Anna Bengtson rose each morning at 4:30 and fed wood to the stove that warmed their farmhouse. Then it was time to make breakfast for the men. There were oxen to feed, cows to milk, and always, more wood to cut. For the Bengtsons, farm life in Middletown was in many ways similar to the life they had left in rural Sweden.
Anders Bengtson was a teenager when he left Smaland about 1882 to sail for America. He lived briefly in Brooklyn, New York, which had a growing Swedish community, and there met his bride, Anna. After the two married, they came to Connecticut where Anders worked in the Portland brownstone quarries, driving teams of oxen that hauled massive slabs of stone to the river to be loaded on ships. As was the case with many immigrants, they stayed with family for several years while saving for their own home. In 1894, Anna and Anders were able to buy an old farm in the Maromas section of town, recreating in some measure the rural life of their Swedish homeland.
During the late 1800s, poor harvests and a depressed economy led thousands of Swedes to leave their homeland. Swedish immigrants first began coming to the Middletown area in sizeable numbers in 1871. That year, Irish laborers in the brownstone quarries went on strike, leading quarry owners to recruit Swedish immigrants as they arrived in New York. Many Irish here greeted the Swedish workers with hostility, and tensions between the two groups remained high for some time. While Swedish men worked as quarrymen or farmhands, Swedish women were valued as domestic servants, and often began their lives in Middletown as cooks or maids.
Middletown’s Swedes quickly advanced into other professions. Some families, like the Bengtsons, were able to own their own farms; others were craftsmen or factory workers. Swedish immigrant Henry Hanson, who was foreman and later factory manager at Wilcox, Crittenden & Company, hired many of his countrymen to work for the company. Others were grocers, police officers, milliners, and painters.
In 1891, the Swedish community in Middletown was large enough to form the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Tabor Church, building their house of worship in 1895 at the corner of High and Liberty Streets. The congregation built a larger church on Washington Street in 1958, renaming it Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church. Although the church has been holding services in English since 1922, the parish, with a bow to its many members of Swedish ancestry, celebrates Swedish traditions such as the Saint Lucia festival each December.
Interior of the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran
Tabor Church, about 1926
Courtesy of Henry Hanson
By 1891, over 30 Swedish families called Middletown home. In September of that year, they began worshipping together in Middletown’s town hall. Two months later, they officially formed the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Tabor Church.
Within a year, the congregation had laid the cornerstone for their first church, at the corner of High and Liberty streets. Parishioners erected the building’s frame themselves; each male church member pledged two days labor or paid the equivalent ($1.50 per day). The church was completed in the spring of 1895.
For over a quarter of a century, its pastors conducted services in Swedish, and the choir sang Swedish hymns. But among the American-born children and grandchildren of the immigrants, the desire grew for services in English. In 1922, the church began holding two services each Sunday, one in English and the one in Swedish.
In the late 1940s the congregation decided to build a new house of worship on Washington Street. The Shiloh Baptist Church bought the old church building, which they used until fire destroyed it in 1973.
Henry and Ellen (Lindholm) Hanson
Courtesy of Henry Hanson, Jr.
Anna Hanson stood at the gate of their farm on a spring day in 1885 as her 16-year-old son Henning departed for America. She crossed herself, calling, “Gud vare med dej, min son” (God be with you, my son), as he disappeared from view. It was the last time she and Henning saw each other.
Henning had grown up in Svalas, in Sweden’s Smaland region, one of 11 children of Anna and August Hanson. Scant harvests and poor economic prospects led many young people to immigrate to the United States; Henning came in 1885 to Middletown, where two of his older sisters had settled. Here he Americanized his name to Henry Hanson, and worked briefly as a farmhand and then in a fertilizer factory.
At age 21, Henry began working at Wilcox, Crittenden & Co., a local manufacturer of marine hardware, earning six dollars for a 60-hour week. In 1900, he married Ellen Maria Lindholm, daughter of Swedish immigrants who had a farm in the Newfield section of town.
In time, Henry advanced to foreman of the Wilcox Crittenden machine shop, and finally to general factory manager. In his later years, he owned an insurance company in Middletown.
Anders and Kristina Lindholm and family
Courtesy of Henry Hanson
Anders Isaelsson Lindholm and his wife Kristina Lovisa Fornelius were among the first Swedes to come to Portland. Anders began working at the brownstone quarries in 1871, when quarry owners hired Swedish immigrants to replace the Irish laborers who had gone on strike for higher wages.
In 1894 the Lindholms were able to buy a farm in Middletown’s Westfield area. Their large family included Ellen (back row, far left), who married Swedish immigrant Henry Hanson. Another daughter, Edith, graduated from Connecticut College for Women and married Middletown native Raymond Baldwin, who was to become governor of Connecticut.
Middletown, about 1925
Courtesy of Warren Bengtson
Anna and Anders Bengtson came from Smaland, a rural region of Sweden, so it was natural that they gravitated toward an agrarian life similar to what they had known in the old country. Anna’s day began at 4:30 when she rose to make breakfast for the men before they did their farm chores. Her work on the farm would have been constant, in addition to raising their eight children.
Anna also was accomplished weaver, using skills she had learned in Sweden. Anders, adept at carpentry, made the large wooden loom where Anna sat and worked. She also played a small organ in the family’s parlor, singing Swedish songs to her children and grandchildren.
Anders Bengston and children
Middletown, about 1900
Courtesy of Warren Bengtson
In 1894, 12 years after immigrating to the United States, Anders Bengtson was able to buy a farm for his family on Bear Hill Road. He spent much of his time logging, cutting trees that he sold for railroad ties and lumber, using oxen to haul the huge logs away. As soon as they were old enough, Anders’ four sons helped with the woodcutting, splitting logs for firewood for their own home and to heat the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church.
The farm also included a small dairy operation, supplying milk to many of Middletown’s Swedish families. In addition, the Bengtsons grew witch-hazel and always had a large vegetable garden.
Their Own Stories: Voices From Middletown’s Melting Pot – Index