Scandinavians embrace roots
Skrivet av Tess Nacelewicz   
2005-09-03 14:59

Scandinavians embrace roots

Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.


Staff photo by John Patriquin
Staff photo by John Patriquin

Thomas Grant, co-owner of two Simply Scandinavian shops in Portland's Old Port, sells items ranging from Scandinavian food to furniture. Grant's great-grandparents emigrated from Sweden to New Sweden in 1890.

Life on the farm still retained the flavor of the old country when 83-year-old June Andersen Beck was growing up in Falmouth.

Some of the adults in the hard-working farm families on Woodville Road still spoke Danish to one another, she said, and the small community was very close-knit.

"Neighbor helped neighbor," Beck recalled. "And everything was: 'Come over for coffee, coffee and cookies.' "

Most families attended nearby Emmaus Lutheran Church, established in 1893 by immigrants from Denmark. Ties to religion were still so strong that some farm families wouldn't work on Sundays, even at haying time, she said. However, the reality of having to make a living on a farm caused that custom to die out, Beck said. "They had to make hay while the sun shone," she said.

Many people think Maine and picture Yankee farmers who trace their roots back to colonial times. But the state also has been shaped over the years by a variety of immigrant groups. Among them are Scandinavian people who came to Maine from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland.

Those immigrants not only helped restore the dwindling rural population of the state in the late 1800s, but also left their mark on the state in a wide variety of ways.

Scandinavians are credited with starting Maine's skiing industry. Their ranks included artists such as the noted photographer of Finnish descent, Kosti Ruohomaa, a friend of Andrew Wyeth's who captured vivid photographic images of Maine coastal life after World War II. They launched many still-familiar businesses, including the J.J. Nissen bakery that moved from Portland to Biddeford a few years ago.

And an authentic replica of a medieval Danish Village once graced Route 1 in Scarborough, complete with quaint red-tiled houses lining narrow, crooked streets and a town hall and square with a fountain and a nest for a wooden stork.

Den Danske Landsby, which opened in 1930 and had been torn down by 1970, was a tourist attraction and a forerunner of modern motels. Eleanor Roosevelt was a guest there. It was designed by a Danish architect, and some members of Maine's Danish community would visit to experience a sense of home.

Most of the early Scandinavians in Maine discouraged their children from speaking their native languages in order to better learn English, said Beck and others. In fact, they assimilated so quickly and so well their customs and traditions were not retained in most places in Maine.

However, a perusal of any residential phone book shows that plenty of their Scandinavian descendants have remained in the state, and many now are increasingly interested in embracing their heritage.

Maine has several active societies for those who trace their roots to various Scandinavian countries. For example, there is the Independent Order of Scandinavians in New Harbor, the Finnish-American Heritage Society of Maine, based in West Paris, and the Maine Nordmenn in Falmouth, the state's first Sons of Norway Lodge, officially launched just two years ago.

Also, a store called Simply Scandinavian in Portland's Old Port, which sells items ranging from Scandinavian food to furniture, has become a touchstone for Mainers and others who want to connect with their roots.

The Rev. John Douhan of South Dartmouth, Mass., who is of Swedish descent, said last week that he and his wife regularly stop at the store on visits to Maine in order to "keep a little bit of the tradition."

Thomas Grant said he and his wife, Mary, started Simply Scandinavian seven years ago because there were no stores in Greater Portland filling that niche. "My wife and I said, 'There's a huge void here,' " Grant said.


Business at their Exchange Street location has been so good that they opened a second store last year just around the corner on Market Street.

The Exchange Street store focuses on food and food-related items. Among the goods for sale are Danish coffee cakes called kringles, frozen Swedish meatballs, Norwegian smoked salmon, lingonberry syrup and glogg glasses.

The Market Street store has items ranging from bright-colored ski sweaters to antique chests, chairs and tables.

Grant grew up in New Sweden and Caribou. His great-grandfather, who was Swedish, and his great-grandmother, originally from Norway, emigrated from Sweden to New Sweden in 1890.

They were part of a second wave of settlers who followed the original 51 Swedes who settled New Sweden in 1870. Those settlers were led there by a Portland man, William Widgery Thomas Jr.

Thomas was appointed a war consul to Sweden during the Civil War and later became Commissioner of Immigration to Maine. In that role, he brought the Swedish settlers into what was then Maine wilderness and lived in a log cabin with them for four years until the colony was settled.


The Aroostook County farming community grew rapidly and prospered and helped attract more Swedish immigrants to Maine and other New England states.

Joseph Conforti, a University of Southern Maine professor of American and New England studies, said the population of northern New England began to decline starting in 1850 as people left for jobs in big cities or to head west.

There was a push for immigrants to take their place, and Scandinavians were favored, said Conforti, who said he has studied the phenomenon in New Hampshire and Vermont, though not in Maine. He said the thinking was that "these are people who are white and Protestant and who would be much more easily assimilated than Italians or Greeks."

However, Henry Thomas of Freeport, William Widgery Thomas' grandson, said his grandfather had different reasons for urging Swedes to come to Maine.

William Thomas greatly admired the Swedes and married a Swedish woman and then her sister after his first wife died. He knew them to have the farming and woodworking skills that would enable them to survive in the Maine woods, his grandson said.

Also, Henry Thomas said, "from my grandfather's point of view, they were coming from a similar climate."

It is not surprising to learn that Maine communities such as New Sweden and Norway were the homes of Scandinavian immigrants. However, the community of Danes that settled in the Woodville Road section of Falmouth is not as well-known.


The settlement began about 1870, according to Marge DeVine, president of the Falmouth Historical Society. Her family on her mother's side, named Dyhrberg, were some of the early settlers.

June Andersen Beck's grandfather, Andreas Andersen, was also one of the first settlers. She grew up on his dairy farm.

Today, instead of farms, subdivisions line most of Woodville Road. But one old Danish family farm that remains is Elwin Hansen's. Hansen said his father came to Maine from New Denmark in Canada and bought the farm in 1924.

"There was quite a Danish settlement here at that time," he said.

However, he said the language died out with his parents' generation because they were eager for their children to learn English.

Earle Shettleworth Jr., whose mother's father immigrated to Maine in 1893, first lived on a farm in Falmouth then moved to Portland, where he worked in a stove foundry.


Portland, too, by the early 1890s had a thriving Danish community, according to Shettleworth, the director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, who has written a history of his family's roots.

He said the Danes lived at the base of Munjoy Hill and in the Bayside neighborhood near Back Cove. Shettleworth, 56, also recalls his mother saying that she and her siblings were discouraged from speaking Danish - a pressure to assimilate which he said was common to immigrant experience in America.

A Maine Sunday Telegram article in 1907 praised the Danes as a "desirable element of our citizenship" for their strong efforts to fit in.

"One of the most energetic nationalities that come to this country . . . are the Danes," the article said. "They become Americanized in a very short time and learn the language very readily and while they still hold in their hearts a fond memory for the mother country they become naturalized and are thoroughly American."

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Senast uppdaterad 2005-09-20 10:54
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