Going Back to Gotland

Relatively few Americans can trace their family’s history, even though the U.S. is a nation of immigrants. Even fewer know exactly the place where their ancestors lived before leaving for this country. And, I’ll wager, even fewer have ever been to visit that spot.  I’m one of the fortunate who have.

Even within my own family, only three of us (so far) on my mother’s side, have made the journey “home;”  myself, my mother and my aunt Hazel.  And we know our family from my great-grandfather’s side who remain in the ‘old country’ although we were lucky to find them.

My aunt points to my great grandfather's name written in the registry at the House of Emigrants in Sweden.
My aunt points to my great grandfather’s name written in the registry at the House of Emigrants in Sweden.

Until 1970, we had no idea that my mother’s family still had relatives living in Sweden. We only learned this after considerable sleuthing by Bo (see last week’s blog post), who helped us track down my mother’s Swedish family history. We knew from Bo who located the records of embarkation stored in Växjo, Smaland at the Utvandranus Hus (House of Emigrants) that my great-grandfather, Johannes Frederick, had come from Anga on the Swedish island of Gotland.  There he had been a ‘crofter’ or someone who had worked the land for the farm owner.

With this information, Bo set out to find the family on Gotland. He eventually found the farm in Anga where my great-grandfather had lived through a death registry at the ‘county’ archives in Visby. There was listed someone with my family name who had had a brother living in the U.S.  He then turned to a record book with the names of those who had owned farms in the area.  This led him to the farm in Anga. But finding the rest of the family wasn’t as easy.

My parents visited the farm in Anga during their trip to Gotland and met the farmer and his wife who lived there. My mother's cousin Bengt, left on steps and his son, Sivert, seated, joined them.
My parents visited the farm in Anga during their trip to Gotland and met the farmer and his wife who lived there. My mother stands opposite her cousin Bengt, left on steps and his son, Sivert, seated, joined them with the couple who own the farm at the top.

Somewhere along the way, my great-grandfather’s brother’s family (following?) had changed their last name. The reasons for this, so the story goes, is either because they were embarrassed by a family member who had been a Lutheran priest in Dalhem, Gotland, and who was known to imbibe a bit too much of the communion wine or, depending upon who you believe, a family member, Johannes Frederick’s brother perhaps, got into a little trouble with the law (possibly during the prohibition era in the United States). We’re a little hazy on the details. But the end result was that Johannes Frederick’s brother changed his last name. It wasn’t until Bo discovered this that he located the other side of my family still living right there in Gotland!

My mother and her cousin, Dorothy, who was, at the time, researching the family history were ‘thrilled’ that Bo had found our relatives.  As my mother wrote to Bo in 1970: “We realize that we are fortunate in having you do our research as I don’t think anyone else would have been able to find them. I have a sister living in Arizona who is planning a trip to Sweden next year so she is more than happy to receive all the information as she will, no doubt, visit them.”

My aunt Hazel, left, meets her Swedish cousin Bengt for the first time as Bengt's son, Sivert, translates for them.
My aunt Hazel, left, meets her Swedish cousin Bengt for the first time as Bengt’s son, Sivert, translates for them.

As it turned out, my aunt Hazel, to whom my mother referred, wasn’t able to go on the trip in 1971 with her cousin Dorothy. So it was Dorothy who was the first to meet her cousin, Bengt, and his son, Sivert.  Hazel finally met the family 1991 when she and I went together on our first visit to Sweden. (Click the link here for that story.)

Meeting the family in Gotland was something I’ll never forget.  Sivert and Bengt greeted us at the airport, then we drove us to his father’s home where we met his wife.  My aunt sat next to Bengt on the sofa, who sat next to Sivert who was translating as Bengt spoke limited English as neither of us spoke any Swedish at the time. (I have since learned the language.) Chills shot up back as Bengt began to speak. I couldn’t believe it.  I recognized that voice. I had heard it before even though I had never met Bengt. Bengt’s tone was the same as that of my own grandfather, who had died when I was only three but who had lived the last days of his life with my parents. His voice had obviously stuck with me and now, more than 30 years later, was giving rise to a memory long forgotten.

This summer, Sivert and I returned to the farm in Anga where we took a photo beside the cottage where my great grandfather had lived.
This summer, Sivert and I returned to the farm in Anga where we took a photo beside the cottage where my great grandfather had lived.

Since that first meeting, I have returned to Gotland three times. I have visited the farm where my great grandfather lived and worked before leaving for the U.S. and met the farmer and his wife who now own it. My parents too travelled there in 1993 and also drove from Visby, where my cousin Sivert lives, to Anga.  One of my three sons has also visited Gotland with me and stood beside the cottage where my great grandfather had lived. Most recently, my husband accompanied me on a trip there. Going to Gotland feels like going home. I guess, in a way, because it is.

My cousin Sivert's daughter and I cool off in the Baltic Sea. Connecting our children, the next generation, is important to both Sivert and myself.
My cousin Sivert’s daughter and I cool off in the Baltic Sea. Connecting our children, the next generation, is important to both Sivert and myself.

My cousin and I have become, well, cousins. We keep in touch. We know each other’s families (he has visited the U.S. twice), exchange Christmas cards, shared the loss when both our parents, Hazel, cousin Dorothy and other members of our family died just as we will share the happiness when his daughter, Natalie, soon marries. As Sivert says, we both want our sons and daughter to know one another; to know that they have family who, although separate by a great distance, aren’t really that far apart at all.

 

 

Finding My Swedish Family Roots

The PBS network is airing a popular series on American television titled “Finding Your Roots.”  Its three seasons worth of programs features Americans–some of them prominent, others not–tracing their family history. Many know little or nothing about their ancestors prior to the show, not an uncommon thing for Americans.  During the show, researchers, historians and genealogists uncover as much as they can about the individual’s personal family. Sometimes the results are startling, surprising, delightful and often fascinating.

CrooksDalhem 750
The research that Bo did for my family led us to the place where my great grandmother’s family lived. My parents, right, visited the farm in Fagerdal where they met the farmer and his mother, who I saw on my recent trip there.

I am fortunate in that I have known my family history on my mother’s side of the dating back to the 1500s for the past 30 years. This is because nearly more than 40 years ago, my mother’s cousin Dorothy decided to dig out her maternal grandmother and grandfather family roots.  This was prior to all the Internet services available today that make such an endeavor easier. But at that time, Dorothy spent countless hours and money visiting libraries, traveling to see distant family cousins, aunts and uncles and reading every letter she could find that made mention of the family in Sweden.

Somewhere along the journey, my parents connected her to Bo, the Swedish cousin of my aunt Marie, who was married to my father’s brother. Bo had come to the States several times on business and also to visit his family here who had moved from Sweden. I was still a young girl when I first met when he rolled through Kansas to visit Marie and her family who grew up and lived in Savonburg, KS., a tiny, largely Swedish town north of where my family lived.Bo and me 68 750

He was, and still is, a jolly guy, full of jokes and stories and little known facts about his homeland that he’s happy to share. He became computer savvy early on, largely due to his Swedish government job and quickly learned how to access historical records.

Dorothy had travelled to Sweden a time or two in her quest after exhausting her resources here. She and her husband visited churches hoping to learn more about the family. The Lutheran churches in Sweden have kept excellent records for centuries of baptisms, marriages, and deaths that anyone tracking down relatives can mine. But you must know where to start. Dorothy had gone as far as she could when she met Bo.

During my first visit to Sweden with my aunt Hazel, Bo escorted us around Stockholm and showed us the city.
During my first visit to Sweden with my aunt Hazel, Bo escorted us around Stockholm and showed us the city.

She and Bo corresponded by letter with her telling him everything she had learned and where she was stuck. In the meantime, Bo became a volunteer working in the archives of the Utvandranus Hus or The House of Emmigrants in Växjö, Smaland, a southern province from which many thousands of Swedes came to the U.S. This is a wonderful museum and a must-visit for anyone interested in their Swedish heritage. Built in 1968, it houses records that date from 1840 through 1930 when approximately 1.3 million Swedes, or nearly one-fifth of the country’s population, moved to the U.S.  The museum serves as an international research center and also displays permanent and rotating exhibits about that huge migration.

Combing through the library, Bo was able to find our family records which, in turn, led to other discoveries.  He found, for instance, that my great-grandfather had come from Anga on Gotland.  That revelation eventually led us to my cousin Sivert and his family (the subject for my next blog post).  A letter, tucked into the Bible belonging to my great-aunt Clara, and written by my great-grandmother to the family in Sweden, provided a breakthrough to tracing the family to He found both the homesteads of my great grandmother and great grandfather’s family. (Read my blog Father’s Day in Fagerdal.) Dorothy, my aunt Hazel, my parents and I all have been there and stood where their grandparents once lived.

My Swedish family records dating back to the 1500s, when the original family trekked across frozen ice (so the story goes) to Sweden from Poland, fill a large ledger book. The contents are the result of endless research and expense by both Dorothy and Bo. The book is one of my prized possessions and something I will hand down to my own sons.

Bo and his wife, Eva at a dinner together during my recent visit to Sweden.
Bo and his wife, Eva at a dinner together during my recent visit to Sweden.

We are still making new discoveries about my family, thanks to Bo. Just last summer, Bo presented me with an unusual birthday gift that linked me to one of Sweden’s most prominent authors.  That is a story I’ll tell in upcoming blog.

 

Beautiful Music in My Own Backyard

Summers in the Puget Sound area, where I live, don’t officially start, weather-wise, until July 13, according to local meteorologists.  But in Bellingham, summers begin when the musicians from around the country arrive for the Bellingham Festival of Music.  That happened last week.

The Bellingham Festival of Music begins its summer season with a picnic for the musicians at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal.
The Bellingham Festival of Music begins its summer season with a picnic for the musicians at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal.

The Festival, now in its 23rd season from July 1-17, is one of the things that I look forward to every summer. In fact, the Festival is one of the amenities that attracted us and ultimately convinced us to move to Bellingham. It must be a draw for the musicians too as every summer, 44 musicians from major orchestras across the U.S. and Canada (plus additional players as needed) assemble here to play two weeks worth of some of the most beautiful music in the world.  We like to think that they are also playing in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

It all begins with a welcoming picnic for the musicians, conductor Micheal Palmer, the chorus members, sponsors and the families who host the musicians in their homes during their stay.  This year’s picnic took place at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal which offers a terrific view of the Bay and Bellingham. It’s an ideal spot for returning and new musicians to meet this year’s Festival board members, local sponsors and the home hosts.

Janet Lightner,co-owner of Boundary Bay Brewery, served brews with her sister, Vicki, at the Festival of Music picnic.
Janet Lightner, co-owner of Boundary Bay Brewery, served brews with her sister, Vicki, at the Festival of Music picnic.

The potluck picnic, provided by the Festival Board member and volunteers, is tasty and plentiful.  Following appetizers and drinks, with local prize-winning microbrewery Boundary Bay serving up some of its finest beers, the picnickers head off to the buffet table and dinner. Afterwards, this year’s Board Chair, Karen Berry, officially opened the season by introducing maestro Michael Palmer who, in turn, introduced this year’s team of musicians.

Thumbs Up
Festival musicians Marci Gurnow and Christian Colberg give the buffet table a thumbs up at the opening picnic for the Bellingham Festival of Music.

Section by section, starting with the first violins of course, the musicians took their turn at the podium to share with the evening’s guests their answers to the question: “What was your most embarrassing moment as a musician?” There were some great ones: insects falling onto instruments and being flung into the audience, missed cues, parts of bassoons falling out during performances, women’s undergarments landing on violin scrolls during a Tom Jones’ show, auditions that turned out well despite mishaps and being encouraged to pursue other professions.  It all made for some entertaining anecdotes.

Many of the Festival’s musicians have been coming to Bellingham for years.  They have become a ‘family’ in the sense that they know one another’s spouses and children, have forged long-lasting friendships with their home hosts and share in the joys and sadness of one another’s lives. Last summer, one of the musicians stayed beyond the Festival dates in order to have her wedding in Bellingham. This year, a group from the orchestra is throwing a baby shower for an expectant father who’s playing here while his wife, nearing her due date, remained at home.

Bellingham Fesitval of Music Chair Karen Berry welcomes the musicians and guests at the opening picnic.
Bellingham Festival of Music Chair Karen Berry welcomes the musicians and guests at the opening picnic.
Maestro MIchael Palmer takes the podium to introduce the Festival musicians.
Maestro MIchael Palmer takes the podium to introduce the Festival musicians.

This long-term bonding has, over the years, made the orchestra tighter when they play together onstage. At least that’s my belief having now gone to concerts for the past 20 years. Although together for only a short time, with rehearsals only days ahead of each concert, they meld into a solid sound.  I have often found myself astounded to be sitting in my own backyard–nearly literally as the concert hall at Western Washington University where they play is within walking distance–and listening to world-class performances.

Principal bassist from the Seattle Symphony Jordan Anderson shares his ‘most embarrassing moment’ at the Bellingham Festival of Music picnic.

For Festival goers, the concerts are a bargain with ticket prices topping at $45 for premiere seating in a small, intimate performance hall of just 650 seats. I recall the many years that I lived in Los Angeles and

was a subscriber to the L.A.Philharmonic. Travel time from our home was 45 minutes at least, depending upon traffic, bargain tickets were usually no less than $45 and in the top tiers of the 3,000 seat hall, plus parking costs and don’t forget money for the babysitter. Granted, I no longer need to pay a babysitter, but all the other costs of hearing live classical music and experiencing outstanding performances in as beautiful a natural setting as you’ll ever find make the Bellingham Festival of Music an incredible deal. Especially for us locals.

Donna Lively Clark from the Festival orchestra's viola section tells the picnic guests how much she enjoys the shopping when she comes to play.
Donna Lively Clark from the Festival orchestra’s viola section tells the picnic guests how much she enjoys the shopping when she comes to play.

If you don’t live in the immediate area, you can spend the week vacationing and enjoying the classical music concerts at night and any one number of activities during the day–strolling the art galleries and shops, tipping a few brews on the ‘Tap Trail,” hiking or biking on one of our many trails, playing golf on one of 22 courses here, fishing, kayaking or sailing on the Bay. I can’t think of a place I’d rather be.