that no one could tell it was cold. "Jake" had brought a fiddle with him and he sat in the doorway of our house and played and sang silly French Canadian songs, and told stories in his own language. I could not understand a word he said, but he didn't care; he was talking to the fire and the woods as much as to me. He got up and acted some of the stories and made me laugh, tho I didn't understand We went to bed soon after eight o' clock, and slept finely. I never had a better bed than those spruce boughs.

Next morning, after a breakfast of cornmeal mush, herrings, coffee and bacon, we took our axes and went to work, and by working steadily for six hours we chopped an acre of ground and cut four cords of wood, which we stacked up ready for hauling. It was birch, beech, oak, maple, hickory, ironwood and elm, for we left the pine alone and set out to clear the land on the side of the creek first. The small stuff that was not good for cord wood we piled up for our own fire or for fence rails.

We found the fire out when we returned to our camp, but it was easy to light it again, and we had damper and butter, boiled rice and molasses, tea with sugar and slices of ham for supper. A workingman living out of doors in that air can eat as much as three men who live in the city. A light snow fell, but it made no difference, as our fire was protected by the tree root, and we could draw a strip of canvas down over the doorway of our house.

So we lived till near the first of April when the sun began to grow warm and the ice and snow to melt. In that time we chopped about nine acres and made forty five cords of wood, which we dragged to the bank of the river and left there for the boats to take, the storekeeper, giving me credit for it on his books at $1.25 a cord We also cut two roads through the bush. In order to haul the wood and break the roads I had to buy an ox team and bob sleigh which I got with harness, a ton of hay and four bushels of turnips for $63.1 made the oxen a shelter of poles and boughs and birch bark sloping up to the top of an old tree root

By April 15 th the ground which we had chopped over was ready for planting, for all the snow and ice was gone and the sun was warm. I bought a lot of seed of several kinds, and went to work with spade and hoe among the stumps of the clearing, putting in potatoes, corn, wheat, turnips, carrots, and a few onions, melons and pumpkins. We used spade and hoe in planting.

The soil was black loam on top of fine red sand, and the corn seemed to spring up the day after it was planted.

We planted nearly twelve acres of the land in a scattering way, and then set to work to build a log house of pine logs. "Jake" was a master hand at this, and in two weeks we had the house up. It was made of logs about 12 by 8 inches on the sides. It was 18 feet long and 12 feet deep, and had three small windows in the sides and back and a door. The ends of the logs were chopped so that those of the sides fitted into those of the front and back. The only nails were in the door. I had to buy the windows. The only furniture was two trunks, a table, a stool and a bench, all made with the ax. The roof was of birch bark.

About the first of June my sister Helene came with a preserving kettle, a lot of glass jars and a big scheme. We got a cook stove and a barrel of sugar, and put a sign on the river bank announcing that we would pay fifty cents cash for 12 quarts of strawberries, raspberries or blackberries. All through June, July and August Indians kept bringing us the berries, and my sister kept preserving, canning and labeling them. Meanwhile we dug a roothouse into the side of the hill and sided it up and roofed it over with logs, and we built a log stable for cattle. A load of lumber that we got for $2 had some planed boards in it, of which we made doors. The rest we used for roofs, which we finally shingled before winter came on again. The result of my first season's
work was as follows:

(From March I st to December 31 st, 1901)

Farm, paid on account $50.00

Axes, 4, with handles 5.00
Spades, 2 3.00
Hoes, 2 2.00
Oil lantern 1.25
Lamp with bracket 1.50
Oil, 4 gallons .40
Cow with calf 25.00
Yoke of oxen, with harness, sleigh, etc. 63.00
Seed 12.50
"Jakes's" wages, 6 months 120.00
Helene's wages, 7 months 112.00
Windows for house 6.50
Lumber 2.00
Kitchen utensils, dishes 5.40
Toboggans, 2 2.75
Blankets, 2 pairs 10.00
Pickax 1.25
Mutton, 35 pounds 2.10
Beef, 86 pounds 6.02
Corned beef, 70 pounds 3.50
Bacon, 82 pounds 4.10
Flour, 3 barrels 10.50
Cornmeal, 80 pounds 2.40
Codfish, 40 pounds 3.60
Sugar, 400 pounds 20.00
Oatmeal, 75 pounds 2.25
Molasses, 9 gallons 2.70
Tobacco, 10 pounds .90
Candles .10
Tea, 18 pounds 5.40
Coffee, 10 pounds 2,75
Plough 6.50
Rice, 25 pounds 2.15
Preserve jars, 400 7.50
Stump extracting 17.00
Stove 3.00
Preserve jar labels, 500 2.50

All other expenses 21.00

Total $549.52

(March 1 st to December 31 st, 1901)

Cash in hand $292.00

Wood, 45 cords at $1.25 56.25
Preserves, 400 quarts 66.50
Wheat, 67 bushels 46.50
Corn, 350 bushels 163.30
Carrots, 185 bushels 90.45
Turnips, 80 bushels 32.00
Potatoes, 150 bushels 75.00

Total $822.00

Total expenses 549.52

Balance on hand $272.48

That comparison of income and expenses looks more unfavorable than it really was because we had five months' provisions on hand on December 31 st. We raised almost all our own provisions after the first three months. In 1902 my income was above $1,200, and my expenses after paying $50 on the farm and $62 for road making and stump extracting and labor, less than $600.

I have no trouble selling my produce, as the storekeeper takes it all and sells it down the river. He also owns a threshing machine and stump extractor.

The Frenchman went away in August, 1901. 1 don't know where he is. I have had other good workmen since but none like him.

I studied English coming out on the vessel, but I was here six months before I could speak it well. I like this country very much, and will become a citizen.

One thing I like about this country is that you do not have to be always taking off your hat to people. In Sweden you take off your hat to everybody you meet, and if you enter a store you take off your hat to the clerk. Another thing that makes me like this country is that I can share in the government In Sweden my father never had a vote, and my brothers never could have voted because there is a property qualification that keeps out the poor people, and they had no chance to make money. Here any man of good character can have a vote after he has been a short time in the country, and people can elect him to any office. There are no aristocrats to push him down, and say that he is not worthy because his father was poor. Some Swedes have become Governors of States, and many who landed here poor boys are now very rich.

I am going over to Sweden now to keep Christmas there. Six hundred other Swedes will sail on our ship. Many are from Minnesota. They have done their fall planting, and the snow is on the ground up there, and they can easily get away for two months or more. So we are all going to our old home, but will come back again, and may be bring other people with us. Some Swedes go to the old country every Christmas.

We're going in the steerage and pay a low special rate because the ships need passengers at this time of the year. We'll have the steerage all to ourselves, and it ought to be very comfortable and jolly. We will dance and play cards all the way over.

Christmas is Sweden's great day; in fact, it is wrong to speak of it as a day because it keeps up for two weeks. The people have been preparing for it since November last Near our place there are twelve farm houses and about ten people living in each house. In the last letter that I got from my mother two weeks ago she told me about the preparations for Christmas. I know who the maskers are, who will go around on Christmas Eve knocking at the doors of the houses and giving the presents. That's supposed to be a secret, but mother has found out.

I expect to return to America in February, and will try to bring my elder brother, Eric, and my youngest sister, Minna, with me. Eric has never seen a city, neither has Minna, and they don't think that they would like America much because the ways of the people are so different and they work so much harder while they are working.

My father says that Sweden is the finest country in the world, and he will never leave, but he is only sixty years of age, and so he could move very well. Mother is younger, and they are both strong, so I think they will come to us in Minnesota next year, and then our whole family will be in America, for Uncle Olaf is now in New York in a shipping office.

Gustaf is married and has three children, and Knut is to be married in two months, but either of them would be glad to have the father and mother. I think, tho, that they will come to my house.

I am carrying with me two trunks, and one of them is full of Christmas presents from Knut and Gustaf, Hilda and Christine to father, mother, Eric and Minna. When I return to America my trunk will be filled with presents from those in the old home to those in the new.

Among these presents are books of pictures showing Minneapolis, Duluth and New York, and photographs of our houses. My father and the other old men will not believe that there are any great cities in America They say that it is a wild country, and that it is quite impossible that New York can be as large as Stockholm. When they hear about the tall buildings they laugh, and say that travelers always tell such wild tales. May be they will believe the photographs.

Brandvin is the great drink of the farmers in Sweden. It is a strong white liquor, mostly alcohol, and men can get drunk for very little money in Sweden. That makes some of the old fellows say that a kroner in Sweden will buy more than $2 in America, but that is not true.

Some of the pictures that I am carrying to Sweden are of women in America They have a better time than in Sweden At least, they do not have to do such heavy work, and they dress much more expensively. Minna will be greatly surprised when she sees how Hilda dresses now, and I feel sure that she, too, will want to come here and try her fortune, where there are so many rich husbands to be had
The Swedes who live in America like the old country girls, because they know how to save money.

New York City

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