Accelerating Downtown GR's transition to a best-in-class American city.
Swedish Americans have lived in West Michigan since the 1850s, but their numbers increased dramatically in the 1870s, when many were fleeing famine and a shortage of workable farmland in Sweden. This was also the period when the railroads were being built, and railroad companies in need of labor welcomed and even recruited Swedes. A group of railroad companies hired an Episcopal minister named J.P. Tustin from Grand Rapids to recruit workers in Sweden, offering a package that included some travel expenses for their families and an opportunity to own land in a parcel purchased by the railroads north of Grand Rapids. That parcel became the town of New Bleking, now named Tustin.
As the railroads were completed, Swedish Americans left towns like New Bleking for cities like Grand Rapids to find new work. Many had woodworking skills and helped to build the furniture industry here.
The Swedish American Heritage Society of West Michigan was founded in 1997 “to promote a spirit of kinship among the Swedish American community.” Their offices are here in downtown Grand Rapids, but they offer events at a variety of locations in honor of traditional Swedish festivals, which they describe on their website:
In Sweden Valborgsmässoafton (Walpurgis Night) is celebrated on the evening of April 30th, but SAHS usually has its get together on the first Saturday in May. We light the traditional bonfire, join in choral singing and delight in the fact that this evening marks the end of winter and the coming of spring.
The summer solstice, the longest day of the year, is celebrated on the weekend closest to June 24th. We decorate and dance around the maypole and feast on pickled herring, new potatoes and strawberries.
Lucia day is on December 13th, but we celebrate it on the Saturday closest to that date. She brings us the light of faith and goodwill and the promise of the sun's return. The SAHS Lucia procession is a grand and very popular event.
Cover image courtesy SAHS.