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A poor peasant boy becomes a millionaire

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Picture courtesy GSF
In the 1800's in a place called "Abrahamsson's Garden", southwest of

the midsummer pole at Sommaro, Föglö in Åland, there stood a small gray cottage. It was the home of Karl Reinhold Abrahamsson and his wife Anna Sofia, known as Fia, and their four children, Alma Sofia, b. 1861, Karl Evert, b. 1864, Alma Julina, b. 1866, and Erik August, b. 1868.

Karl Reinhold was a sailor and while at sea his feet became so badly frostbitten that he had to return home and became the village shoemaker in order to support his family. At the age of 34, just 3 days after the birth of their youngest child, he died of gangrene.

Fia was now a widow with four small children to support on her own. No one on Åland today can imagine the level of poverty in which the family was forced to survive. Presumably she had some help from neighbors, but she had to work very hard at the farms to get something to feed her little ones. She struggled for four years, and then Carl and Erika Jansson, the owners of Östergård (the East Farm) in Sommaro, offered their home to son Karl Evert, aged 8, to ease the widow's struggle for food.

It was not easy for the little boy to leave his mother and the only home he knew, to go to live with strangers in a strange house. To make matters worse he could see the little gray cottage from the big farm house. He ran away twice and twice he was beaten with a rod by his mother and chased back. When he ran away the third time and his mother met him with the same rod, he gave up and remained at Östergård. Later in life he would understand his mother's harsh action. She had no choice. He had to remain with this kind family who offered him food and lodging, something which she in all her poverty could not give him.

Eventually Carl and Erika had 6 children of their own and Karl Evert became their big brother. At 15 he was confirmed in the church and, according to the custom at that time, he was considered an adult and expected to look after himself. But the only jobs Åland had to offer were those of a farm hand or as a sailor on the large sailing vessels. In order for a minor to get that job, he had to have written permission from his father and the pastor. Later in life he told how the kind wife of the pastor helped him get the necessary permission. He then spent two summers at sea, and during the winter he worked as a farm hand at Östergård.

In 1882 at age 18, he decided to go away, because there was no future for poor people on Åland. His dream was to go to America and earn a lot of money. There were several other boys with the same dream, so they decided to go to that great country where they could find money on the streets and cut gold with a knife.

An old homeless man named Dahlqvist gave them some advice before they left. "Work hard, boys, and you will survive." Karl Evert lived according to that advice. He worked very hard and in time he became a wealthy man.

His brother and two sisters also went to America. His younger brother Erik August became a land owner in Minnesota. After they were settled they sent money to their mother and built a new house for her, but she did not live in it for long because she also emigrated to America in 1896. She never could get used to her new life, but remained there until her death. Her small new house in Abrahamsson's garden was sold to the Landers family of Skogboda.

Karl Evert settled in Chicago, changed his name to Charles Edward Carson (C. E. Carson), and married Anna from Östergotland, Sweden. They had three children: Natalie, born 1894, Rosalie, b. 1900, and Carl. The son Carl became owner of a coffee plantation in Hawaii.

In 1906 Charles' wife Anna, the children and Anna's sister went to Sommaro, Östergård to visit. Charles did not go with them because he was busy trying to get ahead in the construction business. It was said that he went bankrupt twice before his luck turned. He named his firm "The General Contractors" and established a large company on Clark Street in Chicago. His firm constructed large buildings such as schools, also bridges and railroads, and the money poured in. Many emigrants from Åland worked for him during their years in America, such as Daniel Nylund from Björsboda, Föglö. During those years many people went to America, hoping to quickly earn as much money as possible and then to return home to buy a piece of land, or to renovate the old farm they planned to take over. It was a common practice that relatives and acquaintances helped each other in this far-away country. Charles was no exception. He was awarded a medal for founding The Swedish Club in Chicago and became its president.

Charles was a handsome, clean-living man, and also very generous. The Missionhuset (a free church building) in Sanda, Föglö was built in 1911 by local volunteers, with timber donated by local land owners. Money, which no one had, was needed to complete the building. "Östergård's Grandpa" sat down and wrote a letter to Charles in America asking for help. The money arrived and the building was completed. The same thing happened when a new organ was needed for the Föglö church in 1924. For years they had tried to raise the money, but failed. Charles was again asked for a contribution, the money arrived from America and the organ was installed.

Charles returned to Åland for the first time in 1926 with his wife Anna. He was 62 years old and it was his first visit since he emigrated. He was by then a wealthy and highly respected man. Before he went to Åland he was called to an audience with King Gustaf V at the royal palace in Stockholm, Sweden. The king awarded him the Vasa Order for his beneficial accomplishments for the Swedes at the Swedish Club in Chicago.

The couple visited friends and acquaintances around Åland, as well as visiting his foster home at Sommaro. He was generous in handing out gifts and money wherever he went. Helena, nee Nylund, still remembers receiving a doll from him at her home at Södergård, Björsboda, when he came to visit her father Daniel Nylund.

The couple also visited Föglö church where the pastor thanked Charles for his monetary contributions. Rudolf Jansson from Östergård, Sommaro still remembers that day. Charles wore his Vasa Order on his chest as he stood in church to thank the minister for his kind words, saying that he would always remember his childhood church and the pastor's wife who had prayed for him when he was a boy.

Before Charles and Anna Carson arrived on Åland, his friend Axel Liewendahl in Chicago had sent money to Fritiof Liewendahl in Mariehamn and asked him to have a big dinner party for them while there. It was a party long remembered as many of the old Föglö farmers sat down to dinner at Mariehamn's most elegant club "The Socis" which was full of people. It was said that the old farmer from Ollas, Sonboda remarked when entering the elegant restaurant, "I'll keep my galoshes on or someone might snatch them." Most of the guests had once worked for Charles and had received a good start in life, so they came to say thanks to him.

Throughout his visit he was generous and gave out 1,000 mark bills. People wondered how he could have this much money and whether it was his own. It was easy to see why people talked because money was scarce in those days, and since he was the poorest of the poor from Sommaro, could he really be that rich? Yes, he was the richest man ever to come from Östersocknens (The eastern district of Föglö).

This was his first and only visit to his homeland, but he never forgot his friends and his foster home in Sommaro, and he kept in touch through all the years. When Rudolf and Helena (nee Nylund) married in 1947 they received a hundred dollar bill from Charles as a wedding present. In the 1960's Natalie and her daughter Jessi-Ann went to Östergård. They had rented a car in Germany and drove around visiting relatives. They brought coffee from her brother's coffee plantation and a large sea shell from Hawaii as gifts. The shell still has an honored place at Östergård.

Each Christmas a greeting from America always arrives, but now it comes from his granddaughter Jessi-Ann. Charles Carson is long since dead, but his memory lingers on. That of a poor destitute boy who dared to take fate into his own hands, worked and became a wealthy and respected man. In March 1996 a letter arrived from Jessi-Ann telling Rudolf that her mother Natalie had passed away at the age of 101 years. The contact is still unbroken despite the fact that more than 100 years has passed since Charles emigrated. His second home was Östergård which his grandchildren will not forget.

Written by Marlene Sjöblom, published in "Gammalt och Nytt", Föglö, March 1996 Translated from Swedish by Hjördis Sundblom

June Pelo

Jessie-Ann wrote to me that the immigration officer suggested that her grandfather use the name Charles Edward Carson, which he shortened to C. E. Carson. He and Anna had two surviving daughters, Natalia, born 1894, and Rosalie, born in 1900. They lost a stillborn son and an infant daughter. "Son Carl" probably refers to her brother Charles Edward Nelson who lives in Hawaii but does not own a coffee plantation. They regarded their grandfather as comfortably well-off but not a millionaire. He was always very generous with family and friends. When she and her mother visited Åland in 1971 they were surprised and delighted to learn of his generosity. They are proud of both their grandparents who came alone to the United States as immigrant teenagers and made a good life for themselves. Charles' achievements are noteworthy, considering that he had no formal education.

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