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RANDY'S RAMBLINGS: It's in our genes

It's clearer to me now.

As a youth, I sometimes wondered how I ended up in such an intensely Christian home.

Most of my people came from Sweden in the 1880s. My wife and I will be traveling there in a few weeks, at the end of a visit to Germany. That's how this journey of discovery began.

Two years ago, I met Anders Claesson, the managing director of Sittab, a Swedish company that manufactures seat components and accessories for heavy equipment -- big earth movers, forestry machines, trucks and the like. Anders and his family spent a school year in Woodbury, Minn., while he was establishing the Hudson office of Sittab.

A few months ago, it occurred to me to contact Anders in advance of our trip to Sweden.

I remembered him telling me that he was from Borlänge in Dalarna County, Sweden. I knew I had ancestors on my mother's side who were from Dalarna, so I consulted a thick family genealogy book that a distant cousin compiled 25 years ago.

I learned that my great-grandfather Stark Olof Halvarsson and my great-grandmother Anna Olsdotter Berg (Halvarsson) were both born in Skansbacken, Nås, in Dalarna, a county about three hours northwest of Stockholm by car.

My grandfather Harry (Halvar) Halverson was born in Nås, too -- in 1884. The family came to America on two boats, with Stark Olof and two of the children leading the way in 1888. Anna and the remaining four children followed in 1889.

Stark Olof Americanized the family name to Halverson upon his arrival. The Halversons eventually settled north of Milaca, Minn., in a rural township named Riverside where my mother grew up.

Through the wonders of Google Maps, I located a Nås, Sweden, and sent an email to Anders asking him if I had found the birthplace of my grandfather and great-grandparents.

"You assumption is correct. Nås in Dalarna is the place," came the reply from Anders. "...Do you know the exact address? If not, I can assist you, and if you want I can also contact the local group of people that would host visits like this in Nås."

Anders also invited us to stop by the Sittab factory at Gustafs for a tour and coffee.

I thanked Anders for the information and hospitable offer, and said, sure, I'd like to be put in touch with the group that hosts visits from Swedish Americans. I didn't know it then, but I was about to embark on a voyage of family discovery.

On April 25, I received the first of what would be many emails from Margaretha Hedblom of Malung, Sweden. She offered to help research my family history, and asked me to forward the records I had sent to Anders.

If my memory serves me right, I added information about my paternal grandmother's parents, Blom Olaf Larson and Der Sarah Ersdotter, who came to Wisconsin from Järna in Dalarna County in the mid-1880s. They settled in a Swedish community called Garden Valley near Alma Center, Wis.

It turns out that Nås and Dala-Järna are located nine miles apart on the river Dalälven. And Margaretha knows a lot more of my family history than I do.

Nås and Järna were centers of the Free Baptist movement in Sweden in the 1800s.

Margaretha is a semi-retired radio and newspaper freelance journalist who has written books and made a TV documentary about the diaspora of Free Baptists from Dalarna.

In the mid-1800s, a group of Free Baptists from Nås emigrated to Jerusalem. The story was the subject of a Swedish film, and is re-enacted each summer in a play in Nås.

As part of her research, and the friendships she made, Margaretha has visited Wisconsin and Minnesota some 60 times.

"I have spent many weeks in the Garden Valley area and had many very close friends living there," she wrote to me. "The little church (was) built around 1888 when the area was first settled by the Dalarna people."

The little Swede Town Baptist Church was the one my father attended as a child. I remember him relating how glad he would be when the preacher said in Swedish that they were going to sing a song in English.

The services were conducted in Swedish. My dad didn't understand much of it because his father, a Norwegian immigrant, said they were Americans and were going to speak English.

Margaretha has the diary of a brother of my great-grandmother, a Swede from Järna known as Preacher Pete, chronicling his years in Garden Valley. My great-grandfather, Blom Olaf, is mentioned in it.

She has visited with family members on my father's side, and been amused by their Swedish dialect stuck in the 1880s.

After hearing from me, she researched my maternal ancestors, too.

Stark Olof Halvarsson went to the pastor of the Nås state (Lutheran) church on Jan. 7, 1888, and told him that the family wanted to leave to become members of the Baptist church. Five months later, he returned to the minister to get permission to emigrate to America.

"His wife Anna Olsdotter and the rest of the family got their permissions to leave in 1889, July 21," Margaretha wrote. "They left by boat from Gothenburg (Gotebörg in Swedish) on August 16, with the destination New York. Quite a trip to go alone with four small children, wasn't it?"

My grandpa Harry, then five years old, was one of the passengers.

My great-grandfather Stark Olof was the leader of the Riverside Swedish Baptist Sunday school for many years.

In Sweden, he was a day laborer in an iron foundry. The family lived in a backstuga, a hillside cabin that didn't belong to them.

In May, I received the alarming news that some of my ancestors from the 1600s and 1700s were Finnish. Finland and Sweden were one country then, and King Carl XI invited the Finns settle in the dark northern pine forests of Sweden. Most of them were charcoal makers, according to Margaretha. They were known as Forest Finns.

I wrote to Margaretha that I was proud of my Swedish ancestry and little troubled to hear it is tainted by Finnish blood even though it does explain my affinity for cutting and burning brush.

She replied that I shouldn't worry about it. Where she lives, many of the people have their roots in Norway, and Belgian iron workers came to the Nås and Järna in the 17th century.

"The Finnish people brought sisu (strength) to the area. I am pretty proud of having some Finnish blood," Margaretha wrote. "That brought strong women and men to the area, and they helped build the country. They got seven years free from taxes to be able to clear the land."

So this religious fervor and enjoyment of rural life and the woods that runs through my family is understandable now. It's part of our genetics.

I'm looking forward to visiting the places where my great-grandparents lived. Margaretha says the librarian in Nås, Britt-Marie Jonth, and a friend of hers will show them to us.

We're planning to have dinner with a distant cousin of mine and her family at her mother's house in Dala-Järna. She's a Falun schoolteacher and he was recently appointed deputy governor of Dalarna.

On the way back to Stockholm, we'll stop by the Sittab factory for a visit with Anders.

It's pretty exciting stuff for a 60-year-old boy from Luck, which Margaretha also has visited.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

(715) 426-1066