(re) introducing the Swedes of Rockford

Since 1852, Swedes have made their impact on the Rockford region. These entrepreneurial folks built companies, established banks, insurance companies, served others and kept connections with their roots. In 1938, with others that wanted to celebrate the establishment of New Sweden in Delaware, Herman G. Nelson of Rockford, represented our region as a stronghold of Swedish immigrants. Returning to Rockford, he assisted in chartering the Swedish Historical Society of Rockford. The mission of the Society is to preserve the culture and history of our immigrant ancestors. Celebrating 75 years of existence, the Society has continued to connect with Sweden and develop cultural ties and encourage economic relationships.

The Swedish Historical Society was able to acquire the home of John Erlander in 1951 when Erlander’s last surviving heir was 80 years old. For the grand opening, Illinois poet laureate, Carl Sandburg, was present and honored the Swedish determination and courageous spirit. Since then, Prince Bertil, The King of Sweden, Prime Minister Tage Erlander, Bjorn Borg, Ambassador Jan Eliason, Ann-Sofie von Otter, and noted other artists and persons have visited Rockford and the Erlander Home Museum. With 2002 marking the celebration of 150 years of Swedish immigration to Rockford, a new level of collaborations began.

An artist’s exchange brought our local artists notoriety through gallery showings on the island of Öland which is a significant destination site for European vacationers. Wendy Perks Fisher, Karen Harding, and Anne O’Keefe led delegations for Roland Poska, Betsy Youngquist, and other artists along with our RACVB staff to better understand the tourism and artists’ opportunities between Rockford and Sweden.  In 2006, The Rockford Art Museum brought the exceptional talent of Bertil Vallien (http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/rockford-art-museum-opens-exhibition-by-world-renowned-glass-artists-59187492.html) and his wife, Ulrika Hydman Vallien (http://www.rockfordartmuseum.org/COLLECTION/u_hydman_vallien.html)  to Rockford.

In 2005, a delegation of manufacturers visited Lidköping and established a relationship that resulted in a business developer (paid by the Swedish city) to have an office here in Rockford to encourage business relationships in our region with companies in Sweden. The work that Linnea Bengttson has been doing has been so successful that her contract has been recently extended for another three years. Her work is becoming a model for other cities in the United States http://www.goglobalrockford.com/go-global-2014/speakers.html) .

Throughout the years, the Swedish Historical Society has been funded by private entities and grants.  In 1988-1990, grants were secured and used to restore the first floor of the Erlander Home Museum to the original paint schemes. Artwork by Mary Erlander was discovered from under layers of paint and meticulously reproduced. In 2004, additional artwork in an upstairs bedroom was discovered and restored. Recently, grant funds were used to update the gallery spaces remaining in the second story.  The Society continues to accept items for their collection, which is comprised of some very unique items that will be featured here in the future.

Swedish American Hospital Foundation has embraced the potential for global collaborations by inviting Swedish teachers, nurses, fire fighters, and construction workers to exchange methods, philosophies and skills (http://www.swedishamerican.org/calendar_news/news/news.cfm?c=2012&p=781) . There are three homes built in collaboration with students from East High School and Swedish construction students, the most recent being an example of the traditional Swedish sustainable materials and styles.

Rockford University has established a program with the University of Skövde (http://www.his.se/en/)  . The University of Skövde is a small and modern university that offers first-class programmes and competitive research, which attract research scientists and students from all over the world. The University of Skövde is one of the most specialized universities in Sweden and their research is focused on the development and use of advanced information technology systems and models. Focused on the future, it is hoped that more Rockford students will avail themselves of the opportunity to study and become part of smart global solutions.

With this strong Swedish history in Rockford, the vision of the Swedish Historical Society is that for years to come, Rockford will continue to bring new ideas, strong business connections and a global worldview to our Region. Membership in the Society is not limited to Swedish ancestry – individuals or businesses that recognize the continuing work of the organization are welcome. For membership, see the website at www.swedishhistorical.org. Watch for upcoming programs and opportunities to assist in the global work undertaken and to celebrate 75 years of contributions to the fabric and color of Rockford.


Leah Nelson

Board Member for the Swedish Historical Society and former Executive Director of the Erlander Home Museum