Rockford’s Swedish Heritage

Most of us have designated places for storage.  Maybe it’s a storage closet or room, or the basement simply becomes a depository for all things storage.  Sometimes we wish for more room for everything that somehow piles up!  Even Midway Village must continually address storage issues as its collection grows year after year.  Before the twentieth century, most homes did not have large storage spaces.  Closets were small and cramped.  Most people kept large trunks to store their items like bed sheets and other linens.

This Swedish trunk was originally used as a bridal chest.  A bridal chest, or brudkista, was used by a young woman to hold an accumulation of linens that she would take into her marriage.  It was usually made a member of her family or a village carpenter.  Her initials and date of birth would be included in the decoration.  This chest was built in 1780-90s and is made of oak.  It measures 5 x 2 x 2 feet with its curved top.

The bridal chest was decorated with floral designs, sometimes including images such as birds and hearts, to symbolize love and prosperity.  Light blue, greens, and reds were popular colors used to accent its beauty.  As seen on its front, this chest was owned by a woman with the initials B.B.D. and who was most likely born in the year (ano) 1763.

The trunk’s key has a unique star shape in its blade.

Swedish engagements were long, sometimes lasting seven years.  During this time, the bride-to-be would weave, sew, and embroider dozens of towels and bed linens.  The groom also kept a chest, a brudgumskista, that he would fill with carved plates, mugs, and spoons, as well as items related to harvesting flax.  When the two married, they would then have the necessities for their new home.  Through the years, this chest may have been used for other storage, such as extra blankets and pillows, and then passed down through from daughter to daughter as a hope chest, or hoppas kista.

Inside of this trunk was a document written in Swedish by Hokan A. Lofgren in 1934.  The document explained that Hokan purchased the chest in 1912 in Skåne, Sweden from the great-granddaughter of the original owner, Bengta Bengtsdotter, for whom the chest was built.  Little is known of the owner and the use of this particular trunk.

Hokan Albin Lofgren was born in Smoland, Sweden in 1882.  He came to Rockford with his family in 1928 on the S.S. Gripsholm, pictured below.  The trunk most likely traveled with them aboard the ship as they headed to new opportunities.

Swedish immigrants came to Rockford in mass in 1852 for social betterment.  Many Swedes saw no opportunity for themselves in a place where they were kept on the bottom rung of the social ladder.  America promised work, growing industries, cheap land, lower taxes, higher standards of living, and religious freedom.  Letters and gifts from America came home to relatives in Sweden, inspiring young Swedes to make new lives for themselves in the country across the Atlantic.

A majority of emigrating Swedes came from rural communities.  Those who made their way to Chicago were encouraged to seek the farming communities to the west.  At this time, the Galena & Chicago Railroad was still being built, and had not reached the end of its line.  But the Swedes jumped on the train to take it as far west as it could go.  They got off in Rockford at Kishwaukee Street.  The line was completed in Freeport the very next year.  Among these newcomers were P.A. Peterson, a giant in Rockford’s furniture industry, and John Nelson of the Nelson Knitting Factory (and Rockford’s claim to sock monkey fame).

Had the line been completed in 1852, Rockford would not the same as it is today.  Rockford has more Swedish-Americans per person than any other city in the U.S.  In fact, Borgholm, Sweden has been a Sister City to Rockford since August 2002 as a celebration of the sesquicentennial of the arrival of the Swedes.

Hokan Lofgren and his family were living in Rockford by 1933, according to the city directory.  The family attended Swedish Methodist Church.  Hokan worked as a laborer at the Rockford Drop Forge Company (with president P.A. Peterson!), which made drop forgings for automobiles.  But Hokan was also an inventor.  He designed a new clothesline reel that was patented in 1949.  The patent can be viewed here: http://books.google.com/patents/about?id=TSVzAAAAEBAJ

The Swedes who brought chests like this one with them to America came with a dream of advancing themselves and their families.  The hard-working entrepreneurs made the city world-wide leaders in the tool and furniture industry.  They also influenced culture in Rockford through music, theater, and art because they were never willing to give up reminders of where they came from.  Rockford would certainly look much different today without its Swedish heritage.

Special thanks to Leah Nelson and Irene Oldson!

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Rockford’s Swedish Heritage

  1. If you like Rockford manufacturing history,check out the oldwoodward history web site. Today Woodward is the world’s oldest and largest designer and manufacturer of prime mover controls. At the Heart of the System since 1870. All because Amos Walter Woodward moved to Rockford in 1856.

  2. Britt Drews

    Hokan Lofgren was my Great Grandfather! This was a fun thing to stumble upon when I was actually searching for his patents (I plan to print them out as artwork in our home). His daughter, Anna (my grandma) was also a note taker. After she passed away we found she had left little notes in many of her things with explanations of where they came from. Hokan was apparently a unique man who was always inventing. In my grandparents garage they had several bicycles (that were Hokan inventions) made stationary, that when pedaled would turn a large grinding stone for sharpening knives. Thank you for the fun find.

  3. Thanks for the excellent article

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