For Commendable Deeds

“…the less people have to do with history the better.”
(William Maxwell in Ancestors: A Family History, 1971)

As we post today’s blog, we are reminded of the truth of these sage words. Our post commemorates the deeds of ordinary people whose ordinary lives intersected with historical events. While they survived to tell their stories, many caught up in the circumstances of history are not so fortunate. As the coronavirus spreads across the world, we all have been swept up in the evolving history of this moment. We wish that you and your loved ones remain safe. 


Human beings have long engaged in the practices of remembrance. We record, commemorate, and memorialize as a way to bring to mind, to keep in mind, people and events that have, for reasons both great and small, both personal and historical, taken on a significance that we are loath to allow to dissipate and, eventually, to disappear.

It is difficult to push back against the relentless tide of human forgetting—remembrance is a constant struggle against attrition. Our memories are frail and our bodies too.  When I die, what I remember dies with me. When my parents, my siblings, my own offspring, grow old and die, what we once knew together passes with us. What was once important, laden with meaning, so very immediate that it made us laugh out loud or weep uncontrollably, is now so much less than it was, fading until it is nothing, less than nothing, as if it never were.

Unless, unless, we can somehow fight that tide and protect our memories from dissolving into the vast sea of the forgotten. As people and events recede in death and time, their salience, their connections to our contemporary concerns, become weaker and weaker. We use a vast array of tools to forestall that inevitable dissolution. We preserve and, most importantly, share our memories—casting them out onto the human waters in a more substantial form for others to apprehend and, we hope, appreciate. Thus, we paint paintings and snap photographs. We build great memorials, coin medals and preserve small mementos. We write epic poems and publish grand histories. We pass on family legends by word of mouth from one generation to another. These artifacts of memory, we hope, will prove more durable than we.

Joan’s family, as we’ve written before, was dedicated to employing the devices of remembrance. Her beloved grandfather Martin kept copious journals, although, sadly, many of them dating back to the late 19th century were tossed into the trash in a move from Gary, Indiana, to Minneapolis. Although its original Norwegian version is lost, the translated travelogue of an epic return to Norway in 1932 was recorded and lovingly preserved. Uncounted letters were written and a handful of them kept for posterity, now greatly prized. Baptismal and marriage certificates survived, now framed and displayed to commemorate the sacred ceremonies that once marked the secular progress of families. There were mementos of the old country—at least as many as could have survived the rigors of emigration—preserved and cherished with pride of place in our homes. Treasured artifacts of the immigrant’s life in America are on view or, like “Aunt Lena” the homesteader’s quilt, boxed, wrapped, or folded and put away, stored for our children to discover and, we hope, hold dear.

And the photographs. So many photographs. Joan’s Norwegian and Swedish families embraced this technology, seeing in it a way to recover what had been lost in the great sojourn to the West.  By documenting their new lives in America in copious detail, they preserved memories for a family not yet born but imagined in the mind’s eye and yearned for. Joan’s father, Donald, was the most prolific photographer of all—and Joan is still working through the thousands of snapshots that he took and painstakingly documented over her lifetime—where, and when, and who.

Both the Norwegian and Swedish sides of her family understood genealogy implicitly—or, rather, the importance of understanding who you are and where you came from.  Great-aunt Ruth and Grandma Helen Ahlberg would construct the first genealogies of Joan’s Swedish ancestors from Skåne and Värmland in the southwest of Sweden. Martin, Alice, and Ruth Cornelius would do the same for her Norwegian forebears from Nord-Trøndelag and Nordfjord. Joan, the genealogist apparent of both these Scandinavian clans, built upon these early family histories, using the legacy of letters and documents passed forward to her as a foundation for creating a massive genealogy database more at home in our digital world. But this database too is an artifact of memory, meant to be a steadfast bulwark against the attrition of memory.

When we build a genealogy, we detail names, dates, places. We try to determine who married whom and when. We record when someone was born and where they died. Sometimes we are fortunate to learn what an ancestor did for a living. For instance, one long ago grandfather was a farmer, another a fisherman. A distant grandmother was a seamstress and another a milk maid. Because human beings live during times of both peace and war, military service is often commemorated. We find soldiers and sailors dotting our family histories—their periods of service demarcated clearly in the more mundane courses of their lives. Here, especially, the more personal narrative arcs of a family intersect with and are interrupted by great historical events, civil wars, revolutions, invasions, campaigns of conquest.

If truth be told, about most of our ancestors we know very little. As is the way of it, most of the fine detail of an individual life is forgotten. If not for the parish priests and their records, the census takers, and grandparents with good memories, we might not even have the little information about birth, death, or marriage that survives for us to chronicle. Still, sometimes, we can discover more. Perhaps some long ago ancestors did something worth remembering. Maybe they distinguished themselves in military or civil affairs. Maybe they performed some great feat of strength, built a church with a high steeple, or were simply, selfless, courageous, and brave. We hope they were fine deeds, both meritorious and memorable.

And maybe someone saw fit to help us remember their deeds and painted a picture, or wrote a letter, or penned a poem. And, if they did, then those ancestors and their commendable deeds survive. They are not yet forgotten.

Introduction to the Translation

To Joan’s delight a little-known book published in 1938 entitled Bjärehalvön I forna tider by Emil J. Söderman contained a chapter entitled “En äkta Bjäreätt” chronicling the amazing exploits and experiences of two of her (many times) great-grandfathers and a great-uncle.

Joan’s fifth great-grandfather Ola/Olof Svensson Hallengren was born about 1744 in Halland, Sweden. Nothing is known of his early life, but we know that he was a carpenter by trade and worked for a time in the shipyards in Copenhagen. While in Denmark, a son Sven was born on March 10, 1781. Eventually Ola returned with his family to Sweden.  In 1788 Sweden entered into a war with Russia, and Ola left his quiet home in the Swedish countryside to fight in the 1790 Battle of Svensksund while serving on the warship Dygden.

Ola’s son Sven, Joan’s fourth great-grandfather, likewise became entangled in the affairs of Swedish history. As an orderly to Colonel Karl von Cardell, commander of Sweden’s Wendes Artillery Regiment, he witnessed and participated in the Battle of the Nations, also known as the Battle of Leipzig, a conflict that changed history forever with Napoleon’s defeat. After his wartime experience Sven returned to Kristianstad (in what is today Skåne in southern Sweden), where he lived many years until his death on March 8, 1862,  two days shy of his 81st birthday.

The story of one of Sven’s own sons, a fourth great-uncle to Joan named Bengt Petter Svensson was also narrated in Soderman’s book. His story, a much smaller slice of history, but gripping nevertheless, involved a shipwreck that occurred near Bengt’s home in Västra Karup.  Bengt, a brother to Joan’s third great-grandfather Nils Petter, was born July 31, 1818, on Axelstorp, after his father Sven settled in the Grevie parish of Kristianstad. Bengt risked his life to save others but fortunately went on to live a full life of 82 years, passing away on February 2, 1866, in Broddarp, Västra Karup, Skåne.

The tales of all three men are imparted below through Greg’s translation of Söderman’s original Swedish. These stories, while surely once known well, long ago passed from the collective memory of Joan’s family. And yet, the stories have been resurrected because someone saw fit to remember the commendable deeds of these ordinary, yet also extraordinary, men. We are shielded again from the great forgetting.

A True Bjäre Lineage [En äkta Bjäreätt]

From Bjärehalvön i Forna Tider by Emil J. Söderman.
Translated from the Swedish by Gregory M. Shreve, Ph.D.

As has been portrayed before in other literary and historical contexts, the Bjäre countryside of old nurtured a tough, persistent and courageous people. They have descendants who, when they must, bravely faced danger in all its various guises. The essay following below presents some stories, fragments from the lives of those Bjäre forebears. Their brave accomplishments, during both war and peace, depict the distinctive character of our Bjäre ancestors.

These tales go back to the days of Gustaf the Third, to the Napoleonic Era, and up to the time of Charles XV. The memories of those times have been preserved in one lineage, passed down from father to son to the latest descendant, the farmer Johannes Svensson of Slättaryd in Västra Karup.

Figure 1. The old shipyard at Bremerholm / Gammelholm. Perhaps this is where Ola Hallengren performed his great feat of strength. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Gammelholm

Ola Hallengren, the subject of the first tale, was born in Halland but moved from there to Bjäre, where he settled in Västra Karup. From there he later went on to Denmark, where he worked as a ship’s carpenter, first at the shipyard in Copenhagen, then at the one in Helsingör. After several years he returned to the Bjäre countryside and established himself as a builder. He erected a number of buildings in the northern parishes. Hallengren was a large man, and he was as strong as he was big. At the time he was considered the strongest man in the district of Bjäre. In fact, it is told that during his time at the Copenhagen shipyard a journeyman there was so angry at an errand boy that he gave him a resounding box on the ear. The boy would have fallen into the water if Hallengren, who was nearby, hadn’t grabbed him.

“What are you doing?” Hallengren said to the fellows gathered around, “What do you mean by this?”

The man who had hit the boy became annoyed as a result and threatened Hallengren, “Maybe you want a box on the ear as well?”

To end the dispute, the shipyard workers agreed that the gathered men would test their strength against one another. They hoped the Swedish giant would be defeated in this contest of brawn. The men went to a location where the workers had assembled two iron weights, weighing ten lispund (about 18 1/2 pounds) each, for a total of 375 pounds.[1]  To find out who among them could lift the weights, they each tried, one after the other—but all failed to hoist them, excepting Hallengren’s original opponent. Finally, the Swede took his turn. He lifted, without apparent difficulty, a weight in each hand and then carried them back and forth.

Then, addressing the astonished shipyard comrades surrounding him, he said: “Now let a Dane do this.”

After this contest of strength, Hallengren enjoyed great respect in the Danish shipyards.

However, as mentioned above, Ola returned to Sweden from the shipyards. After the revolution of 1772, a few happy, peaceful years followed for our country.[2] But then, in 1788 during Gustaf III’s reign, that peace was disturbed when war broke out with Russia, both on land and at sea. Swedes fought with the greatest bravery—albeit not always with success.

During 1790 the war was mainly waged at sea. After a victory outside Fredrikshamn, Gustaf III withdrew his large fleet into the Bay of Vyborg. Due to the King’s carelessness in doing this, many Swedish ships were lost when, only after some great effort, the fleet finally managed to break its way through a blockade of Russian ships of the line outside the inlet to the Bay.[3]  A few days later, on July 9, the Russian fleet and the Swedish archipelago fleet[4] reinforced by a large Swedish regular navy fleet[5] came together at Svensksund, and the most glorious naval battle of our history was fought. The battle began at half-past nine in the morning and ended at ten in the evening. During this span of time the Swedish fleet, under the command of the King himself, won a breathtaking victory over a Russian fleet that had looked to be the certain victors at the beginning of the battle.

Figure 2. The battle of Svensksund, 1790, as depicted by Swedish painter Johan Tietrich Schoultz

Bjäre-born Ola Hallengren took part in this storied sea battle with great courage and utmost bravery. He was a seaman[6] aboard the warship Dygden (Virtue), with its great complement of cannons. In the dense smoke of the guns during the heat of the battle, the Dygden was separated from the rest of the fleet and found itself surrounded by six Russian ships. Soon a dreadful cannonade began. On the Swedish warship nine men stood at each cannon, raining death and destruction down on the surrounding Russian ships. One of the Russian ships had its rudder damaged and was helpless. On some the rigging was shot down and yet others were holed by cannon shot. However, the Dygden was also greatly damaged during the uneven battle. The masts were down and the entire rigging, with its tackle, ropes, and chains formed a great chaotic jumble on the blood-soaked decking. Hallengren, who crewed one of the cannons during the heated battle, was finally, as he related the story himself, among the last three men in his gun crew. The other six had fallen. In the end, he had to man the cannon himself and put his immense strength to use. After each reloading he had to put his broad shoulders against the cannon and push it back into firing position. Eventually, however, the Dygden was no more than a floating wreck, having received no less than seventy-eight shots to the waterline. But, finally, the battle was over, and the survivors had to use their last remaining strength to try to patch the many breaches. They used anything suitable they could manage to procure.  Sailors were even lowered down along the sides of the ship seated in leather bags, to assist in the work of keeping the ship afloat until the battle was over and help could arrive. Hallengren also related that when the smoke of the guns was finally somewhat dissipated, and the Dygden had successfully vanquished its enemies, they were then shot at by the Swedish flagship. On board the flagship they believed that the Dygden, which was not showing its flag, was a hostile enemy ship. Finally, a spar was hoisted erect on the deck displaying the Swedish flag, and soon the crew, which had fought with the greatest bravery, was taken into the care of its countrymen.

Figure 3. Linjeskeppet “Kronprins Gustav Adolf” was same type of ship as the“Dygden,” for which no close-up illustration survives. Jacob Hagg (1839 – 1932). Sjöhistoriska Museet

During Charles John XIV’s great war against Napoleon, the most decisive battles were fought at Grossbeeren, Dennewitz, and Leipzig. Swedish troops, including the Wendes Artillery Regiment under the command of Colonel Karl von Cardell, participated in the storming of the latter city, the final act of a huge wartime drama.

Cardell was born in Germany and served initially in the Prussian army, but then joined the Swedish military, where he earned great praise for his reorganization of the artillery,

Figure 4. Carl von Cardell, Wendes Artillery Regiment. Riksarkivet.

Colonel Cardell and his troops participated in the great battle at Leipzig between the 16th and 19th of October in 1813. His ordonnans or orderly[7] at this time was Sven Hallengren, son of the aforementioned Ola Hallengren. Sven told a story about the Colonel’s big brown horse getting stuck in a marsh outside of Leipzig; the Colonel wanted to swap horses with his orderly, who rode a smaller and lighter steed. He went on to say, concerning the storming of Leipzig, that when the Wende Artillery Regiment successfully let its cannons play against a pair of the city’s double iron gates, he went to his colonel and applied for permission to load the bronze cannons with a double charge. Cardel said that the orderly was allowed to do this, but only upon his own responsibility. An artilleryman, meanwhile, had managed to reach the gates, around which he drew a large circle. Then concentrated fire was directed towards this target, and after three terrible salvos, the gates collapsed with a great noise. The artillery then drove into the city through the opening in the wall; the firing cannons delivered shot after shot, sweeping through the streets filled with frightened people. “Driving through wounded Prussians, shattered wagons, and abandoned French cannons, they plunged into a real hell in the street. Here, they met up with some scattered Prussian soldiers. Smoke obscured everything. The gates and doors of the houses were closed, but from all the windows and apertures, and from the all the roofs, death rained down in a murderous hail of bullets. The French had barricaded themselves in the houses and were also standing in concentrated masses far up the street, which was littered with dead and wounded within a few moments.” In addition, Hallengren added: “From the houses a lot of boiling water was thrown on us when we passed. Because of the participation of the civilian population in the street battle, Cardell—at that time General—who, incidentally, during the Great Napoleonic War, was known not just for his skill as an artillery officer but also for his cruelty and ruthlessness, allowed his troops an hour’s looting in the town hall. Many of them became wealthy men in that time.” Hallengren also remarked how Napoleon, if he had been watching from one of the city’s towers and seen the entrance of the Swedish troops into the city, would have exclaimed: “I think it is raining Swedes from heaven, for I see nothing but blue troops everywhere.”

Sven Hallengren was thus able to witness Napoleon’s retreat with the shattered remnants of his army—a retreat which signified nothing less than the liberation of Europe.

Figure 5. Wende’s Artillery Regiment, Early 1800’s

Sven Hallengren’s son, Bengt P. Svensson, became a successful farmer in his ancestral home of Västra Karup, where he was born in 1818. Bengt also had an opportunity to demonstrate the same courage and resourcefulness as his brave father, albeit not on a bloody battlefield amongst a thousand dead.

On a stormy autumn night, a large English full rigger was stranded at “Själaviken” near the community of Påarp in Västra Karup. Huge breakers heaved their foamy white masses over the large ship, cracking the hull open at the seams. The unlucky crew, who at any moment thought the ship was going to break apart, had taken refuge in the rigging, to which they had lashed themselves as well as they could. Meanwhile, a crowd of people gathered on the beach—about 300 fishermen and sailors—to witness the raging of the storm and the violent onslaught of the breakers against the helpless ship. They were also witness to the shipwrecked crew’s anguish, as the sailors waved frantically from the rigging at the onlookers on the beach, begging to be saved from certain death.

Figure 6. Snipa. Gerhard Albe 1919.  Sjöhistoriska museet

A while later a Norwegian boat, a snipa,[8] arrived from Torekov, a nearby fishing village. Who would now want to risk their lives to try to save the shipwrecked crew, if it was at all possible? The assembled fishermen and sailors agreed: “Only those who are tired of living would try.” Finally, four courageous farmers— who were also fishermen and thus seafarers—Bengt P. Svensson, Ola Peter the Russian, Malm and Eneman, emerged from the crowd and declared themselves willing to attempt a rescue of those on board the wrecked ship. The snipa was then immediately brought down to the shore and launched well out into the white foam of the churning breakers. Three of them climbed right into the boat, one going to the helm and the other two to the oars, while Bengt P. Svensson went out as far as he could, standing in the water at the side of the boat and supporting it, after which he also boarded. With the greatest effort and under constant danger of capsizing, the four brave men in the boat managed to come alongside the damaged ship. Soon they were on board. They had first attached a rope anchored on land to their small boat, and using this they climbed into the rigging, where they managed to bring the frozen shipwrecked sailors down into the snipa. Using the same rope, they were able to bring the rescue boat back to the shore with greater surety. Soon the crew was all happily rescued.

The amazing rescue was recognized by the English crown, and the four bold rescuers also each received a Swedish silver medal worn on a blue ribbon with yellow stripes. On one side was the image of Karl XV, and on the other was the name of the respective rescuer and the words “For Commendable Deeds.”[9] The day the solemn medal ceremony took place in the Västra Karup church it was filled with people.  The church pastor at that time, Professor Eberstein, gave a lofty speech about the four in recognition of their courage and compassion.

Figure 7. För berömliga gärningar

Later, when a ship was stranded during a storm at “Röhälle” outside of Dagshög, an endangered crew was again saved, thanks to Bengt P. Svensson’s courage and resourcefulness. Unfortunately, shipwrecks were not all that uncommon in the olden days on the coast between Torekov and the community of Slättaryd—as well as in the deep waters and dangerous rocks west of Hallands Väderö.

Figure 8. Bengt P. Svensson and his wife Elna Hansdotter, date unknown


[1] Lispund, see also lispound. A unit of weight formerly used in the Baltic countries, varying between 17 and 19 pounds.

[2] This is a reference to The Swedish Revolution of 1772, also known as Gustav III’s Coup. See: Encyclopedia Brittanica. Gustav III. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gustav-III.

[3] The “carelessness” referred to here has to do with the fact that when Gustaf III withdrew into Vyborg Bay (in the Gulf of Finland), he allowed the Russian Baltic Fleet under Admiral Vasili Chichagov to blockade the only two channels in and out of the Bay (June 8, 1790). The battle to escape the blockade has been termed “The Vyborg Gauntlet.” See: Wikipedia. Battle of Vyborg Bay. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Vyborg_Bay_(1790).

[4] The archipelago fleet (skärgårdsflottan) or the Fleet of the Army (arméns flotta), was a branch of the Swedish armed forces between 1756 and 1823. The fleet protected the coasts of Sweden, largely surrounded by a natural barrier of archipelagoes. See: Wikipedia. Archipelago Fleet. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archipelago_fleet.

[5] The Swedish coastal fleet was reinforced after the escape from Vyborg Bay by 40 Swedish navy ships under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Carl Olof Cronstedt.  See: Wikipedia. Battle of Svensksund. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Svensksund.

[6] Literally a “boatman” or seaman. However, unlike modern seamen, most Swedish sailors of the time were enlisted via a specific Swedish recruitment system similar to the one used to provide Swedish infantry and cavalry soldiers: the rotering system. See: Hans Hogman. Military: Swedish Regiments—Navy. http://www.hhogman.se/regiments-navy.htm.

[7] Sven Hallengren was Cardell’s ordonnans, which seems to be the Swedish equivalent to a “batman.” In the military a batman (also: orderly) is a soldier assigned to a commissioned officer as a personal assistant. The batman would also have seen to the officer’s pack horse, uniform and kit, as well as performed other duties such as delivering messages. See: Wikipedia. Batman (military). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batman_(military)

[8] This was a snipa, a boat common in Norway and Sweden (In Norway see also: snekke, sjekte or kogg). “You often hear the name snipa on a boat, a name that is often mistaken on some boats. But the name is associated with the older open boats that were very slender in their lines and pointed in front and stern. These boats were light-rowed and really adapted for more protected water, but despite that we find many snipa used in the open sea. Like ÖlandssnipanGotlandssnipanSkånesnipan in southern Sweden. In the lakes we find Vänersnipan and Vättersnipan. The most “pointed” boats are found in Norway’s fjords and coasts, such as Oselvern and the Nordland boat, with an extremely slim boat hull for rowing and sailing.” See: Bertil Andersson. Boat Plans. https://batritningar.se/en/boatplans/segelsnipa-rundgatting/15-snipa-rundgatting.

[9] This is a medal, still awarded today by the Swedish government, to recognize those who have engaged in courageous rescues. See: Wikipedia. För berömliga gärningar. https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/F%C3%B6r_ber%C3%B6mliga_g%C3%A4rningar

Read the Original Swedish Here: En äkta Bjäreätt

Figure 8. Bjärehalvön i Forna Tider by Emil J. Söderman

A Day in the Life

Almost a decade ago in 2005 Joan’s father, Donald Theodore Nelson, died from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Although in the end he wandered lost in a labyrinth of his own evaporating memories, we remember him as he was: intelligent, well-read, curious, incomparably meticulous, and, above all, a man with a deep sense of responsibility— to country, to work, and to family. (See our earlier blog “Donald T. Nelson, Hero https://sixtysixtyblog.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/donald-t-nelson-hero/)

He was a modest man with a keen awareness of the passage of time, of how the legacies of our past shape the contours of our present. He knew, instinctually, how a well-planned present could bring about a desired future. He had, consequently, an abiding and serious interest in family history and his Swedish ancestry—but also an unswerving commitment to ensuring the well-being of his descendants.

Since his death, the two of us have chosen to honor his memory by making an annual pilgrimage on Memorial Day to a small cemetery in Lemont, Illinois—the Bethany Lutheran Cemetery, known for many years by old-timers in the town as the “Old Swedish Cemetery.”  Donald and his wife Ruth, Joan’s mother, are buried in this peaceful small-town preserve about 27 miles south of Chicago. Indeed, almost the whole of Joan’s Swedish ancestry for several generations is interred here, including paternal grandparents, great grandparents and great-great grandparents—along with a plethora of great aunts, great uncles, and cousins of all sorts. The quiet hilltop is filled with memorials to those 19th century Swedish families who came to Lemont from the old country to build their futures in a promising new land.

On this Memorial Day, May 25, 2015,  the two of us are not alone in the Old Swedish Cemetery. We are joined by a small group of Joan’s extended family—all of us gathered to remember our forebears, as well as departed fathers, mothers, children, brothers, sisters, wives, and husbands. We sit on benches and in lawn chairs underneath the trees for a short service; we take a solemn walk to a loved one’s grave; we stop and think about times past but not nearly forgotten. Then, like our Swedish families before us, we gather together for a meal afterwards, where more is served up than food. There is an abundant portion of reminiscence, nostalgia, old stories, and the unspoken but deeply satisfying comfort of shared history and long familiarity.

Axel and Annette Nelson Family Circa 1891

The members of this hardy band meeting once a year under the trees at the cemetery are descendants of two immigrant Swedish-American families formed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some are descendants of Axel and Annette Nelson (born Axel Nilsson and Annette Andreassdotter), while others are descendants of James Ahlberg (born Johannes Ahlberg) and Christine Sandberg.  A few, like Joan, are descendants of both couples. But this post is about Axel and Annette.

It is quite likely that the Memorial Day tradition at the Old Swedish Cemetery began over a hundred or more years ago. A first cousin of Joan’s father, who was born in 1919, remembers that her parents had brought her to the cemetery on Memorial Day when she was just a small child.

Annette and Axel Nelson had eleven children, seven of whom have living descendants. During the nine years we have been attending the gathering, we have met with descendants of six of those seven Nelson children. But, who, really, was this family? What was it about them and their character that they could give birth to a tradition strong enough to survive year after year after year for over a century? Maybe if we understood a little more about this family, we could fathom the tidal pull, the familial forces that could hold their descendants together in the face of time and the inevitable dissolution of shared memory.

Thus, after returning to our home in Ohio, we pored over the many painstakingly recorded memories of the Nelson family that have been preserved.  We diligently studied Illinois census records from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One census entry, recorded on a single summer day in 1900, was striking in its detail and transported us back in time to Lemont, to the ancestral home of Joan’s great grandparents, Axel and Annette Nelson.

Axel and Annette Nelson Family 1900 Illinois Census

Axel and Annette Nelson Family’s Entry in the 1900 Illinois Census

It is Monday, June 18, 1900. Axel, age forty-three, and Annette, thirty-eight years old, have been married nineteen years, and Annette has already given birth to nine children. Of these, eight are still living.

A baby daughter, Anna Selma, only one month old has not survived. She died tragically in February 1886. Her cradle was near the small stove used to heat the house, mayhap moved there to keep her little body warm on a chilly winter day. Axel’s coat accidentally caught on the handle of a kettle heating on the stovetop, spilling boiling hot water over Anna’s small body. She didn’t survive. Anna would be the first member of the Nelson family to be buried in the Old Swedish Cemetery.

By 1900 the two oldest children, Minnie and Al, have already left home. There are six children now remaining in the too small, two-bedroom home. Anna Selma (named for her deceased sister) is thirteen; Emma is eleven years old; Ted (Joan’s grandfather) is eight; Esther is six; Emil is four; and the youngest, Sigfried, is but two.

It is morning, and Axel has already left for his job as quarryman at the Lemont limestone quarries. The work is dangerous and difficult, paying only about $30 a month, but Axel has managed, somehow, to acquire enough money to buy a small homestead for the family. It is a modest house and a barn located in a Swedish neighborhood about a half-mile from the Lemont city limits—a neighborhood known as Hazel Dell. It was also referred to by the somewhat mysterious name “Stray 80” for many years.

Annette keeps the home clean and tidy.  The Nelson home has only a kitchen, dining room, and two small bedrooms.  Although a bedroom and living room would be added later, the family never will have the luxury of an indoor bathroom.  When Annette first saw the home she and Axel had purchased, she broke out in tears, “because it was so full of bugs!”

Anna Feeding Chickens In Lemont

Anna Feeding Chickens in Hazel Dell

The kids are out of school for the summer. Annette sends Ted out to feed the pigs and milk the cow, affectionately named “Lillaboy” by the family. She tells Anna to tend to the chickens. Emma is taking care of the smaller children, so that Annette can get her work for the day done.

Annette is spending her Monday morning washing clothes by putting them in a boiler on the stove. Her boiler is a large cauldron in which the family clothes and soapy water are heated together. Axel’s extra set of work clothes are particularly soiled, so she removes them from the boiler and hands them to Anna to scrub the stubborn dirt out with a washboard. After washing, rinsing, and wringing the clothes, Annette and Anna hang the clothes outside on the line to dry. Of course, ironing will come later.

Like many other women at the time, Annette follows a strict schedule: washing is done on Monday, ironing on Tuesday, mending on Wednesday. Friday is the children’s favorite day because that would be the day Annette bakes fresh bread.  Yesterday, a Sunday, had been a relative day of rest for Axel and Annette because it was a day strictly set aside for attending services and activities at Swedish Bethany Church. Yesterday Axel had taught Sunday school, and the children who were old enough attended classes. Being short on cash, Axel quietly pilfered a few pennies from Annette’s yeast jar to give as a heartfelt church offering.

Annette speaks only Swedish to her children.  Although Axel learned English through his work, and some of the children English through school, Annette has still has not learned her adopted country’s tongue. She has little incentive to. The Swedish Bethany Church that the family attends holds all of its services in Swedish. She purchases her goods from Swedish-speaking merchants in town.  Her social life revolves around the Swedish prayer meetings that she and her neighbors hold in their homes. But she is nevertheless uncomfortable that she does not understand what her children are saying to one another. She tries to pick up English words and phrases. Sometimes she hears the children laughing while they’re playing outside, their voices, sing-song, imitating Swedish in a made-up language the Nelson kids called “Skonic,” probably so-named because the children had been told that the Nelson family had come from Skäne in southern Sweden.

Afternoon comes quickly this busy Monday in 1900. After a mid-day meal, Annette, Anna, and Ted go out to tend the vegetable garden planted in the family’s front yard. The family grows almost all of its own vegetables. While toiling in the afternoon sun, Annette thinks to herself that she is glad it is summer. The children are home from school and can help out. There is less coal for her to gather, less water to carry, maybe a few chores less in a chore-filled day. And she is glad, above all, that Axel is at home living with the family. During the winter months the quarries don’t operate, and last winter Axel tried to make ends meet by cutting down trees to sell as firewood. When that didn’t bring in enough money to live on, he had to leave Lemont in order to find work in another town.

Today Annette feels a little dizzy working in the afternoon sun; her stomach is a bit queasy. It dawns on her that she might be pregnant again. Except for her oldest daughter Minnie, all of her children have been born in the bedroom of their little home in Hazel Dell. If she is carrying another child, her tenth baby will be arriving early next year in 1901.

A census taker arrives while Annette is still working in the garden with the children. She tells the children that they can stop for a break and play for a while.  Emma has already put Emil and Sigfried down for their naps. Emma and Esther then go outside for some welcome free time with their siblings.

The census taker is Nels Anderson, a man in his late twenties, himself a Swedish immigrant. Annette offers him coffee and cardamom rolls, which he gladly accepts.  As they sit at the table, Annette answers all his questions quietly so as not to wake the younger children napping in the nearby bedroom. It is with pride that she tells him that she and Axel own their home, that it isn’t rented or mortgaged.

Axel had come alone to America in 1881; this is, coincidentally, the same year as Mr. Anderson himself had come over. After Axel managed to scrape together enough money for their tickets, Annette and her oldest daughter Minnie joined him, immigrating in 1883. She tells Mr. Anderson the story of her arduous journey—a story she would come to repeat many times in the years to come. With a little one not yet three years old, Annette endured a miserable voyage across the ocean. She had to furnish her own food and bedding and sleep on the deck with the baby. She vowed, after this experience, to never make the return trip to Sweden. And she kept that vow. Like so many before and after her, she would never again see those left behind—parents, siblings, friends.  While a new family was budding in a new land, an earlier one had to be left behind, abandoned to cherished memories and the fitful exchange of letters.

Nels Anderson thanks Annette for the refreshment and her time and moves on to his next household, coincidentally another Nelson family—but no relation to Annette and Axel, who had no other family in Illinois. Joan’s Great Aunt Ruth had once remarked that the lack of extended family was probably why Axel and Annette’s brood became so close-knit.

By the time Mr. Anderson leaves, Annette realizes she needs to get busy preparing for the evening meal. Anna and Emma will help while Ted is sent outside to do more chores. Esther will try to keep Emil and Sigfried occupied and out of the kitchen.

Axel returns home from a long, sweltering hot day in the quarries. The house he comes home to is filled with the noise of children chattering in both English and Swedish. One of Ted’s friends stops over, and Annette invites him to dinner. Axel and Annette are strict parents. Their children do what they are told. No playing games outside on the Sabbath. (See Ted’s experience in our blog here: https://sixtysixtyblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/grandpa-baseball-and-ebay/). Card playing is never allowed! But Annette and Axel always welcome their children’s friends into their small but comfortable home.

It isn’t dark yet, so there is no need to light the oil lamps. The Nelson household won’t get electricity for another twenty-three years. Dinner is at last on the table, and the children quickly take their places. A hush falls over the family. Bowing their heads, they begin to say grace:

“I Jesu nam till bords vi gå,
välsigna, Gud, den mat vi få”

(Translation: “In Jesus’ name we come to the table
God bless the food we receive”)

Axel and Annette Nelson in Front of their Home Early 1900s

Axel and Annette Nelson in Front of their Home Early 1900s

The day comes to a close, and we fast forward one hundred and fifteen years, to June 2015. In the years that followed that summer day in 1900, change, always inevitable, visited the Nelson family.  Two more children were born, Ruth in 1901 and Lee in 1904. Axel and Annette saw the untimely passing of two more children, Siegfried and Anna. About 1911 when work at the stone quarries slackened off and finally petered out, Axel found new employment with the Corn Products Refining Company at Argo, the company well-known for its Karo syrup, Mazola corn oil, and corn starch products. In 1928 at the age of seventy-two, he finally retired. When Annette died on April 3, 1949 at the age of eighty-seven, the couple had been married for over sixty-eight years.  Axel was ninety-four years old when he passed away on May 29, 1951. The last of their eleven children, Joan’s Great Aunt Ruth, died at the age of ninety-seven in 1999.

Yet, here we are on Memorial Day each year, gathered together in their name and to honor their legacy. What holds a family together when so much time has passed? What brings us second and third and how many times removed cousins together? Those of us who do genealogy trace nuclear families—parents and their children. When we locate a census record or a Swedish Household Examination Record, we pause at a moment in time when that nuclear family existed. We halt at that singular moment when the bonds are real and strong: mothers and fathers are with their children, a child is with his or her brothers and sisters. But we know it doesn’t last. Nuclear families are fleeting, ephemeral, as substantial as gossamer against the relentless sweep of time. Family members pass away, children become adults, move away, marry, start families of their own. New family units are formed in a constant ferment of nucleation and new beginning.

As genealogists and family historians we trace nuclear families down through the generations, watching with great interest as their histories play out in front of us. We watch family ties inevitably loosen, break, and then dissolve.

Yet, here, somehow, gathered in the Old Swedish Cemetery we’ve resisted, fought back against the entropy, tried to preserve something that Axel and Annette built and fought to keep so many years ago. Maybe, like Don Nelson, we understood, we understand that to build a better future we have to embrace our own past, preserving the detail and nuance of our family’s history in a shared chronicle of memory and emotion.

On June 13, 1976 a powerful tornado ripped through Lemont, destroying the beloved Nelson home in Hazel Dell at 211 4th Street on the west side of McCarthy Road. The nuclear family has passed, the home is gone. But the Axel and Annette Nelson legacy of family continues.  Because Donald remembered.  Because Joan remembers. Because we all take care to remember.

Memorial Day 2014

Memorial Day 2014, Bethany Lutheran Cemetery