Cultural heritage is luckily a portable possession. Although the early emigrants couldn’t take many of their physical belongings with them, they could carry remembered tunes and rituals inside their heads across the oceans and rugged terrain. They could break out in song anywhere, a cappella or with a fiddle, on board a ship, riding a wagon train or rail car, and in lodge halls. As Swedish Americans dispersed into settlements across the country, annual performances of rituals like Sankta Lucia bound them together and with their homeland.
The prevalence of singing societies and church choirs that sprang up in urban centers, and the naming of various lodges for Jenny Lind, attest to the continuing importance of music to these Swedish immigrants. Today, my Vasa lodge still sings “Happy Birthday” in Swedish, and we sing Swedish Christmas songs, following an old Swedish tradition of marking traditions with melody.
Recipes, of course, were also portable. For many years, the women of my mother’s family passed down a recipe for cardamom rolls with cooking lessons in the kitchen. Until it arrived to me, a fourth generation Swedish American, the recipe had never been written down.

The power of poetry
We have almost forgotten that the Swedes brought poetry with them as well. The early immigrants loved poetry, fiercely in fact, revering their literary heritage with an almost religious fervor. Today, VASA’s Tegner Lodge #109 in the Scotia, New York (Albany area) and our Oakland, California Lodge #149 provide testamentary evidence of the early Swedish immigrants’ literary interests. Both were named for the Swedish poet Esaias Tegnér, whose translation of the Icelandic Frithiof’s Saga into Swedish was popular all over Europe in the 19th century.
Both of these Tegner lodges formed around the turn of the last century (#109 in 1907 and #149 in 1908). The Augustana archives list a Frithiof Lodge #5, Independent Order of Svithiod, in Detroit, Michigan, was formed in 1891 making it one of the oldest Swedish American organizations to base its name on Tegner’s achievement. This lodge appears to have disbanded around 1980. Tegner Lodge #59, Independent Order of Vikings, also formed in Detroit, but at a much later date, 1919, and seems to have met the same fate.
Few Swedish Americans today remember Tegnér’s enormous status and influence as a literary figure in his time. He did not simply translate Frithiof's Saga into Swedish, he rendered it into 24 rhymed cantos, in his own highly romantic poetic language, in keeping with poetic trends of his day. Published in 1825, Tegnér’s poem attracted the attention of the esteemed German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who recommended “its old, mighty gigantic-barbaric style of verse” to his contemporaries.
Today, even the most current English translations of Tegnér’s poem sound a bit antiquated and stodgy. (It may be time for a new translation that would appeal to modern ears.) But, in another way, his poem is all too familiar. Full of larger-than-life heroes and their exploits, the figures in Frithiof’s Saga might be compared to today’s superheroes, the Star Wars and Superman figures with their widespread appeal in comic books and movies.
Tegnér may be credited, not only for his poetic achievement, but for instilling pride in our Viking heritage. Recently, I came upon an unexpected reference to the Frithiof Saga while reading Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Angle of Repose: The narrative follows the trials of a pioneer couple settling a new mining community in Idaho in the late 1800s. Discouraged there and hoping to find a vein of silver in a mine in Mexico, the couple set off for Michoacan in Mexico, taking a voyage by ship from California along the Pacific Coast. On board the ship the couple enjoyed nightly entertainment by their fellow passengers also seeking their fortunes where opportunity called. The wife recalled in a letter that they … “sat up one moonlit night to hear a fantastic recitation of the Frithjof Saga in the original by a young Swedish engineer on his way to build a Mexican railroad.”
I reread this passage several times. The Swedish engineer was undoubtedly reciting verses of Tegnér’s famous rhymed translation of the Frithiof Saga! The passage captured the magnetic appeal of Tegnér’s poetry in Swedish, which could entrance even non-Swedish speaking listeners. It also conveyed the Swedish engineer’s passion for his literary heritage and his identification with the Viking spirit of exploration and adventure.


Discovering common ground
I had a sudden revelation — a sort of “aha” moment. It struck me that our lodge’s choice of name reflected more than a literary bent. Some early Swedish immigrants most likely felt a connection with the adventurous spirit of the Vikings that Frithiof’s Saga celebrated. If you made it as far as California, whether straight from Sweden, or as part of the great western migration from the eastern United States, you were part of a great new adventure. The West Coast, for many, was imagined as the end of the known world — and getting there the ultimate adventure. Tegnér’s poem, by celebrating the Viking’s travel lust and risk-taking feats, helped ease the pain of separation from family and friends left behind.

Poetry whether or not heroic, offered spiritual and emotional sustenance in a new and unsettling environment. The first issues of Vestkusten, the Swedish American paper published for years in San Francisco, often featured a poem on the first page. One of the frequent contributors, Reverend A.M. Lebeau, was minister of the First Swedish Evangelical St. Paul’s Church of Oakland. He organized the church in 1887, which makes him a key figure in consolidating and building community in early Oakland. He was said to have walked the streets, proselytizing new congregants for the church by handing out a small flyer in Swedish. The church was so small at the time that it met in an Oakland area home.
Le Veau’s poems often appeared on the front page of Vestkusten in the early editions. Like other Swedish immigrants with literary aspirations, LeVeau turned to the local newspapers in his native language to find an outlet for self-expression. (Tegnér himself set a precedent for ministers pursuing a dual career, serving as Bishop of Lund as well as publishing poetry.)

The Swedish dramatic club
For me, one of the most intriguing local Bay Area talents was August F. Brandstedt, born in Norrköping, Sweden, in 1856. He immigrated to America in 1886 and organized the Swedish dramatic club of San Francisco in 1895. Under his leadership, the club gave many public entertainments. His own comedies, including “En dag under smekmånaden” (A Day in the Honeymoon) and “En liten lexa” (A little lesson) were Bay Area favorites. Brandstedt produced one of his musical comedies in Oakland as a fundraiser for the Swedish Pavilion at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.
Brandstedt wrote and published poetry as well. His verse, primarily in a humorous style, appeared in leading Swedish journals in the U.S. and Sweden. In a more serious vein, he published a rhymed poem in Swedish in the program that welcomed the 1915 Convention of Swedish Singers to the Bay Area. A photo of Brandstedt accompanies the poem. He is shown in profile, with a serious expression, turning away from the viewer as if lost in thought.
Serious poetry was all fine and good, but the Swedish-speaking newcomers to the Bay Area in the late 1800s and early 1900s definitely had a penchant for light comedy. Two months before the San Francisco 1906 earthquake and fire, the biggest news in Vestkusten was the upcoming production of the play Yon Yonson about a Swedish country bumpkin who finds work in a lumber camp in Minnesota. The paper featured a full page ad with a photo of the smiling yokel dressed in his woodsman attire. If the play made fun of the less sophisticated country cousins in both Sweden and the Midwest, it also reminded the urbanites of their peasant origins, which they had left behind not long ago.

The great earthquake and fire
No one knew that San Francisco’s Swedish community would all too soon have a major tragedy to contend with. Uprooted once again, this time by the great earthquake and fire, many were moved to refugee camps in Oakland, later buying land and making the east side of the Bay their new home.
And luckily for the East Bay, the Swedish American transplants once again brought their music and traditions with them. Although numerous Swedish churches and businesses were already established in the East Bay by the late 1800s (Vestkusten ran a regular column about Oakland right after the San Francisco news), there was no VASA lodge and no hall comparable to the San Francisco Swedish American Hall. Spurred by the arrival of the newcomers, Tegner Lodge #149 was formed two years after the earthquake, and its numbers quickly swelled into the 1920s, as new Swedish American arrivals continued to find work in the East Bay’s growing industrial economy.
Oakland’s Jenny Lind Hall, completed in 1915 in downtown Oakland, served as a grand meeting place and performance space for many Swedish American organization for many years. Designed by Frederick Soderberg in the Beaux Arts style, the building is a city landmark, although it no longer serves its original function.
The Swedes have moved out. Tegner Lodge now meets in the Bjornson Hall Sons of Norway Lodge in another part of town. But the Lucia Fests, the crayfish parties, the Kubb games with other lodges, and, of course, singing Happy Birthday in Swedish — those all got carried across town with us.

Kathryn Hughes