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Sharing ‘Our Scandinavian Heritage’


June 26, 2013
By Marybelle Beigh - Westfield Historian ( , Westfield Republican / Mayville Sentinel News

"Do you know where Swede Road is," Neighbor Jay Stratton queried as he was busily typing one of his Swedish story-articles into the Westfield Historian's home computer last summer for yet another potential publication.

"Isn't that a road that junctions Lake Road Route 5 somewhere past the road from Brocton," was my answering question, as I was searching for the road on the 1881 Beers Atlas of Chautauqua County.

This confirmed, Stratton described his recent exploration of the road, trying unsuccessfully to locate any descendants of the Swedish families who had formerly settled along that road in the latter half of the 1800s.

Article Photos

Submitted photo
Hilma Johnson in her store in Erie Pa., in 1915. Johnson was Jay Stratton’s great-grandmother. Hilma and her husband, John Lars Johnson, ran their Swedish-American grocery store at 832 Parade Street in Erie, Pa., from about 1895 to about 1920.

"I am a 'pure half-breed Swede,' born and raised in Westfield, N.Y. near the edge of the [Chautauqua County Swedish-American] enclave. By this I mean that both of my parents were also half-breed Swedes," writes Stratton in "Latent Scandinavianity".

His fascinating and elucidating article was one of over a hundred collected stories, memories and history in the recently published book, "Our Scandinavian Heritage," edited and introduced by Barbara Ann Hillman Jones. Although the book focuses primarily on Jamestown, N.Y., as the central community or enclave of Swedish American's in Chautauqua County, Westfield, N.Y., was represented by two persons, Jay Stratton and Celeste Nelson Kerns.

Whether you are, or are not, of Scandinavian ancestry, "Our Scandinavian Heritage" is a hard book to put down. It is full of true stories, written by members of The Norden Clubs of Jamestown, which tell about themselves, their ancestors and the customs and foods of their heritage, each in his or her own words. Unique adventures, sacrifices made to come to America, family naming systems and common memories of holiday and food traditions are interspersed with Scandinavian history articles by The Rev. Dr. Arland O. Fiske, a 14th-generation Norwegian-American.

Fact Box

The office of the Westfield Historian is located at 117 Union St., in the small green building on the north side of driveway. Office hours are by appointment; call or email a request. The Westfield Historian phone number is 326-2457 and email address is

And of course, we all like to read and hear and tell stories of the fearsome Vikings. Arland O. Fiske poses the question, "But where have all the Vikings gone? Are they only in the movies and comic strips? ... these hardy people who knew no fear in war or on the high seas ... became eager settlers in the lands where they waged war ... they became traders instead of raiders."

Recently, a number of BeeLines articles have touched on local Scandinavian-American stories and topics in the history of Westfield. For example, our Swedish-named Beckman/Backman Avenue, a.k.a Davis Street, was the setting for some BeeLines history mysteries and coincidences. And last year an article written totally in Swedish, with English translation, by Jay Stratton was published in this column.

Stratton suggested that Scandinavian-Americans in northern Chautauqua County and other Lake Erie shoreline communities between Fredonia, N.Y., and Erie, Pa., might consider putting together a sequel to "Our Scandinavian Heritage," as there are many Westfield families descended from one or more of the five Scandinavian nations of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. If any Westfield area Scandinavian-American residents are interest in helping by writing memories, sharing photos and contributing or helping in other ways, contact the Westfield Historian as indicated at the end of this story. Thank you very much.

But first, enjoy reading the following "Our Scandinavian Heritage - A Book Review" by Fran Anderson. It is hoped this will inspire you, as it has Anderson and your Westfield Historian, to borrow or purchase your own copy to read, share with others and possibly continue the process of preserving your own ethnic heritages, memories, photos and ephemera.

A book review of 'Our Scandinavian Heritage'

By Fran Anderson

"Hey, Yohnny Yonson. Where are you goin'?"

"I'm goin' to Yamestown to get a yob in a tub factory."

The kids all laughed. One of them yelled, "Yeah. Unless his pap gets a yob here in Vestfield."

"Yahvat ewer Let's play 'Kick the Can.' Here's Wictor. You vant to be on my side?"

"Sure," Victor shouted back. "Ma said for me to start home ven the street lights come on. So let's get goin'."

And so we kids were off again for a hot summer evening's play and maybe a little roughhousing, giggling sometimes over a whispered mixture of "v's" and "wubble-u's", but it was not done to bully or make fun of the new kids on the block. Even the Swedish boys and girls thought it was funny when they got their words a little mixed up.

What we did not realize or understand in the early 1930s was that we were living history. Late in the previous century - the 1880s and 1890s - a large number of Swedish and Norwegian folks were packing up their meager belongings and finding passage on any kind of ship they could, emigrating from their "old world" homelands to the United States to find "that dream" of a better life. Many had settled in Western New York, especially Jamestown, and of course some had spilled out over the surrounding farmlands that were so like "home."

They brought their customs, traditions, favorite foods - their former lives - with them. As the years went on, extended families and friends - or just because they were the same nationality - formed businesses, social groups and kept much of their culture alive - and shared their talents and work with their new friends and neighbors. After World War II the immigration had slowed down, the Scandinavians were absorbed into our "melting pot" of Americans and people began to become more interested in their ancestors and where they had "come from."

Last fall I was given the privilege to preview a couple of articles a Westfield native and acquaintance had been asked to share about his Swedish background for a book that a Jamestown lady had been inspired to compile. Barbara Ann Hillman Jones and her pastor husband were reviewing the recent visit of the King and Queen of Sweden to Jamestown. Recalling some of the stories they had heard about the Swedish immigrants to America and the little area of southwestern New York, she suddenly realized how the Swedish folks had mixed and mingled with other ethnic groups and that soon there would be few "one hundred percent Scandinavians" left. She set about collecting stories from Swedish organizations and friend in the area. "This book is a result of the flash of inspiration I had ... and each contributor has written his or her own story," Jones wrote.

Bear in mind that Scandinavia consists of five northern European countries. And immigrants came to America from all of them. They are Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. The majority were Swedish.

The Jones family was friends of a historian of Scandinavia, the Rev. Dr. Arland O. Fiske. He gave Jones permission to include any portion of his writings useful for her book. I learned a great deal of early European history that I'd missed in my high school and college education.

When the book was published just before Christmas of 2012, I immediately purchased a copy. For several winter evenings I was completely fascinated with the many stories, some of them only short recollections, many several pages, of detailed happenings of emigrants from mainly Sweden. They related the hardships of travel, the feelings of sadness at leaving their families, the joy and gladness of reuniting with friends and relatives who had preceded them to America, the satisfaction of finding a job and the excitement of getting settled and learning the language and customs of their new homes.

Nearly all of the writers included tales of making and sharing their traditional favorite mouth-watering foods with their new neighbors. One of their chief concerns was learning their new language. Many relate they tried to get their children to speak nothing but English, even at home.

Names and events became familiar as I read further - businesses, church and social events I'd read about - it was like reading someone's old diaries.

Of course I was eager to get to the article I'd had the opportunity to read earlier by Jay Stratton, my hometown acquaintance. Stratton is an excellent and interesting writer. He talks in detail about names and how most Scandinavian names were changed for a variety of reasons over the years. His close ancestors who settled in Westfield were the Beckmans, or the Backmans, sometimes written "Bachman." They were builders and there is a street in town on which the majority of houses were built by the family. Eventually the village government named the street after them. Because of the different spellings of the name, the street signs on some corners are "Beckman" and on others are "Backman." It still confuses some of us. Stratton's sense of humor comes through as he relates this part of his story. Family ties and history are special to his tales, also. Being one of the later generations, he entitles his article "Latent Scandinavianity."

A second article by Stratton also appears near the close of the book - one of the "mouthwatering" stories of Swedish foods, "Berry Berry Swedish: Swedish Berry Lore." He includes a recipe, as do several others of the book's storytellers.

And I must not forget to mention another Westfield friend who has shared some humor about "mixed-up words." Read about Celeste Kerns' dad's experiences. I just love it.

For a few evening's relaxing entertainment, I highly recommend curling up in the most comfortable reading recliner, with a cup of Swedish coffee and whatever Swedish "sweets" can be found and enjoy "visiting" Scandinavian neighbors of the recent past. I relished these tales and the only part of me that is Swedish is my last name, and that is because I married a second-generation native Swede from Jamestown.

I hope this wonderful collection, so well put together about "Our Scandinavian Heritage" may inspire other folks to go and do likewise to help preserve our American ethnicities. The book is available at Patterson Library, on and no doubt many other places by now. Get it, read it, enjoy it and maybe write one of your own tales.



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