Swede Hollow is a glacial ravine barely two-thirds of a mile long in St. Paul’s old northeastern district; it was literally a hole in the ground. Today this East Side neighborhood is wonderfully diverse, including many Hmong and Somali immigrants, and surrounds the Hollow with small shops and restaurants. There are also plenty of traces of the Italian inhabitants, such as the classic Yarusso-Bros. Italian Restaurant. But few visible signs remain of the earlier strong Swedish presence other than the place name of Swede Hollow.
The American census records, as well as Swedish church records, show that well into the twentieth century about a thousand people lived in the Hollow, and most of them listed Sweden as their birthplace. The area around Payne Avenue and Railroad Island also had a large Swedish population. There is only one Swedish written account from Swede Hollow, authored by Nels Hokanson and published in the winter 1969 issue of the Minnesota Historical Society’s magazine.
The situation is much the same regarding the Swedes who landed in New York during the late nineteenth century. By 1900, there were approximately fifty thousand immigrants from Sweden in New York, including a group living on the Lower East Side. We know very little about them other than the fact that they existed.
In St. Paul the descendants of Italian immigrants were significantly better at documenting their history. In the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) the memoirs of Mike Sanchelli (1915–2003) make for fascinating reading. He too grew up in Swede Hollow. But when it comes to the poorest of the Swedish immigrants, there is a great gap in the research and historical accounts. I am very grateful to all the researchers and archivists who helped us to locate nearly all the facts available about life in the Hollow. The three newspaper articles about Swede Hollow from the St. Paul Daily Globe that appear in this book are actual articles, reprinted here close to their original form with only a few deletions and changes.
First and foremost, I thank Dag Blanck at the Swedish Institute for North American Studies at Uppsala University for guiding me so kindly and patiently through the available research about the Swedish presence in Minnesota. Along with his colleague Phil Anderson, Dag has published the excellent anthology Swedes in the Twin Cities (2001), which features many essays about “those at the bottom.” Karna Anderson has ancestors who lived in the Hollow, and the Anderson family (Phil, Karna, Erik, and Kajsa) generously gave me access to their family photographs and to their genealogical research.
One of the few scholars to take an interest in Swede Hollow is David Lanegran, professor emeritus in geography at Macalester College in St. Paul. In the 1960s, he interviewed several people of Swedish heritage who had grown up in the Hollow, and he allowed me to make use of their accounts.
Another scholar who has dug into the often dark and suppressed aspects of the Swedish migration to Minnesota is the historian Roger McKnight, professor emeritus at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. In his book Severed Ties and Silenced Voices (2009), he writes about prisoners and crime among Swedish immigrants. The book provided background for my story about David and Agnes Karin, and Roger drew my attention to the stories about Ola Värmlänning.
The prominent composer Ann Millikan has written an entire opera about the different ethnic groups that once called Swede Hollow their home.
Joy K. Lintelman, historian and professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, has conducted research on Swedish female workers who emigrated to the United States. In her notable book I Go to America (2012), Lintelman writes about Minna Anderson, one of the sources for Vilhelm Moberg’s acclaimed series The Emigrants. For my description of work at Klinkenfuer’s (one of the better clothing factories in St. Paul) and other workplaces for women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I made use of an excellent article by Mary C. Bader in the spring 2006 issue of the Minnesota Historical Society magazine. Bader also discusses labor unions and the way that unions in Minnesota were fought and more or less crushed—a story that is recounted in detail in A Union against Unions by William Millikan (2003). The involvement of Swedes in the union struggles is further discussed in historian Jimmy Engren’s Railroading and Labor Migration (2007). In her autobiographical essay “Amerika-minnen” (1930), immigrant Evelina Månsson writes about workplaces like the Phoenix Building in Minneapolis and describes how an employee might use a typewriter at night.
The horrifying story about the murders that occurred in Duluth on June 15, 1920, when several Swedes took part in the lynching of Isaac McGhie, Elias Clayton, and Elmer Jackson, is described in detail on the Minnesota Historical Society website (www.mnhs.org), which includes all the documentation, court records, and police interrogations. I tried to relate the course of events as accurately as possible. More background can be found in Warren Read’s book The Lyncher in Me (2008).
I would not have been able to write this novel without the help of people who live in Minnesota. The author Larry Millett, an expert on the history of St. Paul, took time to guide us through the city’s historic district and answer many questions from a novice. Bruce Karstadt, head of the American Swedish Institute (ASI) in Minneapolis, helped us to find access to the lesser known parts of the history of Swedish migration and put the ASI archives at our disposal. ASI board member William Beyer provided us with additional details.
A big thank you to the Swedish Academy, whose financial support made it possible for me to do on-site research.
The Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul is in many ways a model for general education and publicly available archives. The staff at MNHS and at the Gale Family Library answered many strange questions, including how to do impossible searches in various census records. (The people who lived in the Hollow had no addresses, so how could they be located?) I offer special thanks to Debbie Miller, the patient librarian who knows everything.
We also received great help from kind archivists at the Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul, which was founded to provide care to the city’s poorest citizens, including those living in the Hollow; and from Trinity Baptist Church (formerly the First Swedish Baptist Church) and the First Lutheran Church (formerly the First Evangelical Lutheran Swedish Church), both in St. Paul.
We have been treated to the greatest hospitality. I especially thank Karen and Doug McElrath. Doug managed to do the impossible and actually got me interested in baseball.
Melba Gustafson passed away in 2014, but it was when we met her in 2006 that I encountered the first traces of Swede Hollow in a small exhibition at the American Swedish Institute.
When I say we and our, I am referring, of course, to my wife, Rita, who with her knowledge and contacts in Minnesota helped me all along the way to dig up what facts could be found. Without her, this book would never have come into being, since it was due to her that we landed in the Twin Cities at all.
Finally, I don’t think I need to point out that this is a novel. The Klar family, Inga Norström, David and Jonathan Lundgren, and the others never existed. Many aspects of this story about life in Swede Hollow are fiction, but the experiences are real, and real people lived there.
As I write this, a debate is under way in St. Paul about whether to lay new streetcar tracks on the old Duluth line that passes through the Hollow (today it is a bike path). This would bring more life and people back to the Hollow, yet it would burst the invisible bubble surrounding the area that now seems to exist outside time. Today, Swede Hollow is a strange, overgrown park with no trace of human habitation, a place that humans seem to have left behind. I’m not the only one to be fascinated by the peculiar silence in the Hollow. But the silence there is stretched taut over a chorus of voices from the past. I have tried my best, and with great respect, to summon a few of them.