A view down Cedar Street. (photo by LLKearney)

            Initially, Swedeville appears to have been a multi-ethnic neighborhood; composed of German, Irish, Lithuanian, New England/Canadian, as well as families from Scandinavian countries all lived there. It is highly likely that because of the influx of Swedes who rented homes in this neighborhood before 1900, the area was dubbed “Swedeville.” The Swedes who settled in Norwood came between the years 1885 and 1900.  US Census records note one Swede in town in 1870 and eight by 1880. In 1900, the census recorded 133 Swedes and twenty-one Finns in town; many appear to be living in the Cedar Street area. The majority of Finns began arriving in Norwood between the years 1900 and 1915, just as the Savin Street area was being developed. Finns and Swedes continued to settle in Swedeville over the next decades. Many of the families that settled in Swedeville were related. Some met here and married, and others came because they already had family members living there.

The Swedish:

According to several websites, the history of Sweden starts about 10,000 years ago! Although, some may find this long history fascinating, for the purposes of understanding the reasons why Swedes came to Norwood in the 1890s through the 1930s, it makes sense to focus on Sweden’s more recent history. At one time, the Swedish Empire (1560-1815) encompassed what today is Sweden, Finland, and parts of Denmark, Norway and the Baltics. By the mid 1600’s Sweden was one of the largest European Countries and had one of the most powerful militaries. However, during the 18th and 19th centuries, Sweden slowly lost all their territories outside of the Scandinavian Peninsula, with the final annexation of Finland to Russia in 1809. Historians point to several reasons why many Swedes left their homeland for the United States, but most agree series of economic hardships and a famine that occurred in the mid-1800s, paired with a growing population, in a mostly agricultural economy, meant there was very little opportunities for young Swedes just starting out. This means that the main demographic of Swedish immigrants were young men and women looking for greater economic opportunities in the United States. Initially, Swedes were attracted to the agricultural areas of the Midwest, but by 1910, they also had sizable settlement on the West Coast as well as in some of the industrial cities on the East Coast including Worcester.

Census records tell us few Swedes were in Norwood in the 1870s and 1880s, but as Norwood’s need for labor increased with the establishment of several industries, Norwood became a place for new immigrants to settle. Of the eight Swedes who were living in town when the 1880 census was taken, only three remained by the time the 1900 census was taken – Peter A. Peterson, who had married and lived in the Germantown area, and Johanna Forsberg and her daughter Bertha (Anderson) McStay who were living in the South Norwood area. By 1900, census records tell us that Norwood’s Swedish population had increased, with many settling on the newly laid out Cedar Street. At least nine Norwood Swedes came from the town of Misterhult, in Kalmar County, Sweden – Peter A. Peterson is one of those Misterhult Swedes. He was the first (and only) Swede in town in 1870, and by 1900, he was living on Davis Avenue with his wife and children. Although these Misterhult families do not appear to be related (and they quite possible may be), it is highly likely they knew each other. And therefore encouraged each other to come to Norwood.

The family of Peter A. Peterson, who were the first Swedes to settle in South Dedham. (Courtesy of Walter E. Burtt)

In the early 1900s, more Swedes arrived in Norwood coming from the Åland Islands. These islands are situated in the Baltic Sea, between Sweden and Finland.  The Åland Islands, were part of the Swedish Empire until 1809, when they were annexed to Russia as part of Finland, however the people there have always considered themselves Swedish. They have maintained their Swedish culture for over 200 years, even thought they are Finnish nationals. In some of the censuses taken in Norwood, the census taker records these people as “Finnish-Swedes.” Because of the mild climate there, The Åland Islands are primarily agricultural – growing fruits, grains and vegetables, with a few dairy farms dotting the landscape. As with many other European counties, there was little opportunity outside of farming, plus, before WWI, young men faced the possibility of conscription into the Russian Military. Like so many Swedes who had already immigrated to the United States, the majority were young men and women. Their arrival in Norwood may have been due to letters written to friends and families by fellow Norwood Åland Landers encouraging them to come to Norwood.

Norwood’s Swedes built homes in and around the Cedar Street area. They had their own churches and shops, and created a Swedish community within the town. But all the while, they also managed to become a part of Norwood’s greater community.

The Finnish:

Like so many other European countries, a modern country, at one time many have been part of a different country, or even completely different countries.; such is the History of Finland. Its early history has its roots in Sweden, in 1809 it was part of Russia, and after the First World War, they finally became Finland. The Swedes brought Catholicism to Finland, and during the Protestant Reformation, the Finnish had adopted Lutheranism. During Russia’s rule of Finland, a nationalistic notion took hold; some Finns hoped they would become their own country. Toward the end of the 1800s, Russia dashed all hopes of this occurring. Two political ideologies surfaced at this time… the “Compliants,” who believed in following the rules of the Tsar, and the “Constitutionalists,” who advocated for passive resistance. The Church had to support the government, which caused great animosity and resentment among the Constitutionalists, who felt they could not trust the church. Furthering resentment, people were required to tithe, even if they could not afford it. Inability to pay did not absolve one from tithing. The church would help themselves to assets, often taking livestock to pay the debt. This growing distrust in the Church, paired with political difficulties, a lack of employment opportunities especially for the younger sons, as the eldest son usually inherited their parent’s estates, and factor in that young men also faced forced conscription into the Russian military, created the migration of Finns to the United States. The migration of Finns to the United States started around the time of the Industrial Revolution. As growing industries needed laborers and multitudes of Europeans answered the call. The bulk of the Finnish migration occurred between the late 1880s to the 1920s. They came to find a better life, leaving behind so many political and social issues, and yet they brought, what they must have thought was the best parts of their culture with them.

When the Finns arrived in Norwood, they built houses, saunas, shops and meeting halls, but they did not build any churches. It is interesting to note, that in just a few blocks of the Swedeville neighborhood there are three churches; the Swedish Baptists, the Swedish Lutherans and the Swedish Congregationalists. Records show us there was a large population of Finns in the neighborhood, and yet they do not have a church. Finns were not anti-religion. They just had a strong distaste for organized religion. They indeed celebrated Christian holidays, sent their children to Sunday School (at Finn Hall), and owned Finnish Bibles; they simply didn’t go to church. If a Finn attended religious services they tended to go to revival meetings, perhaps a service under a tent felt less “organized.” Once in Norwood, they created an organization to support Finnish workers, and built a meeting facility, Finn Hall on Chapel Court. Here they taught their children to speak Finnish, supported physical fitness, formed bands, held plays and programs. One of the main purposes of Finn Hall was to support Finnish culture, but the other was to create a socialist organization that supported all working Finns.

As Finns became more Americanized or married to people of other ethnic backgrounds, they slowly joined Churches where they found a religious home. To these subsequent generations of fully Americanized Finns, the many cultural and socialist programs Finn Hall supported seemed unimportant, and Finn Hall eventually forced to close its doors. Today very few Finnish families still live in Swedeville, but they have not gone very far. Norwood has many descendants of their original Finnish immigrant families still living in town.

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