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It's About Time

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By Sylvia Jorgensen

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Sylvia’s father, Sig Johnson, was of Swedish-Finn ancestry and played the accordion for dances. It was natural that Sylvia followed in his footsteps and formed her own dance band when just fourteen years old. She worked her way through college performing on the accordion and became an elementary music specialist in Puyallup Schools. She formed the Fjordsong Band in the 80’s and became active again in the Scandinavian community. (Their first show in Astoria was in 1986). They twice played for Skadi-fest in Turlock, CA and several times for Scandinavian Days in Chisholm MN.

I love music and I’m one of those “Scandahoovian squeezebox” players. I thank Daddy for that. His talent for accordion playing was passed on to me. My Swedish-Finn father made sure I knew how to schottische at the ripe ol’ age of five and play “Life in the Finnish Woods” on the accordion by the time I was twelve. Daddy left this world in the prime of life, only 52 years of age, but he left me with a wonderful heritage of music. Oh, how he and my mother loved to dance! They danced every weekend for years. They fostered an appreciation for Scandinavian music, food, and customs in our home. How lucky we were to receive our presents the night BEFORE Christmas while our non-Scandinavian friends had to wait for Santa Claus’ delivery in the morning! How joyous is the memory of Mama or Grandma in the kitchen whipping up tasty Scandinavian pastries. The first Sunday morning after I was married, a desperate long distance call was made to my father: “Daddy, what is the recipe for Swedish pancakes?” I wanted to start my marriage out right and “Sunday morning Swedish pancakes” was our family tradition.

The spring of 2000, I hurt my shoulder. Heaven forbid -- I could no longer do housework! I could not pull the squeezebox. So what could I do? Genealogy, of course! Diana Erickson, a genealogist I met at Sons of Norway in Everett, gave me pointers on how to enter information into a genealogy program on the computer. I sat by the hour, glued to the screen, scanning the Internet, and typing furiously to get all those dates and names of relatives correct, as if there was a deadline to meet! And it was fun! It was exciting! This is something that stirred my American Swedish-Finn and Norwegian blood!

The day I walked into the Swedish-Finn reading room in Ballard a whole new world opened up. I had been to Finland. I’d even found the family farm, Staffans No. #1, in Sundom, Vasa. But I wasn’t prepared for the new family name, the wandering family that was mine, and the subsequent connection to June Pelo, a genealogist in Florida who turned out to be a shirttail relative. It was a happy exciting day full of wonder! Don Forsman directed me to books where I found that I was part of the Kaino-Staffans family from Nedervetil. How interesting! They were the Norrby Hill crowd at Staffans, the “North people” who had wandered south.

Ahh..wonderful E-mail! June checked with a genealogist in Finland and suddenly I had a whole family tree! My ancestors had wandered across the ice back in the 1400’s from Sweden to Finland. Some had intermarried with Finns but mainly they were Swedish, living along the west coast.

Grandpa Charlie was a kick! He was so happy-go-lucky! He always had a tune to sing and a wide smile and I loved it when he came to visit. He would scoop me up in his arms and “doodle-de-doo” me around the room in a polka dance. He helped Daddy build the new house in Olympia. Grandpa, Charlie Johnson, and his sons, Evert, Lennart, and Stig, all worked at the Olympia Veneer Mill. He died shortly after we moved away. Daddy bought into the Anacortes Veneer Plant, made up primarily of Swedish-Finn stockholders, and we relocated to Fir Island near Mt. Vernon. We lived on the farm where my mother, Edna Hanseth, grew up. Daddy drove to Anacortes to work at the plant. I enjoyed living close to my maternal grandparents and cousins in an area of Norwegian emigrants and their families. We went to the Fir-Conway Church and attended activities at the Sons of Norway in Conway. Later, we moved closer to Anacortes and went to Order of Runeburg meetings and dances. There was always toe-tapping accordion music provided either by Daddy or accordionists, Inga Ericks or Nyma Sandwick.

When I was in high school, Daddy found out he had relatives in Finland. Grandpa Charlie’s wife had died in 1913, leaving behind four small children, 18 months to 7 years. He hired a Swedish lady, Selma Fridlund, to care for the children and later married her. Grandpa didn’t talk about the past. Daddy, Sigfrid Waldemar Johnson, knew he was born in Plumville, Pennsylvania on November 20, 1908, but assumed he was Swedish. They spoke Swedish at home and learned Swedish songs. After all, he had been but four years old when his mother died. His only remembrances of her were outdoor “visits” in a tent (where she could breathe more easily), and the white coffin. Thanks to a request for help during World War II, we found out about her family. She had come from Finland, not Sweden! She had a brother, Carl Carlson, in Seattle and a sister, Johanna Lindstrom, who had lived in Lake Stevens! There were cousins in Finland! My parents sent them coffee, towels, and other staples. The relatives sent me a small copper teakettle and a wooden doll dressed in a Munsala costume. Daddy contacted the cousins in Lake Stevens. They gave him the name and birth date of his mother, Maria Mathilda Norrholm (1887-1913). Maria had left Kvevlax, Finland when just sixteen and died when she was twenty-six of some kind of lung disease.

In 1959, one of my dad’s cousins from Finland, Agda Rönnqvist, came to visit us. She was a schoolteacher and a wonderful pianist. Our genes were definitely similar! By this time, I had graduated from college and was teaching music in Clover Park Schools. Cousin Adga visited my classrooms and played music with us. When she left for home, she extended an invitation to come to Finland “someday.” Sadly, the day never came for Daddy because he died of heart failure two years later. Twenty years later, Mother and I made the trip to Finland. We were introduced to my grandmother Maria’s family. They were musicians and woodworkers, just like us. It was a thrill! We learned that Grandpa Charlie and Maria had met on the boat coming to America. We did not know where to find any descendants of Grandpa Charlie’s family, but it was enough for the time being to find Grandma Maria’s roots. Cousin Agda promised to make inquiries about Daddy’s side of the family.

I heard about the Swedish-Finn Historical Society from a neighbor, Sandy Shields. She and I were friends and antique scavengers. One day she called to say, “Guess what! I’m not Swedish. My relatives are from Åland, Finland and there is a club in Seattle made up of Swedish-Finns!” I joined, of course! I even discovered that a relative of mine, Vera Olson of Ballard, was a member. Her grandmother and Daddy’s grandmother were sisters. About this time, my first cousin, Lyn Thompson, found a box of old photos in her father’s attic. They were taken in Pennsylvania and we soon realized they were wedding photos of our grandpa Charlie and his brothers. We sorted and made copies of the photos but then stored them away in a trunk. Other interests took precedence. I retired from teaching and began working more with my music. I devoted time to performance with my newly organized dance band. I dropped out of the Swedish-Finn club. Sandy had died. Vera had died. I still had good intentions to put what I knew of my family down in “black and white” so I could pass it on to my four sons. But how would I find the time?

In 1994, our Fjordsong Band was in Upsala, Sweden to perform. My brother Paul (drummer) and my husband and I made a hurried trip to Finland. We were taken to my grandfather’s home place in Sundom. It was the Staffans farm where he was born! Cousin Agda had done her homework! Paul and I found out we were descendants of Johan Johanson Staffans, a fisherman and owner of Staffan No.1.

Remember the shoulder? Was it too much wear and tear from pulling those bellows on the accordion or fate? Anyway, I now had more TIME on my side! Armored with the old photos and newfound information, my cousin Lyn and I flew to Pennsylvania (just two weeks after my shoulder surgery). We found the descendants of my grandpa Charlie’s brother, August Johnson. There we met twenty-three relatives from three to eighty-three! It was great! August’s last living child was Millie Johnson Erb. She was so sweet and delightful (she passed away in June of 2001). We shared photos and the Parish records from Solf, Finland that proved three brothers, Gus, Anders, and Carl, had immigrated to America between 1900-1903. Johan Johansson Kaino-Staffans (1844-1908), a fisherman, and his wife, Eva Gabrieldotter Backholm (1844-1904), were their parents.

The first to come to America was August (Gus). He worked in the mines in Plumville, Pennsylvania and later did carpenter work. He stayed in the area near Pittsburgh all his life. The second brother to emigrate was Anders, called Andrew. He died at age forty on a potato field in Oregon. Most of his family eventually made their way to California. The Johnson boys’ sister, Betta Sofia, came too after their parents died, and married John Asplund. Several years later, Betty and Charlie and their families took the train “out west” and settled in the state of Washington. John and Betty located near Lake Stevens. Charlie built homes for emigrant families who worked the mines at Coal Creek, near present day Bellevue. When angry miners flooded the mines, he moved his family to the little Swede town, Machias, near Lake Stevens. That is where my grandmother Maria is buried.

Joy is filling in all those little blanks and printing out a Family Tree. With another bulging notebook, I set out in September of 2000 to meet descendants of the second brother, Andrew Johnson. I met his son, John Andrew “Art” Johnson, and his wife Tracy, who lived near San Francisco. A year later, a California family reunion came to fruition. My band was to perform at a Scandinavian festival at Turlock, California. We decided on the fairgrounds at Skandifest for our get-together. Lyn and her husband, Lee Thompson, drove down. My brother Paul and his wife Sally came also. We met with thirty-two relatives. It was awesome!

The patriarch of the family was 90 year-old “Art” Johnson. He says he remembers “like yesterday” helping bag potatoes when his dad lay down and wouldn’t get up. He jumped a fence and ran to get his mother in the barn, but Andrew Johnson had died. He says Uncle Charlie came down and built them a huge chicken house so they could sell eggs and have an income. His niece Anita remembers that her mother told the story about selling and delivering lots of eggs, even to a hotel in town. It was there she got a job as a waitress, then a cook, and eventually met her future husband. That chain of events happened because Grandpa Charlie went to Oregon to pay respects to his brother’s widow and family.

Now, I am at yet another crossroad and the direction I choose is … more genealogical research! I have all this wonderful new information and a quest for more. I must find Aunt Betty’s family. I want to do my mother’s family that goes back to Norway. I want to go to Finland again! I have new places to see and a desire to walk where my ancestors walked. I hope to put a book together with all this newfound information, pictures, and old stories I have collected. The process is ongoing, so I hope I live long enough to complete the project! On the other hand, maybe this will ensure longevity as long as I have the inspiration to get it done!

So, if you have been procrastinating, like I did for years … what are YOU waiting for? You have the Internet and the Swedish-Finn Historical Society to use as invaluable resources. Just jump in with both feet and start swimming. Like me, you’ll be glad you did.

It’s time.

Sylvia is leader of “Sylvia’s Fjordsong Band,” a three-piece Scandinavian polka/variety that plays for dances, shows, and programs in the Northwest and Arizona. They have played in Sweden and Finland, for FinnFest USA (twice), and for numerous Scandinavian and polka festivals. Her web site is http://www.fjordsong.com and her E-mail address is squeezeboxsyl@yahoo.com.


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