People of the Rock

by Dwight Gunberg

"Stand by the roads, and look,
> and ask for the ancient paths." Jeremiah 6:16

I stood at the entrance of a narrow, ancient path, its width, just sufficient for a sub-compact car, defined by rough stone walls four feet high and nearly as wide. Their dimensions have little significance for these walls result from a compelling need to pick and move fieldstone. On each side, clear fields extend for perhaps a hundred feet ending at a dense forest. Against these trees lies more stone, all fractured granite of a dead gray hue. The spruce above them loom almost black against the late afternoon sky. At the far end of this crude road stand a few timbered outbuildings and a solitary red cottage. A scrawling hand-printed sign identified it as "Erstorp" and I, 125 years after my relatives left, had come back to my ancestral home.

"Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
to the quarry from which you were dug." Isaiah 51:1

We had driven on gravel roads into the forested hill country of central Sweden where the provinces of Småland and Östergötland join and where primitive peasant cottages are linked by rural trails which progressively narrow until their snake-like tracks seem intent on strangling our progress. On each side, pine and spruce spring up between an array of monstrous boulders. They huddle there like petrified hill-trolls, caught by a vagrant ray of sunlight twisting down through the branches. The road wanders on, without apparent purpose, following the course of least resistance until finally, we reached an opening and the stone rows marked "Erstorp."

"Of all the sons you have borne,
is there not one to guide you." Isaiah 51:18

For many years I had wondered what August Swenson, my maternal grandfather, had left when in 1871, he became an "utvandrare" on the Western Sea. He was the only son of five children. At age twenty he emigrated to America. He may have joined a wagon train, as in Moberg’s The Emigrants , or possibly just followed a route mapped out in an "America Letter." The year before, his father had signed a futile petition for help from the King of Sweden. Undoubtedly parting was much sadness but now realism dictated the departure of this only son. Surely rocks remained to be pried loose in a continuing battle begun centuries before. His parents, inured to hardship, knew that here was a separation as final as death, unbroken, except for an occasional brief letter. Wealth brings no unusual sensitivity to pain, and the meek of this world often suffer with a unique anguish, heightened by poverty, fear and humiliation. The tintype of his parents is a study in stolidity and severity, caused less by stiff collars than a stoicism born of hardship.

We called him "Morfar" never realizing the adventures our quiet patriarch had experienced. His departure may have eased a desperate economic condition at Erstorp but it also meant the loss of a sturdy farmhand. In a few years, two more daughters chose to join their brother in Minnesota. The last remaining child, Klara, cared for her parents and raised her own family at Erstorp. She bore twelve children in remote cabins. In 1878, she watched her first three die, all in one week, of diphtheria; later, a fourth would follow. The dark beauty of the land was an impressive but demanding master. It produced an awe-filled mysticism that revealed itself through superstition in some and poetry in others. Yet, it also encouraged a personal faith that joined these immigrants to Covenant Churches in America. I wonder if those rutted tracks permitted regular attendance at the Parish Church in the dying village of Svinhult. For generations the parish priest had performed the rites of passage that bore the peasant from baptism to burial. Now, most of their graves lie unmarked or reused, their wooden crosses long since decayed and a new "rite of passage", emigration, emerged to carry others away.

"For you shall break out of your
confines right and left, your descendants
shall dispossess wide regions." Isaiah 54:3

Morfar left to create his own dynasty of 10 children and scores of grandchildren. None of us really questioned the quiet little man about his childhood and he volunteered little. In America he found freedom from social and ecclesiastical tyranny. As so many wrote back, "Here we do not tip our caps to sheriff or priest. Here a poor man is as good as the rich." The sentiment was not as totally accurate as first believed but here many barriers to success could be surmounted by hard work. After working for five years in LaPorte, Indiana, August proceeded to the little Swedish farm community of Vista in southern Minnesota. In less than a year, he met and married a Swedish maiden of 18 and settled on the prairie near the present Vista Covenant Church. It was "true love" and our mormor, Maria, bore him 10 children during sixty years of marriage. When grandfather arrived in March of 1877, a schism was tearing the Vista Lutheran Church apart. He joined the separating "Mission Friends" and became a board member of their new congregation. The Lutheran farm community was deeply split by the controversy and this is also reflected in a cemetery no longer open to the pietists. I find my roots also divided with a great, great grandmother on the Lutheran side and the rest of our family across the narrow road in the Mission graveyard.

Though thousands left Sweden, few did so out of hatred for the homeland. Its rich beauty grew in their memories as years passed. Once here, they frequently sought out areas similar to their "barndomshem." The deep rich soil of my grandparent’s little farm had very few stones but it also had no woodland. In 1909, the lakes and forested hills of east-central Minnesota drew Morfar to the Chisago City country. Here he found fields with a few stones that needed to be picked and a large wood lot of oak, maple, and linden. When they departed, two sons remained whose children are still active in the Vista Covenant Church. Their new home lacked a Mission Church and the Separatists met in the various farmhouses and were served by itinerant ministers. In Chisago County, the five youngest children joined a new rural community. When their time for confirmation arrived, the two youngest children were sent by rail each week to Salem Covenant Church in Minneapolis. Soon all but these two had joined the urban flow into Minneapolis where three older sisters already worshipped in "Skogsbergh’s Swedish Tabernacle." Their families have held leadership positions there and in other Covenant Churches until the present.

Today the old stuga at Erstorp serves as a summer home for a retired professional couple. We have visited with them several times and share their appreciation of its tranquil beauty. I dream that someday I may be able to spend a night within its walls and recapture an aura of the past and the spirit of my great grandparents. Great grandmother’s wood-burning cook stove still serves its purpose, as it did a century ago; the rough-sawn steps to the loft still have smooth hollows from the passage of countless feet; the evening stillness of the forest draws one into another world where time seems suspended. As an old history teacher, I feel driven to fill "the information gap" in the story of these silent, enduring folk.

Recently, we discovered a 1902 letter from Erstorp detailing the death of Morfar’s mother. A brother-in-law, writing from Erstorp, described her passing and deep faith. After listing his purchases of rye flour and white flour, the rental of a horse and wagon, and the cost of a pine coffin, he requested help with the funeral expenses. The margin of profit for a tenant farmer was precarious and even the baking of white bread for mourners might have disturbed its fragile balance. The request was surely answered but the parental bond had been severed and Morfar’s sister is lost in a stream of time.
After viewing the stark poverty and beauty of Erstorp, I can recapture some of the conflicting feelings with which grandfather walked down its stone-lined path and began his exodus. He and all his family are now assigned stone markers of their own, and Erstorp stands as a reminder of a harsh past. Still, within its rough walls we received our greatest legacy, an enduring faith. I frequently ponder whether the hardships of a tenant farm made reliance on their beautiful Savior a more natural outcome than for us. Let us hope not.

Stone, stone, unending stone, and the simple folk who moved it chose to build on a living and loving Rock; their dream was a better future and we have reaped their harvest.

"Farther on? How much farther?
Count the milestones one by one?
No! No counting, only trusting.
It’s better farther on."