Family Ties Pt. 1

I’ve begun presenting myself and my personal history in these first posts, but I feel the need to take a look at my family history to put my life in context.

I was born in Evanston, Illinois. My parents came from families that had settled in the Chicago area from various parts of Europe. Some of my forebears were immigrants, while others were from relatively recently immigrated families. I’ll begin with the basics.

On my father’s side, both of his parents were of Scandinavian ancestry. His father’s father came to the States from Dalarna province in central Sweden in the 1880s. He met and married my great-grandmother, whose family had come from Bergen, Norway. My grandmother had moved as a young woman to the States from Skellefteå in northern Sweden.

On my mother’s side, her father moved from Normandy to the States as a teenager. Her mother’s family had been in the States longer than any other branch of my family, having moved from Alsace-Lorraine in the mid-19th Century.

Now I’ll dig a little deeper into each branch of the family. I know much more about my father’s family history than my mother’s, so I’ll begin there.

My father’s paternal family came from Stora Tuna, part of Borlänge, which is a city near Lake Siljan and the medieval city of Falun, capital of Dalarna Province (sometimes called Dalecarlia) in central Sweden.  Borlänge and Falun can be seen near the top of the map, on either end of Lake Siljan, northwest of Uppsala and Stockholm.

When I spent a month visiting Sweden in June & July 1983, I visited a distant cousin in Borlänge, who helped me visit historical sites in the city and region. Dalarna is known as Sweden’s Folklore Province, and since at that time I was a performing member of the Swedish Folk Dance Club of Boston, I enjoyed visiting cultural centers and seeing some traditional music and dance performances. Falun was a market town since at least the 14th Century, and is famed for its copper mine, which has been in continual operation for several hundred years, and part of which now has been converted to a fascinating museum.

A principal use of the copper mined in Falun has been the traditional red paint called Falu Red, known for its rot-preventive properties, which has long been used on the wooden houses of the region. The same red color is used on the traditional Dalahäst (Dalacarlian horse), perhaps the most famous folk art of the region.

My cousin took me to numerous places in the region, and confirmed some of what I knew about my ancestors from Stora Tuna. My great-great-grandfather was a ferryman who ferried people and goods across the Dalälven, the broad river that runs past Borlänge, before it was first spanned by a pontoon bridge in the mid-19th Century. The only visible remnant left of his activities was a huge ancient apple tree whose trunk was too think to reach around that he had planted on a bluff overlooking the river around 1840.

His son, John (Johann), left Sweden for the States sometime in the late 19th Century, both to avoid conscription in the Swedish army, and because there was little opportunity for work – certainly not the family business, since the Dalälven bridge had wiped out any further need for a ferry. Along with many of his countrymen, he settled in Evanston, where he met and married Anna, on 22 Feb, 1890.

Anna came from a well-to-do family in Bergen, Norway. Her father, Knute Knutson, was a clipper ship captain who transported lots of Scandiavians from Bergen to the States in the clipper ship Victor Emanuel.

Eventually Knute retired from the sea and he and his family moved to Evanston. Here’s a photo of them taken in 1885, with my great-grandmother Anna behind his right shoulder. Yes, he and I do look similar!

According to what I’ve been told, the family had some valuable forest land above the city of Bergen, but when the last survivor, an unmarried woman, died without heirs, the land reverted to the State.

My distant cousin took me to the ancient Stora Tuna church in Borlänge, where my great-great-grandparents were buried. Being poor common folk, their graves would only have had perishable wooden markers, and the location is now lost. Very possibly, others have been buried in the same spots since then.

As it happens, there is a famous son of Stora Tuna whose grave is very well marked near the entrance of the churchyard, and in fact there is a very nice museum in his memory in the town. I refer to the great Swedish operatic tenor, Jussi Björling, who died in 1960 at the age of 49 after an illustrious career on the stage of the old Metropolitan Opera and in numerous recordings. Here’s a recording of Björling and the American baritone Robert Merrill (standing behind Björling in the photo) singing the beautiful duet from Georges Bizet’s opera Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers):

My great-grandparents, John and Anna, had several children, including my grandfather Knute and his twin brother, who can be seen in this 1895 photo.

My grandfather met a young woman who had come to the States from the far northern city of Skellefteå, near the Arctic Circle. While her name was Viktoria, she was known by the nickname Thora.

Knute and Thora married and settled in Evanston. My grandfather was a postman, which was a good steady job even during the Depression, which meant that unlike many others, including my mother’s family, he had an income throughout. My grandmother would have other Swedish women visit with her in the kitchen for coffee and gossip and a chance to talk Swedish, which my father remembered as “funny talk”.

My dad was born in 1915, and was given this impressive collection of names: John Victor Stanley. Everyone knew him as Stan. Here he is with his mother.

 His sister, Ruth, was born five years later, and was only a baby when Thora, sick with tuberculosis, died when my father was only seven.
My father’s family decided that while it was alright for him to remain with my grandfather, my aunt Ruth should be taken by relatives in St. Paul Minnesota. However, my grandfather had a car, so they were able to visit.
My grandfather had a cabin in northern Wisconsin, and family and friends would frequently go there as well as to other places for picnics.
My father told stories about Prohibition. His father would occasionally brew beer in the basement. When it was ready, he would tape newspaper over the basement windows, and give my father some money and instructions to go to the movies for the afternoon. Sometimes he would come home early, and there would be lots of cars parked around the house, and a good deal of noise coming from all the men partying in the basement.
After my father finished high school, wanderlust set in. He set out on an epic hitchhiking tour, visiting all but two of the continental U.S. His most adventurous tales were of his visit to the Grand Canyon, which he hiked across, apparently in a location and direction that hadn’t been accomplished before. Here’s a picture of him, evidently when he was setting out on his odyssey.
As well as adventurous, my father was very creative. After his first foray into boatbuilding, when he made a kayak, he bought plans for a sailboat from Mechanix Illustrated. The famous John Hanna Tahiti Ketch featured a double-ended hull, 30 feet long, drawing 4 feet of water, with full 6 foot headroom in the cabin, and bunks for four. It’s an extremely seaworthy design with a very well-balanced rig, the sort of vessel referred to in the film The Philadelphia Story as “yar,” and one which has yielded some of the most uneventful single-handed round-the-world voyages.
The boat was built in the shed in my grandfather’s back yard. This was during the Depression, so my father would have to save for a while to be able to afford wood and other materials, then build until he needed more materials. As difficult as the Depression was, there was one advantage. He was able to get materials at good prices. As a result, she has fine oak ribs and keel, Sitka spruce masts and spars, and 1-1/4 inch tank grade cypress planks. If you don’t know boats, those are superior materials. He did much of the work himself, but got help from some friends, including an elderly Norwegian sailor, and of course my mother. The plan was to finish, launch the boat, and then sail around the world. Unfortunately, she took seven years to build, by which time WWII was on, and I was on the way, and my father was took much the practical Swede to take a young family around the world, even after the war ended. The shed had to be torn down so the boat could be carted to the harbor for launching in Lake Michegan. In honor of his mother, my father named her Thora. Here she is on Lake Michigan in 1943, her first season. Since the war was still on, the registration numbers on the bow had to be extra large.

Here you can see my parents at the stern, my mother at the helm, on one of their first season sails.

Thora was launched the year before I was. But more on that later. I’ll devote my next post to my mother’s family background. As I mentioned, I don’t have as much information about her forebears as I have on my father’s, but I’ll do the best I can.

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2 thoughts on “Family Ties Pt. 1

  1. I remember learning something about Alsace-Lorraine when I was in 9th grade. That was rather a nice little reminder that my brain is still working LOL

    I LOVE all the photos!!!! You DO look like Knute and I can tell you look a lot like your father too. I am so impressed that your father built a boat! He was obviously very talented. It is a beautiful boat and the photo with your parents sitting on it together is just priceless!!!

    I also LOVE the horse! Talk about a bright color!!!!

    I really do love the photos and your rich history. You are a pro at blogging!

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