The Svea Cafe

With the addition of Midway Village Museum’s permanent exhibit on immigration to Rockford– Many Faces, One Community —the staff in Midway Village Museum’s Collections Department is always on the lookout for immigration stories. Recently donated to us were a set of plates emblazoned with the words “Svea Café”.  Intrigued, we delved into old newspapers and city directories until a story emerged.

photo 2In 1915, a young Swedish girl of 20 years, Miss Esther Ellison, came to the United States and to Rockford. She may have travelled with several of her brothers; five lived in Rockford by the late 1920s. Other family members stayed behind in Sweden. For a few years Esther found work as a live-in maid. But in December of 1923 she became a business owner: The Svea Café opened at 1105 Second Ave. where the Nicholas Hardware Store parking lot is today, just off of Seventh Street, the heart of Rockford’s Swedish community.

Svea Café advertised home-cooked Swedish meals. So popular was their food and efficient service that by April 1924 Ellison was expanding. She took over the adjacent storefront and began advertising a semi-private area for private parties and clubs to use. The Rockford Republic reported in June that the café could seat 80 and had a staff of 8. Soon local newspapers were replete with notices of family parties, churches and organizations meeting there – not unlike Stockholm Inn today!

Esther Ellison apparently had a sense of humor as well as business sense and good recipes. An ad in the October 18, 1924 Daily Register Gazette advised: “Eat Here and be contented. Also grow fat.” In 1926 Esther opened a second café at the Whitestone Apartment Building at 529 N. Main. She also lived there. Unfortunately in February 1927 Esther Ellison died of appendicitis at the age of 31. A year later the Svea Café closed.

However its stellar reputation caused a Mrs. Sandell to reopen the café in December 1928, promoting traditional Swedish style foods. Sandell proudly advertised that her suppliers – Oscar Lindstrom’s Meats and Blackhawk Coffee Co.– were all Seventh Street businesses providing high quality products. In 1931 the café changed hands again but its ultimate doom came on March 16, 1933 when a fire started in the kitchen overnight. The kitchen and dining room sustained significant damage and the café never reopened.