Touched By Chicago's Swedish History

There used to be a saying, “The Swedes built Chicago.”  

Looking around the city today, however, you wouldn’t know Swedish immigrants made up Chicago’s fifth largest foreign-born group until 1960. The Swedish-born population peaked at 70,000 in 1930 and declined to just over 7,000 in 1970.

Various neighborhoods once were predominantly Swedish. Around 1870 there was a “Swede Town” on the Near North Side as well as Swedish enclaves on the South and West sides. Later generations migrated to three North Side neighborhoods: Lakeview around Belmont and Sheffield, Andersonville at Foster and Clark, and North Park at Foster and Kedzie. There also were concentrations of Swedes in Austin and Belmont Cragin.

One continuous Swedish community didn’t span Foster Avenue between Andersonville and North Park, as we speculated in the comments of my earlier post on North Park. Swedish settlers arrived in these neighborhoods at different times and other ethnic communities separated the Swedish ones.

I grew up in North Park, though until recently I didn’t know about its origins as a Swedish community. In my day Scandinavians kids were in the minority at Peterson Elementary School and it never occurred to me their predecessors founded the neighborhood. But from childhood on, I felt an inexorable pull towards Scandinavian culture and I wonder, can a neighborhood’s ethnic history, even when it’s unknown or forgotten, have the power to touch the lives of its residents?

Here’s my evidence:

 1.  Mrs. Ogren, a Swedish widow who lived two doors to the south of us on Central Park, helped our family as babysitter and housekeeper. She didn’t need the money, my mother insisted, but wanted to keep busy. I considered Mrs. Ogren very old because her hair was pure white and always in a bun, but perhaps she wasn’t as old as I imagined. My mother often said Mrs. Ogren is as strong as a horse because she lifted all the furniture to clean thoroughly. Although I remember wishing she would watch something other than Perry Mason and Lawrence Welk, even as child I appreciated her impossible-to-match standards of cleanliness and neatness. I have the vague sense she shared her knowledge of household management and handicrafts with me, but for the life of me I can’t remember a thing.



2.  I was eight the day I first saw Swedish clogs and fell in love with them, but it wasn’t until the early seventies that I got my first pair and I’ve been wearing them ever since. As Carol Barstow said in a comment to my previous post, “…to be truly fashionable at Von [Von Steuben High School], you had to have clogs from the Sweden Shop.”


3.  Hard to believe, but in the sixties the menu at the original Ann Sather’s on Belmont Avenue seemed very foreign. My father’s office was a few blocks away and occasionally he would take us there for dinner, but the only food I would eat, besides the cinnamon rolls of course, were the Swedish pancakes and ligonberries.



4.  About 30 years ago I bought a copy of The Cooking of Scandinavia at Booksellers Row, one of the best used book stores the city has seen. I studied it carefully but open-faced sandwiches are the only recipe I ever made.

5.  For several years during the seventies I was never without striped Marimekko T-shirts in my closet and flowered Marimekko sheets on my bed.  The card shown above is from an exhibition the IIT campus several years ago.

6.  During the summer of 1973 I had the opportunity to go abroad with Putney Student Travel. Of all the regions in the world, I chose Scandinavia.

7. My sister’s two sons are of Norwegian descent on their father’s side.

8.  I’ve already discussed my fascination with Kungsholm and its signature smorgasbord.

How about you? Know any Swedish influences on Chicago?

Source: Encyclopedia of Chicago Online.

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19 Responses to Touched By Chicago's Swedish History

  1. Danny April 12, 2010 at 11:21 am #

    Do my intense crushes on several Swedish girls at Peterson School count as Swedish influences? The accidental mixing of those two cultures in our neighborhood would have made a fascinating sociological study. I know of several Jewish-Swedish marriages that resulted. Swedish pancakes with lingonberries is one of my all-time Chicago favs, whether it’s Ann Sather’s or Tre Kronor’s. And I always liked gravlax AND regular Jewish lox! Jews and Swedes bonding through smoked salmon? Amazing to think that at one time Chicago was the city with the second largest population of Swedes (after Stockholm). But in my experience, the Swedish kids didn’t seem as connected to their Swedish roots as did, say, my Polish friends. The only one I remember who could speak Swedish was Karen Soneson, and that’s just because she went to live there for a while.

  2. frances728 April 12, 2010 at 12:55 pm #

    Crushes count. The fifties would have been a good time to study the area: the Jewish population was booming and the Scandinavian population was aging, assimiliating and moving away. Part of the reason few of our Scandinavian classmates spoke their native languages may have been that they were were third and fourth generation Swedish-Americans. As early as 1899, the founding fathers of the church at North Park were lamenting services would have to be conducted in English because “so many young people could not understand a Swedish sermon.” (“Building a Swedish Community in Chicago,” Anita Olson Gustafson

  3. Carol Barstow April 12, 2010 at 5:31 pm #

    We also had a touch of Norway on our block — remember your next door neighbor Mrs. Fleck from Norway? Thanks for continuing this interesting discussion. I think by the time I got to Von, the Swedish kids outnumbered the Jewish kids, as most of the Jewish families had already moved out to the suburbs. They were nice kids and I always admired their sense of community and heritage (and, of course, the cool clogs!). It would be interesting to know more about the history of Andersonville. My father had his business there(on Clark Street), but I always remember hearing Spanish, not Swedish, being spoken on the streets. (I agree that the lingonberry pancakes at Ann Sathers are great!)

  4. frances728 April 12, 2010 at 5:52 pm #

    Carol, I don’t know how I forgot to include the Flecks in my story. Of course we learned a great deal about Norwegian culture from Mrs. Fleck. My mother has stayed in touch with her all these years, though she has a different name now. I saw her last fall at my father’s memorial. Her daughter converted to Orthodox Judaism, so that is another example of the two ethnic groups influencing each other.

  5. Bonnie McGrath April 12, 2010 at 11:14 pm #

    i had several swedish friends at senn…and really loved being friends with them.

    i have a good friend today who was born and raised in sweden and i am crazy about her, too.. in fact we are getting together this week.

    my best friend on state street (a psychiatrist yet!) was norwegian–and i was devastated when she moved to north carolina several years ago…. but she does come back to chicago to visit.

    when i was a teenager, my family went to all the scandinavian countries with several of my parents’ friends and their kids, too.. i loved that trip–and so did my parents.. they were out all night meeting swedes and finns and danes and norwegians for weeks, making true friends!!!

    nelson algren was born in an enclave on the south side that was scandinavian i believe and then moved to albany park… i have always been fascinated by nelson algren, who may have some scandinavian roots–but it is a mystery as to how much of him was scandinavian (if any) and how much jewish..

    there was a scandinavian enclave near logan square at one time, too, i think..

  6. Scotti Cohn April 19, 2010 at 3:32 pm #

    My aunt married a man of Swedish descent, and they lived in Chicago for many years before moving to the Milwaukee area. His last name was Linquist. I don’t know if there is any connection, but my aunt used to make the most amazing Swedish meatballs!

  7. Richard Jacobson April 26, 2010 at 4:55 pm #

    I grew up in North Park in the house my great-grandfather built in the 1890s. We have some pictures that suggest it was one of the first houses in the area. It is on Sawyer Ave. just north of Foster. My grandfather and grandmother lived in the downstairs apartment, we lived on the second floor. My grandfather was a pastor at N.P. Covenant Church.
    When I went to Petersen School I was a minority. (I’m of Swedish/Norwegian descent.) The entire school emptied out on the Jewish High Holidays. Now I’m converted to Judaism–my wife and kids are Jewish. So I guess the ethnic influences work both ways.
    I have fond memories of Signe Carlson’s bakery on Foster–the BEST limpa bread!–wandering around North Park Academy/College campus, buying comic books at Zeman’s drug store on the corner of Foster and Spaulding–now the Sweden Shop–eating french fries at Lorrie’s on Foster & Sawyer–now a Starbuck’s!!

  8. frances728 April 26, 2010 at 5:26 pm #

    Richard, I couldn’t remember the name of Lorrie’s, even thought the owner’s daughter, Gayle, was in my grade school class. And the bakery also sounds familiar. I’ve been doing a bit more research on the Swedish founders of the community and would love to get some information from you, and maybe you’ll share photos of the house. I’ll email you separately later this week. Thanks for your commments.

  9. pauline starck May 25, 2010 at 10:59 pm #

    I think that I am probably a generation older than most of you who have posted comments. I remember “Sokatch” restaurant on Foster avenue where “Mr Sokatch” served incredible grilled cheese sandwiches and the very best chocolate malts I have ever, ever had!As a treat we would sometimes walk to the restaurant from Von Stueben on our lunch hour. I lived on the 5400 block of Sawyer Ave in a red brick bungalow. Daily I cut through the North Park Academy campus in my way to school. Yes, Signe Carlson’s bakery was a delight! UMMM those butter cookies. Peterson school was my grammar school and that was only a block or so from my home. The Erickson family were lovey neighbors who had twins. Mr E. was a professer at North Park. Ahh memories!

  10. Frances May 26, 2010 at 7:08 am #

    Pauline, check out all the stores people have recalled on the Bryn Mawr Avenue posts as well. I’m curious if you remember any others.

  11. Gregory Sager July 20, 2010 at 10:25 am #

    North Park University, my alma mater, still retains very strong ties to the mother country. It has a Center for Scandinavian Studies, a student-exchange program with a sister school in Sweden, and it’s one of only three or four universities in the U.S. that still offers a major in Swedish. And, as anyone who sets foot on the campus will tell you, it still has a plethora of blonde, blue-eyed students with boring patronymic surnames like Johnson, Anderson, Nelson, Erickson, Carlson, etc. The difference is that these fourth-generation Swedish-Americans no longer hail from the city of Chicago; they’re either from the suburbs or, more often, from places like Minnesota, New England, California, Washington state, Nebraska, etc.

    North Park University is the lone institution of higher education of the Evangelical Covenant Church, the Swedish-founded Protestant denomination whose adherents settled the North Park neighborhood in the 1890s. The denomination also owns and operates Swedish Covenant Hospital at Foster and California avenues. The denominational headquarters is still located on Francisco Avenue, adjacent to the hospital, although it will shortly be moving to Rosemont out by O’Hare.

    The North Park and Austin neighborhoods are the only places of which I’m aware where Swedish and Jewish populations settled adjacent to each other. In a lot of other places — Rockford, Worcester MA, Jamestown NY, the Iron Range of northern Minnesota — it was Swedes and Italians. Old-timers in Rockford still talk about the “meatball wars” in which the Swedish boys from the east side and the Italian boys from the west side would meet on the Rock River bridge in the middle of downtown and rumble.

  12. Frances Archer July 20, 2010 at 10:40 am #

    Interesting that North Park University has evolved from a local school to a national/international one. Thank you so much for bringing me up to date. There’s not much left to show North Park was once a Swedish community but what’s left seems to really endure. I’m thinking of the Sweden Shop and Tre Kronor, which of course is relatively recent. I am hoping to do some research in the North Park library as well as Andersonville’s Swedish Museum in the near future.

  13. Gregory Sager July 21, 2010 at 1:58 pm #

    North Park’s always been a national school, in that the Covenant has always been a nationally-based denomination. Covenant churches from Maine to California have been sending their children to the corner of Foster & Kedzie since 1894. I’m a product of that far-flung diaspora; I was raised in upstate New York in a Covenant family, came to North Park to attend college, and fell in love with Chicago and never left.

    But North Park has always had a strong local flavor, too, in that nearby residents, representing a wide diversity of faiths and ethnic backgrounds, have also availed themselves of a North Park education from the very beginning. That’s why, in addition to a Center for Scandinavian Studies, North Park University also has a Center for Latino Studies, a Center for Africana Studies, and a Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

  14. ray raffel December 6, 2010 at 1:59 pm #

    My aunt and uncle owned a restaurant for some years on Foster Avenue on a corner near North Park College. They were Millie and Earl. I just can’t recall his last name, although I think it may have been Larson. He was a retired CTA bus driver. I think this must have been in the 50’s. They had it a few years before he passed away from cancer. I also remember my Swedish grandparents with the women in the kitchen and the men sitting around playing pinochle and speaking in Swedish. The food was Swedish meatballs,lingen berries, hardtack, goat cheese, pickled crabapples and pears, of course red and green at Christmas. and bakery goods from Signe Carlson Bakery. Yesterday our neighbor brought over a cardamom bread, and this started the memories all over again. What nice thoughts this busy time of year. Anyond remember Millie and Earl?

  15. Frances Archer December 6, 2010 at 2:19 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your recollections of this forgotten corner of the area’s Swedish heritage. I’ll ask around and see if someone remembers the place.

  16. John Erickson January 9, 2011 at 8:58 pm #

    Wasberg’s “Varsity Inn” was a restaurant on Foster between Spaulding and Sawyer in the 30s with complete Sunday dinners for $0.55. “Pete” Peterson’s barber shop was next to Socatch. On Bryn Mawr there were Nordeen’s grocery, Carlstedt’s fish market, and Heinemann’s across the street from Jewel, Dutch Mill. National Tea, and Woolworths. Braverman’s Drug Store was on the corner, a dry good store on the north. Lee’s Chop Suey, Weiner’s Delicatessin, Denbo’s Ice Cream, Gold Medal Cleaners, and around the corner on Kimball Ivar and Ann Lambert’s Swedish Deli. Oscar’s barber shop next door. Dave’s pharmacy was west of Kimball. The gas station at BrynMawr and Kimball gave free glasses and pitcher with fill-up of gas at 18 cents a gallon. The Terminal, Metro, and Alba theaters were our Saturday destinatioln. Riding bikes on the clay hills along the canal. NBC baseball at River Park where Marv Rotblat of the Rangers (later UofI and the White Sox) overwhelmed the rest of us. ,

  17. Frances Archer January 9, 2011 at 9:31 pm #

    Wow. What great details. I’m tempted to add a Foster Ave. business hall of fame to my Bryn Mawr page. Those glasses and pitcher promotions lasted into the late 1950s and early 1060s. We had some of those glasses with the different color rings, and I still have a few. And clay hills along the canal–I hadn’t heard about that. This has the makings of a new post.

  18. S. Olson April 4, 2013 at 10:19 am #

    I really enjoyed reading this and all the comments along with it. I don’t know how I stumbled upon it, but being of 100% Swedish descent and from Chicago, it intrigued me! Both of my parents, and many other family members attended and currently attend NPU. Although i did not grow up in the area, I did grow up going to the Swedish bakery with my Farmor and Tre Kronor for delicious brunch. Wearing swedish clogs, making swedish pancakes and smorgasbord, singing swedish christmas carols, taking part in st lucia traditions, and watching pippi longstocking are just a very few of the ways my family raised us kids incorporating our swedish heritage. We are very proud of our Swedish heritage and I often think that if I did not play a division 1 sport in college that I would have attended NPU instead and would already be married to a blonde hair, blue eyed Swedish man and have cute little blonde haired, blue eyed babies. Although I feel as though the pride and sense of the Swedish community has much diminished, unlike the strong polish communities, my parents and grandparents have raised me and my siblings with a very strong sense of honor and pride for our background; and for that I am truly grateful. We also share a very strong faith and attend Evangelical Covenant churches. We are very proud to be of Swedish descent and I am truly proud to have been raised by a family that has taken such pride in our ancestry and where we are from. I only wish that my swedish speaking Grandparents and mother would have taught us how to speak the Swedish language as well and as fluently as they do! I hope to instill the same pride and honor of being Swedish that my family has given to me to my family and to my children someday and to carry on the memories and traditions of my Swedish family or many many years to come.

  19. Frances Archer April 5, 2013 at 8:16 pm #

    Thank you for visiting and sharing your memories of Swedish North Park. I’ve always felt a strong affinity for Swedish culture and have wondered if that was a result of having grown up along side the dwindling Swedish community of North Park. I too cherish many Swedish customs and visited Sweden, so I think there must have been some influence from the neighborhood. When I was growing up in the sixties in the area, there were few Swedish owned businesses remaining. However, when I’ve talked to people who grew up in Hollywood Park during the forties, there remember Swedish delis, bakeries, barber shops and clothing stores on Bryn Mawr and Foster avenues. It’s a subject I’ve wanted to pursue more in depth when I have a chance to do some research. I still want to write more about Pehr Peterson and his family.

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