Originally published July 2014
This West End story begins in Sweden, the homeland of one set of my grandparents, and a sad story it is.
I visited Sweden in June and found myself recalling what I’d been told of the fate of these two young Swedes who sought a better life in America—and in Duluth—more than a century ago
While Charles Carlson and Anna Joranson both were born in Sweden, they didn’t meet there. Each emigrated to Duluth in the 1890s, when so many Scandinavians arrived here. Duluth’s West End had already drawn relatives of both, so that was the destination. Anna was about 16 when she arrived, I was told, and Charles about nine years older.
They were my mother’s parents, but I never met them. Both had died two decades before I was born. All that I know about this young immigrant couple was told to me by my mother.
Anna went to work as a domestic in Duluth’s East End before meeting Charles. The couple met through Bethany Swedish Lutheran Church in the West End, the neighborhood and church where so many Swedish immigrants congregated.
That church as an institution still exists at 23rd Avenue West and Third Street, long since shedding its early Swedish associations, but my grandparents met and were married in an earlier edifice of the congregation at 20th Avenue West and Third, a building since replaced by a multi-family dwelling. Anna was in her late teens when the couple wed, and their first daughter, my mother, Ruth, was born in 1899 when Anna was 20 years old.
I’ve never been clear about Charles’ work history. At times he was a grocery clerk, and he had worked on the Duluth street railway system. For about three years when my mother was a young child, they moved to Ellsworth, Wisconsin, to operate a rented farm, but returned to the West End. Another daughter had been born in Ellsworth, and Anna wanted her daughters to be city dwellers, not farm dwellers, according to what I was told.
Back in the West End, they settled in the neighborhood just east of Piedmont Avenue known as Goat Hill, where the terrain is exceptionally steep. Soon the family grew even larger, with another daughter, and another, and eventually two more daughters—bringing the total to six girls and no boys—all born between 1899 and 1913.
But far too soon after the birth of her youngest daughter, Anna became ill, probably with cancer. She died at home in 1917 at the age of 38, leaving her grieving husband and six young daughters. My mother had just turned 18 years old, her next sister about 15 and so on down the line.
I was told that when she died, Anna’s casket was placed in their home for the period of mourning and reviewal leading up to a funeral at Bethany church, by then located in the building it occupies today. Following the service came the long uphill trek to Bethany Cemetery in Hermantown behind a horse-drawn hearse.
These events occurred during the dark years of World War I, a difficult time nationally but strangely beneficial in one way to the Carlsons. My mother was an accomplished pianist and organist (innately talented, she had managed to study with professionals in Duluth), and when the regular organist at Bethany Lutheran was called up for military service, she, just in her late teens, took over as the congregation’s organist, a paid position. When the regular organist died on a battlefield in France, Ruth became the regular organist and director of choirs. She stayed in that position for 57 years.
I have written before about the Carlson family’s experience in the great 1918 fire that struck just a few months after Anna’s death. The devastating October fire, extending from Moose Lake and Cloquet through the rural areas surrounding Duluth and into Duluth’s eastern neighborhoods, also threatened the West End including the Carlson home just off Piedmont Avenue at about Fourth Street. While her younger sisters slept, Ruth and her father kept a vigil all night as they watched flaming refuse from the fire sweep past their home, driven by the strong winds fueling the conflagration atop the hill that eventually claimed nearly 500 lives and left thousands homeless.
An early morning shift in the wind saved the West End and the Carlson home. Plans had been made for the family to be taken the short distance down to the bay if the fire had directly threatened the family. Charles, working for a grocery store at the time, had been asked to take the business’ truck to help evacuate people in the path of the fire, but he couldn’t leave his six young daughters.
But he soon did leave them. Within a year, Charles was dead. He was just 47 years old, his daughters, all under 20, left to fend for themselves. The cause of death also was believed to be cancer, and not the rampant Spanish flu pandemic threatening lives in Duluth and throughout much of the world in those hard times.
A noteworthy transformation in conducting funerals had occurred in the two years since Anna’s death: The funeral procession for Charles was led by a motor-driven hearse, horses having only recently been abandoned for that purpose.
He too was taken to Bethany Cemetery just inside Hermantown—in the heart of where the fire had swept a short time earlier—to be buried alongside his wife.
That’s what I know about the lives of these grandparents, who left Sweden at young ages to play out their relatively short lives in a distant land in a small frame home on a steep hillside in Duluth’s West End.
Last month, visiting Sweden, I couldn’t help but reflect that I had come to the land where it all had started. Charles and Anna never saw their homeland again, nor did any of their daughters ever visit Sweden, although the older girls understood and spoke the Swedish language, having been reared by Swedish-speaking parents. Even their church services were conducted in Swedish in those days.
There’s a lot more to this West End story—how the lives of the six orphaned Carlson daughters played out without parents to nurture and guide them. Inevitably, as the decades passed, they all eventually joined their parents at Bethany Cemetery, one by one, with Ruth, the first born but last to die, laid to rest there in the 1980s.
Maybe I’ll tell the rest of that West End story—how they struggled to keep the family together—another time.
Finally, it must be noted that there are many such stories from those difficult days in Duluth, as a largely immigrant population struggled to gain a foothold in their new land. This is just the one I know best.
Jim Heffernan writes about growing up in Duluth’s western environs each month on Zenith City Online. You can catch up on past installments here.