In the late 1880s through the early 1900s, Providence, Rhode Island, Boston and other cities in New England became a destination for many Swedish immigrants with industrial skills. Lorraine Colson Bloomquist interviewed members of five Swedish immigrant families that settled in Rhode Island in this series of stories.

Kenneth Ernest Carlson
Before Karl Johan Karlsson immigrated to the United States, his father and two sisters were already living in East Providence, Rhode Island. Because economics and daily living were difficult in Västra Götaland, Sweden, Karl wanted a better life and heard that things were good in the U.S. So, at age 16, when Swedish boys were expected to head into the world on their own, he decided to join his family already in America. In 1914, Karl arrived on U.S. soil at Ellis Island.


Settling near family in Rhode Island, Karl worked on a farm in Seekonk. Soon he met and married Anna Engstrom, who was from Värmland, Sweden. They purchased a vacant lot and slowly he built their own home. There were programs and a center where immigrants could meet and learn the English language so important for success in the new country. Vasa Order had several Swedish Working Men’s Association centers to help, too. Karl could walk to the center once a week to learn the new language, though at home, eventually, a mix of Swedish and English —Swenglish — was used regularly.

When Kenneth was born in 1926, Karl registered his son’s birth at the town hall. Hearing the accent, the recorder spelled his name “Cannat” and that was transcribed upon his birth certificate. It was eventually corrected. Another son, Ray, was born in 1927. Ken was baptized in 1926, in Swedish, by the Rev. Karl Johansson at Gloria Dei Church. It was a very small building serving a growing number of immigrant families, and when the church started the mission of St. James in Barrington, Rhode Island, the family transferred as charter members. The Rev. Gene Brodeen was their first pastor.

Being raised in a family of immigrants never posed a problem of discrimination, and many of their friends were in the same situation as well; they were very proud to be Swedish. It didn’t hurt that many fine tennis and hockey athletes were Swedish, too.

Active in Excelsior Lodge, Ken sang with the Verdandi Swedish Singers. As part of the American Union of Swedish Singers (AUSS), the group toured America singing in both languages. Native Swedes would often sing with them and translate the lyrics of their songs. Every four years they had a huge national concert in New Hampshire with 400 to 500 male singers.

Ken’s family still follows some Swedish customs, and as members of Pioneer Lodge they still participate in many Vasa events. The ubiquitous, ever-present glögg is popular, especially at Christmas. Along with the hearty “skål” they have a Carlson-Wallander song for the toast. Their Swedish flag flies briskly beside the American flag, and their grandson has requested a large flag to fly at his own home and has learned many Swedish phrases to exchange with them.

The biggest event Ken recalls is the arrival of the Swedish ship Sverige for the America’s Cup races. At the reception at the Newport docks, they stood in line to meet the king and queen of Sweden. It turned into a joke that Ken’s brother-in-law, Gil Wallander, looked like the king.

Years later, an interesting turn of events happened when Ken was in Florida after having a stroke. In the hospital, as he recovered, he spoke only in Swedish. A Danish nurse was summoned to translate for them, and it took about two months for his English to return. The native tongue was deeply rooted in his life.

By Lorraine Colson Bloomquist, professor emerita of University of Rhode Island Dept. of Kinesiology, member of Quahog Lodge, Vasa and member of the Board of RI Swedish Heritage Association

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