Sunday, April 15, 2012

Östersund Is In Our Blood

Map of Sweden Showing Östersund

Dear George,
I’ve always amazed by how much our family roots shape who we are. Katja, for example, grew up with her family in center city Philadelphia, and she is an urban person through and through. Just back from Italy, her dream is to continue touring the great cities of Europe. She likes dining in fine restaurants, shopping at Bloomingdate’s, and attending the opera. By contrast, I’m a small town, even rural sort of person. I like being off in the forest; my dream vacation, a camping road trip in Michigan with the sheepdogs. My best meal recently was at Mom’s Diner in Dayton with its beef goulash and homemade apple pie. What’s one to make of such differences?

My siblings and I were especially shaped by our family’s Swedish heritage. Thanks to my aunt Martha, we’ve learned a lot about our genealogy. It turns out that our paternal family line emigrated to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from Östersund, Sweden. My grandfather, V.A. Sr., grew up there and brought along Swedish family culture with him to the U.S. Though we kids were two generations removed from Östersund, we were raised to be like little Swedes. Östersund and its surroundings have much in common with the U.P. and with our home town of Menominee. Östersund is the county seat of Jämtland county, a rural area located in a relatively isolated region of central Sweden. It was founded in 1786 by King Gustav III in order to centralize trading by Jämtland’s farmers. The farmers, however, weren’t interested in cooperating, and, during its first 50 years, Östersund struggled to survive, growing only by about 8 people per year. By 1820 the little village had fewer than 400 people.

Lake Storsjön, Östersund

Like Menominee’s location on Green Bay and Lake Michigan, Östersund is located on the shores of Storsjön, one of Sweden’s largest lakes. Storsjön has its own unique history. Much like legends of the Loch Ness monster, people have believed for centuries that a huge creature called the Storsjöodjuret lives in the depths of the lake, and visitors from around the world have come to catch a glimpse of it. Some years ago a fisheries officer named Ragnar Björks was reportedly checking fishing permits on the lake when a huge creature with an 18-foot tail slapped the water and threw Björks’ rowboat 9 or 10 feet into the air. Since 1987 over 400 sightings of the Storsjöodjuret have been recorded.

Jamtli History Land, Östersund

Located across from the island of Frösön, the home of the Norse God Freyr, Östersund is the sole city in Jämtland. Our great grandfather Carl August L. was born in Östersund in 1830, as was our great grandmother Martha (Thorisdotter) in 1833 . When our great grandparents were children, Östersund was a small farmer village with a population of about 500. Carl became a successful merchant in Östersund when he grew up, and he and Martha had three children, Carl Jr., Anna, and Victor August.

View of Old Östersund (circa 1881, when my grandfather was 6)

Östersund’s economy began improving in the 1850’s and 1860’s when a full-scale logging industry was developed. By the early 1870’s trade had begun expanding dramatically. My grandfather Victor August L. was born in Östersund in 1875. A railroad was built in 1879 soon after his birth and helped turn Östersund into a real city. The railroad, finished in 1882, ran from coast to coast through Östersund and connected Sweden and Norway. Östersund grew faster than any other city in Sweden for the next decade, passing 20 other Swedish cities in population.

The Good Templar Order House in Östersund

During this period of expansion the free minded Good Templar movement, an important force in the worldwide temperance movement, took hold in Östersund, and the city became known as a world center for Good Templars (who advocated total abstinence from liquor). By 1883, nearly a quarter of the city’s total population of 3,000 were Good Templars. The Good Templar Order House in Östersund, built in 1885, was the world’s largest, and the order had their own banks, insurance company, markets, library, and coffeehouses. Given my family’s appreciation of Glögg and various other alcoholic spirits, I don’t think we were members of the Good Templars, though we did inherit a pernicious moral streak. We were not to stick around though. Like hundreds of thousands of their countrymen confronted with depression and disastrous crop failures, my grandfather V.A., his parents, Carl and Martha, and his sister Anna emigrated to the United States in 1893, locating in Marinette and Menominee. Carl died in Marinette in 1899, and Martha died in 1901. V.A. married Olga Olson of Marquette in 1904, and Olga gave birth to my father, Victor August L. Jr., in Marinette in 1908.

Grandmother Olga, V.A. Sr., daughter Martha, son Vic (circa 1940)

Nowadays Östersund (pop. 60,000) is Sweden’s 24th largest city. Like Menominee and the U.P., Östersund has full-fledged winters. Less than 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the city enjoys 118 snow days a year, and its coldest temperatures fall to a typical -29 in January and -23 in February. The city bills itself as Vinterstaden (Winter City), and its citizens and tourists delight in winter sports, e.g., speed skating, ice-fishing, dog sledding, cross-country skiing. The winter Nordic games have been held in Östersund on several occasions, and the city, with its nearby mountains, has been considered as a potential site for the Winter Olympics.

Vinterstaden, Östersund

So, just as Swedish immigrants to the U.S. found the U.P. to be a highly compatible place in the 1890’s, I have the same sense today about Östersund. It’s easy to envision our family roots there – a small town in rural surroundings, far from urban centers, located on a great body of water, a local fishing industry, rich forest lands, a logging history, a northern climate with hardy winters, outdoor sports and activities. It’s probably stretching it to claim that we are spiritual offspring of Östersund, but it certainly feels like a congenial motherland. Maybe my sister Vicki and I will make a trip there one day and see what we can make of our social origins.

SOURCES: (“Östersund); (“Östersund – Winter City”); (“Östersund); (“The Lake Storsjön Monster”); (“Östersund)

G-mail Comments
-Vicki L (4-20):  Thanks David - That was a fascinating piece of family history. Let's go to Ostersund together!...  Hope things are snappy on Ludlow Ave. Best, Sis
-JML (4-15):  I want to go 

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