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How Swedes Have Shaped the State

Swedish Immigration to Minnesota

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Children of Governor Adolph Eberhart

The children of Governor Adolph Eberhart dressed in Swedish costumes, 1911. Eberhart, a Swedish immigrant, was Minnesota’s seventeenth governor.

Over a quarter of a million Swedes came to Minnesota between 1850 and 1930, drawn primarily by economic opportunities not available to them at home. Once Swedish immigrant settlements were established in the state, they acted as magnets, creating migration chains that drew others. Attracted at first to rural areas by agricultural opportunities, Swedes eventually chose to move to cities as well. In the twenty-first century, Minnesota’s Swedish Americans continue to honor their ethnic roots through family traditions, public festivities, and education.

Choosing Minnesota

Of the roughly 1.25 million Swedish men, women, and children who came to the United States between 1845 and 1930, more settled in Minnesota than in any other state. A few may have likened Minnesota’s geography to Sweden’s when deciding where to settle, but most chose the state for more practical reasons. Opportunities for immigrants to obtain land or find employment coincided with increasingly limited access to these resources in Sweden. For the ultimately nearly 300,000 Swedes who settled in the state, Minnesota presented the right place at the right time.

Sweden’s population expanded markedly between 1750 and 1850, doubling in size from approximately 1.78 million to 3.58 million. This growth stemmed from Sweden’s improved health conditions, limited military conflicts, and increased food supply, with wide-spread social consequences. The number of landless agricultural workers increased dramatically. Agricultural reforms such as farm consolidation increased the food supply but also decreased opportunities for land ownership. The rise in population, moreover, was not matched by an increase in employment opportunities in other sectors.

Sweden’s gradual shift from a rural to an urban-industrial society limited new employment opportunities for rural Swedes until an industrial labor market emerged. Mina Anderson, who chose to emigrate in 1890, expressed what many young Swedes likely felt: she was “tired of hard work and disappointment.” For Anderson and others like her, Minnesota was a destination that offered opportunities not available in their homeland.

Economic and other incentives motivated people to move, as did dissatisfaction with the Swedish political environment of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries. Religious intolerance of minority religious groups motivated others—Swedish Baptists who settled in Isanti County, for example. Personal issues such as family conflict and pregnancy outside of marriage also influenced migration decisions.

Origins

The first Swede recorded as living in Minnesota was Jacob Fahlström (ca. 1795–1859), a fur trader-turned Methodist missionary. His presence was noted near Fort Snelling in the 1820s. He and his family (a wife and nine children) eventually settled in Washington County near Afton.
His migration, however, was unique, and did not lead other Swedes to make the move to Minnesota.

Swedish migration to Minnesota really began three decades after Fahlström’s arrival. Swedes began to settle in Illinois in the 1840s, and their migration to Minnesota was part of a gradual spread northward. By 1854, a Swede arriving on the East Coast could travel by rail to Chicago and the Mississippi River and then take a steamboat to St. Paul. This stopping-off point in Minnesota Territory (established in 1849) made Minnesota a logical destination for farm-seekers. The Pre-emption Act of 1841 also encouraged settlement, as it enabled migrants to claim government land prior to its public sale.

Three men from southern Sweden took land in Washington County near Marine-on-St. Croix in 1850, though they did not become permanent settler-colonists there. A larger group of Swedes settled in Chisago County in 1851, encouraging more to follow them. Many took land there and in the surrounding areas.

Three core Swedish settlements were established in this first wave of migrants: the Chisago colony and two more colonies in Goodhue and Carver counties. Immigration to these areas was legal only after 1851, when Dakota people ceded most of their territory via the treaties of Mendota and Traverse des Sioux and agreed to move to a reservation. As a result, the Swedes and others who moved into the center of Minnesota Territory in the 1850s built their homesteads on the same prairie that had been occupied only a few years (and in some cases months) earlier by the Dakota.

New arrivals sent letters sent back to relatives and friends about opportunities in Minnesota that drew other Swedish immigrants to these initial cores. Their communication contributed to an “America fever” in Sweden that encouraged immigration to the state—especially in family groups—for decades. Settlement did decrease in the late 1850s, however, due to an economic downturn in the United States.

After this first wave (1849–1857), historians have identified four subsequent waves of Swedish immigration to Minnesota: 1863–1873, 1880–1893, 1900–1914, and 1919–1930. They are distinguishable by surges and declines in migration as well as the varying characteristics of the migrant groups themselves.

The Second Wave: Building Communities (1863–1873)

A second wave emerged in 1863 in reaction to the US Homestead Act of 1862 and lasted through the early 1870s, spurred on by crop failures in Sweden in 1867 and 1868. It included families as well as an increasing number of landless farmhands and rural domestic servants who saw little opportunity for maintaining or improving their standard of living in Sweden.

During this second period, Minnesota Swedes often sent letters home with prepaid tickets, along with detailed information about transportation, employment opportunities, and the cost of living. Many settler-colonists in this wave took land along the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad's main line, through the central region of the state. Swedish American communities emerged in Wright, Meeker, and Kandiyohi counties and in towns like Cokato, Litchfield, and Willmar.

Railroad expansion also encouraged settlement in the Red River Valley in northwestern Minnesota. The state granted railroad companies land on which to build tracks, and the plots they didn’t use could then be sold to help pay for railroad construction. Settlement was further encouraged by the activities of Hans Mattson, a Swedish immigrant who had helped establish the Vasa settlement in Goodhue County. He worked as a land agent for the railroad and as a Minnesota state immigrant agent in Sweden and Scandinavia.

The Third Wave: An Urban Turn (1880–1893)

An economic downturn in the United States in 1873 dampened the second flow of migrants. By 1880, however, Swedish immigration to Minnesota had surged again, and a third wave arrived. Throughout the 1880s, the United States economy improved, and falling grain prices in Sweden meant continued economic struggles for rural Swedes. It was during this wave that Minnesota became the state with the largest number of Swedish immigrants in the nation. By 1890 nearly 100,000 Swedes resided in Minnesota. This migrant stream was dominated by single rather than family migration and continued through 1893, when another economic depression hit the United States.

Much of the best affordable farmland had been claimed by this time, and newly arrived Swedes often lacked the capital to establish a farmstead. Some urban migrants hoped to earn money to obtain farms. In the meantime, sawmills, lumber mills and other industries in Minneapolis and St. Paul needed young male labor. Swedish men found wage-earning opportunities in the expanding railroad system as well as the timber and mining industries that had emerged in northern Minnesota and on the Iron Range. Jobs in domestic service and the textile industry drew young women to urban areas. “Help-wanted” advertisements targeted at women sometimes stated a preference for Swedes. Potential employers saw Swedish characteristics (previous experience as a servant in Sweden, reputation as hardworking and clean, white-skinned and Protestant) as desirable for workers living in their households.

The Final Waves: 1900–1914 and 1919–1930

The last two surges in Swedish immigration took place from the turn of the twentieth-century to World War I, and from the end of the war through the beginning of the Great Depression. Like the previous waves, this twentieth-century migration included mostly single men and women. They took advantage of employment options available in urban areas of the state (especially Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth).

The onset of the war in 1914 greatly decreased migrant numbers. By the time the conflict ended, the United States appealed less to young Swedes than it had in previous decades. Sweden’s industrial and economic development had created opportunities for young Swedes to improve their life situations without migrating. Jobs could be had, and with wages not so different than those in America.

Despite immigration restrictions implemented by the American government, for most of the 1920s, Swedish immigrants did not even fill the quotas allotted them. Once the Great Depression hit, immigration numbers were further diminished. More Swedish immigrants returned to their homeland in the 1930s than the reverse. Though some Swedes still immigrated to Minnesota, and continue to do so even in the twenty-first century, the era of mass migration from Sweden to Minnesota that had begun in the 1850s all but ended with the Great Depression.

Farmer Pioneers

The earliest Swedish immigrants in Minnesota faced challenges common to settler-colonists on the frontier. Government programs and railroad land grants helped them claim their own farmland. Establishing a successful farm, however, required sustained effort, persistence, and good fortune. Housing in the first years might consist of a one- or two-room log cabin that became more and more cramped as family size increased. Severe weather and long distances between villages or towns required careful planning to survive harsh winters. Swedish immigrant women might be left to manage households on their own while husbands wintered in lumber camps or at other seasonal work to earn much-needed cash. All the while, the threat of potential crises such as crop failures, natural disasters, and reprisal by the Dakota people they had displaced (particularly in the wake of the US-Dakota War of 1862) weighed on the immigrants’ minds.

The establishment of churches and other religious institutions helped settler-colonists meet challenges and provided important support networks. Church communities were hubs for social as well as religious activities, countering isolation and offering assistance. They also helped immigrants maintain their ethnic identity through activities such as Swedish-language worship, summer Swedish-language instruction, and celebration of ethnic holidays and traditions. Country schools also helped Swedish immigrants and their children adapt to their new homeland through public education as well as social events. Many settler-colonists eventually established successful farms. Some were able to provide an agricultural legacy for their children. Those who struggled with farming (or children of successful farmers who did not enjoy rural life) sought to make a living elsewhere, often in urban areas.

City Swedes

Swedish settlement in the Twin Cities began in St. Paul. Migrants settled on the East Side, where housing was affordable and employment accessible. The first Swedish-occupied neighborhood in St. Paul became known as Swede Hollow and took shape in a ravine along Phalen Creek. In the late 1850s a few Swedes occupied makeshift housing there that had been abandoned by earlier temporary residents. They found employment in the nearby breweries and mills. Over time ethnic businesses developed in the area, especially along Payne Avenue. These businesses met neighborhood needs with Swedish-speaking proprietors and culturally familiar goods and services.

Swedish Lutheran and other Swedish American churches were also founded in the area. Like other early-established core communities, Swede Hollow attracted other Swedish immigrants. Most residents, however, did not stay in the Hollow for long. They moved out of the ravine and toward the Arlington Hills area as their finances improved Those up-and-coming residents were quickly replaced by newly-arrived Swedes, and eventually, other new immigrant groups began to settle beside them. Though Irish, Italian, and, later, Mexican immigrants made homes in the area before it was demolished by authorities in 1956, it still retains the original name of Swede Hollow.

Swedish settlement in Minneapolis did not take off until the 1870s. At that time, Swedish immigrants began to populate areas along the north side of the Mississippi in the city’s Second and Ninth Wards, and on the south side of the river along Washington Avenue in the Sixth Ward. By the 1890s Swedes settled further north and south, in areas such as Camden, near Shingle Creek, and in the Seward and Longfellow neighborhoods. Young Swedish women were often exceptions to these patterns, working in homes in wealthy upper-class neighborhoods as domestics, cooks, seamstresses, and nannies.

Snus Gatan

Among Swedish urban enclaves, the Cedar-Riverside area in the Sixth Ward of Minneapolis, occupied by Norwegians and Danes as well as Swedes, gained the strongest reputation as a Swedish and Scandinavian community. That reputation persisted well into the twentieth century. Cedar Avenue also acquired the label Snus gatan (Snoose Boulevard). Many of its Scandinavian residents chewed tobacco (snus in Swedish) and relieved themselves of the liquid results of the habit on the street, especially after a night of carousing. Like Payne Avenue in St. Paul, Cedar-Riverside contained a wide range of Swedish businesses, services, and entertainment options. A Cedar-Riverside Swede in 1900 could purchase groceries at Samuelson’s Confectionery, attend worship services at St. Ansgarius (Swedish) Episcopal Church, watch a Swedish-language play or vaudeville act at Dania Hall, seek medical treatment from Carl J. Ringnell (Swedish doctor/surgeon), drink a beer or something stronger at Nels Nordeen’s saloon, and then renounce alcohol at the Salvation Army Corp #4 (Swedish Unit), all without leaving the neighborhood. By 1905 residents could also access Swedish-language books in the collections of the Seven Corners branch of the Minneapolis Public Library.

Swedes and Religion

Most devout Minnesota Swedes—both rural and urban— attended Lutheran churches. A Scandinavian Augustana Synod was established in 1860 by early Swedish and Norwegian clergy in the Midwest. By 1870 the Norwegians had separated to form their own ethnically based synods, The Swedish Augustana Synod grew to become the largest Swedish American religious organization in the nation, supporting a strong Minnesota Conference of member churches. Some Minnesota Swedish immigrants found spiritual homes in other Christian denominations, including the Mission Covenant, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Episcopalian, and Mormon churches, as well as the Salvation Army. Many of these grew out of religious movements in Sweden and were encouraged by American religious pluralism.

American and Swedish

Swedish immigrants quickly adapted to American life in outward, visible ways by changing their attire and diet. This was especially true of the young women who served in middle- and upper-class American homes. Most Swedish immigrants learned some English as was necessary for employment, and their children were instructed in the language in the public schools. Yet many immigrants continued to speak Swedish within their households and chose to patronize Swedish American businesses. They opted to reside in rural or urban areas with high concentrations of their countrymen and countrywomen, even as the core settlements dispersed over time.

Swedish immigrants also participated in ethnically oriented institutions where they could maintain language and cultural habits. Swedish American churches valued and maintained Swedish ethnic identity. Secular organizations such as clubs, fraternal and provincial societies, and choruses that celebrated Swedish heritage were also established, especially in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries.

As Swedish migration to America grew and Minnesota Swedes continued to adapt to their new homeland’s culture, Swedish American institutions maintained elements of both identities. Recognizing the need to minister to Swedish descendants who did not understand Swedish, the Augustana Synod established its first English-language church in Minneapolis in 1903. Its pastor was bilingual. Most member churches shifted to English services (in part or in whole) in the 1920s and 1930s. This change was hastened in part by the pressure to Americanize that the US government put on immigrants during World War I.

Legacies

The number of Swedes settling in Minnesota had dwindled by the 1930s. But the Swedish influence upon the state’s economy, politics, society, and culture is still felt in the twenty-first century. Swedish immigrants helped build James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railway, process midwestern wheat into flour, and produce Munsingwear underwear. They also contributed to the operations of countless other financial ventures that made for Minnesota’s economic development. The influence of Swedish American business leaders like Curtis L. Carlson (for whom the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management is named) continues through philanthropic activities such as the Carlson Family Foundation.

Swedish Americans have also left a legacy in Minnesota politics. From Hans Mattson to Nanny Mattson Jaeger to Arne Carlson, Minnesotans of Swedish heritage have long been active in politics at many levels. Their allegiances varied, ranging from Republican to Farmer-Labor and even socialist and communist. That Minnesota Swedes were white, literate, educated, and generally Protestant likely contributed to their success at the polls. Author Klas Bergman argues that the Swedish (and Scandinavian) political presence contributed to Minnesota’s progressive political traditions, solid educational system, and strong human services.

A commitment to social welfare and human rights is evident in Minnesota’s private sector, as well as its government. Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota is a non-profit voluntary agency still active across the state in the twenty-first century. It traces its roots to the charitable work of Swedish immigrant Augustana Synod pastor Eric Norelius, who established the Vasa Children’s Home in 1865. Among the services the organization provides is legal assistance for newly-arrived immigrants and refugees. Swedish immigrants also founded caring institutions such as Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul in 1883, Swedish Hospital in Minneapolis in 1898 (now part of the Hennepin County Medical Center), and Bethany Home for the Aged in Alexandria in 1917. Minnesota Swedes’ educational legacy can be seen in the immigrant institutions that continue in the twenty-first century such as Gustavus Adolphus College (founded 1862), Bethel University (founded 1871), and Minnehaha Academy (founded 1913).

Cultural Heritage

In the 2000 federal census, nearly 10 percent of Minnesotans claimed Swedish ancestry. Two of the Swedish American cultural contributions still visible in contemporary Minnesota include Svenskarnas Dag and the American Swedish Institute (ASI). The former is an annual celebration of Swedish heritage that began in 1934. It is held in Minneapolis’s Minnehaha Falls Park each summer and involves raising a midsummer pole (Midsommarstång), Swedish music and folk dancing, the crowning of a Midsummer Queen, and Swedish food and vendors.

The American Swedish Institute was established in 1929 by Swan J. Turnblad, publisher of the Swedish American newspaper Svenska Amerikanska Posten (1885-1940). It remains a fixture of Swedish American memory and institutional life. Before his death, Turnblad told newspaper reporters that he wanted “to foster and preserve Swedish culture in America” and donated his large mansion on Park Avenue in Minneapolis for that purpose. It provided a venue for exhibitions and other activities designed to educate

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1900 Federal Census. Minneapolis Ward 6, Hennepin, Minnesota; Enumeration District: 0073; FHL microfilm: 1240768. Ancestry.com.

American Swedish Institute. “Mission, Vision, Values.”
https://www.asimn.org/about-us/mission.

Anderson, Philip J., and Dag Blanck, eds. Swedes in the Twin Cities. Immigrant Life and Minnesota's Urban Frontier. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.

Babcock, Kendric Charles. The Scandinavian Element in the United States. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1914.

Barton, H. Arnold. A Folk Divided: Homeland Swedes and Swedish Americans, 1840–1940. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994.

Bergman, Klas. Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017.

Blanck, Dag. Becoming Swedish-American: The Construction of an Ethnic Identity in the Augustana Synod, 1860–1917. Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala University Library, 1997.

Carlson Family Foundation.
http://www.clcfamilyfoundation.com

Greiner, Tony. The Minnesota Book of Days: An Almanac of State History. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.

Johnson, Emeroy. God Gave the Growth. The Story of the Lutheran Minnesota Conference, 1876–1958. T. S. Denison & Company: Minneapolis, 1958.

Larson, J. Edor. History of the Red River Valley Conference of the Augustana Lutheran Church. [Warren, MN?]: Red River Valley Conference, 1953.

Lewis, Anne Gillespie. Swedes in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009.

Lintelman, Joy K. I Go To America. Swedish American Women and the Life of Mina Anderson. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009.

Lorenzen, Lilly E. “The Institute: A Short History.” American Swedish Institute Bulletin IX (1954): 3.

Minneapolis Directory Company. Davison's Minneapolis City Directory, vols. XXVIII and XXVIII. [Minneapolis]: Minneapolis Directory Company, 1900.

Nelson, Helge. The Swedes and the Swedish Settlements in North America. Lund, Sweden: Royal Society of Letters, 1943.

Nordstrom, Byron, and Nils Hasselmo. The Swedes in Minnesota. Minneapolis: Denison, 1976.

Rice, John G. “Swedes.” In They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State’s Ethnic Groups, 248–276. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1981.

Strand, Algot E. A History of the Swedish-Americans of Minnesota. 3 vols. Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1910.

Related Images

Children of Governor Adolph Eberhart
Children of Governor Adolph Eberhart
Swedish immigrant’s trunk
Swedish immigrant’s trunk
Immigration pamphlet written by Hans Mattson
Immigration pamphlet written by Hans Mattson
Daguerreotype of Hans Mattson ca. 1863.
Daguerreotype of Hans Mattson ca. 1863.
Swedish immigrants outside their cabin in Minnesota, ca. 1880.
Swedish immigrants outside their cabin in Minnesota, ca. 1880.
Newspaper ads preferring Swedish applicants
Newspaper ads preferring Swedish applicants
Samuelson’s Confectionery
Samuelson’s Confectionery
Lumberjacks employed by Swedish immigrant John Ogren
Lumberjacks employed by Swedish immigrant John Ogren
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Almelund
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Almelund
John Lineer’s shoe store
John Lineer’s shoe store
Swedish railroad laborers
Swedish railroad laborers
Ella Erickson
Ella Erickson
Swede Hollow, St. Paul
Swede Hollow, St. Paul
Congregation standing outside Swedish Lutheran Church in Svea Township
Congregation standing outside Swedish Lutheran Church in Svea Township
Sångföreningen Astra (Astra Singing Society)
Sångföreningen Astra (Astra Singing Society)
Passport issued to Swan Victor Anderson
Passport issued to Swan Victor Anderson
Munsingwear employees at work
Munsingwear employees at work
Jacob Fahlström plaque
Jacob Fahlström plaque

Overview

Nearly 300,000 Swedes immigrated to Minnesota from 1850 to 1930, drawn to the state by opportunities for farmland, employment, and political and religious freedom that were not available to them in their homeland.

Rural Swedish settlement in Minnesota spread from core areas in Chisago, Goodhue, and Carver counties to the south and west, taking advantage of land made affordable through railroad land grants and the Homestead Act of 1862.

Most early Swedish Minnesotans arrived in family groups and took up farming, but by the 1880s the migration pattern had shifted to urban settlement and employment sectors as the supply of affordable farmland diminished.

Able-bodied Swedish immigrant men worked in the lumber, mining, and milling industries of Minnesota; some eventually operated their own urban businesses or saved enough money to purchase agricultural land.

As they had in their homeland, young Swedish immigrant women often found employment in domestic service in Minnesota cities and towns, though some also pursued textile work and other occupations in the Twin Cities.

By 1910 Minnesota was the most Swedish of all states, with over 12 percent of the population of Swedish stock.

Swedish ethnic communities complete with ethnically oriented goods and services emerged in Minnesota’s urban areas, including the neighborhoods of Swede Hollow in St. Paul and Cedar-Riverside in Minneapolis.

Swedish American churches of varied denominations developed early on and provided important religious as well as social support to rural and urban immigrant communities alike.

Secular mutual aid, choral, and provincial societies were established by Swedish Americans to meet social and economic needs as well as to practice and preserve ethnic heritage.

Given their large numbers, early arrival, and possession of characteristics deemed valuable by the dominant non-immigrant culture, Swedes have had ample opportunities to shape Minnesota’s economy, politics, society, and culture.

Chronology

1850s

An early core settlement of Swedish immigrants emerges in the Chisago Lakes area of Chisago County in 1851. Its numbers increase rapidly in 1854 when about 200 Swedes settle there. Settlement spreads into Isanti, Goodhue, and Carver counties as well.

1857

Eric Norelius establishes Minnesota Posten, the first Swedish newspaper in Minnesota. Swedish Minnesotans ultimately founded over one hundred newspapers, though some were very short-lived.

1862

Congress passes the 1862 Homestead Act, allowing settler-colonists to claim 160 acres of public land for an $18 filing fee. If the homesteaders lived on the land, built a home, and farmed there for five years, the land became legally theirs.

1865

Hamm’s Brewery is established and provides employment for many of the Swedes who are settling in St. Paul’s Swede Hollow. (Swedish immigrants had been living in the area since the 1850s.)

1867

Hans Mattson, an early Goodhue County settler-colonist, is appointed secretary of the Minnesota Board of Immigration. His activity in this role as well as his work as an agent for the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad helps draw Swedish immigrants to Minnesot

1868 and 1869

Harvest failures in Sweden and the consequent high food prices and widespread hunger stimulate the desire of many Swedes to emigrate. Over fifty thousand immigrants leave Sweden for the United States.

1880s

By the end of this decade, the state of Minnesota has the largest Swedish-born population in the United States.

1884

The Vermillion Iron Range, one of Minnesota’s three iron mining ranges, begins shipping ore, and Swedes are among its first workers. Mining and railroad work provided important employment options for young Swedish immigrant men.

1886

Dania Hall opens in the Swedish and Scandinavian Minneapolis neighborhood of Cedar-Riverside. It provides a variety of popular entertainment options, from concerts and lectures to vaudeville performances.

1890s

By the early part of this decade, a majority of the immigrants from Sweden to Minnesota are young, single adults. Many of them are arriving from urban areas.

1899

John Lind becomes the first of several Minnesota governors with Swedish heritage. He is elected as a fusion candidate, supporting Democratic and Populist issues.

1905

Over 126,000 Swedes are living in Minnesota, with 38,000 of them in the Twin Cities.

1829

Newspaper publisher Swan J. Turnblad donates his Minneapolis Park Avenue mansion to create the American Institute of Swedish Arts, Literature and Science (later the American Swedish Institute). The institute becomes an important venue for education about

1934

A number of Twin Cities Swedish organizations establish the annual Svenskarnas Dag (Swedes’ Day) at Minnehaha Park. This celebration of Swedish heritage continues in the twenty-first century.