New Sweden, Maine hosts a Midsommar festival each year at the solstice, and I went with my friends Dick and Phil. It's a small festival, at it's a small place, but I am a sucker for small-town celebrations. This one was great fun.
When we got there, we'd already missed the traditional Swedish breakfast featuring a traditional Swedish pancake dish, and the Maypole was already festooned with flowers. (For the record, northern Maine abounds in beautiful purple and pink lupines, and they are obviously preparing to take over the world. Maine first.) Many of the girls and women at the festival were also wearing crown garlands of flowers in their hair, though none of the men.
We checked out the New Sweden Museum, which was once the original meetinghouse, or Capitoleum. The altar with communion rail is still in place upstairs in what was the meetinghouse's chapel, but now the museum is filled with Swedish stuff left to it by the original settlers: photos, antique clothing, dishes and kitchen stuff, old books, records, silver, some furniture, a few period rooms, and a totally cool sled carriage that must've whisked Swedish settlers over the snow in the day. I wanted to take it home. I wanted to ride it home, actually.
The newer Swedish church ("newer" being a relative term here; its date is about 1890) is notorious in the state for a murder that happened there a few years ago. Somebody poisoned a parishioner's coffee with arsenic, and as far as I know, the murder has not been solved. I didn't ask about this much, and for obvious reasons nobody wants to talk about it either. So, if you go to New Sweden, don't ask. And don't drink any church coffee.
The Swedish schoolhouse is now a gift shop where you can get Swedish stuff: church cookbooks (don't try the coffee recipes!), Swedish flags, straw Christmas ornaments. The school itself is mostly intact, with tiny little desks for tiny little students and a big desk for the teacher. I want to teach there, as it's so darn sweet. Some of the old books were fun -- clearly some Swedish versions of the old "Dick and Jane" readers.
Some of Phil and Dick's friends came up to them and invited us all to learn Swedish dancing that night at the local bandshell in the park. New Sweden has 700 people, so of course everybody knows everybody. We had previous dinner plans, but the dancing demonstrations looked like fun, if pretty energetic. Swedish dancing is more complicated than contra dancing, which immediately establishes my inabilty to learn it, but it's graceful and clearly of the people at the same time. There was a concert also scheduled of a local singer performing art songs and hymns in Swedish, accompanied by fiddle. I would've loved to have heard it.
There's an old log cabin that one of the original settlers built, with a tiny kitchen, tiny living room, and bed in the loft right under the rafters. One of the things that you notice in these old houses is how tiny the rooms are. The concept of personal space is so radically different from our own that one wonders how one had a private life way back when. The answer is, of course, that one didn't. Given the nature of the "we're all in this together" mentality of this settlement, that's probably a good thing.
This last statement serves as a graceful segue into why the Swedes ended up here in the first place. In the late 1860s, about 50 or so of them initially were invited by the then-governor of Maine to settle the northern reaches of the state so that somebody lived up there. He figured correctly that the climate and topography were similar to that of Sweden and thus they would thrive here. There are a number of settlements up here that are very Swedish (Stockholm, Maine, is just up the road), and it does seem as if the settlers managed to carve out a living and preserve their culture well. It wouldn't be hard to preserve the culture; New Sweden is off the beaten track even today, and in 1870, when the original colonists arrived, it must've been twenty miles past the back of beyond. There's a memorial marker near the premises of these buildings that marks the spot of the original settlement, and it mentions the names and dates of all the original settlers. A number of the inscriptionns are very poignant. Many colonists died before their second or third birthdays. It must have been a very hard life.
Further down the road is a working blacksmith's shop and a two-story log cabin of one of the more prosperous settlers, both of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. The view from these buildings is spectacular. Both are set on a bluff overlooking the Aroostook River Valley, and you can see all the way over the piney rolling forests to Mars Hill, about 30 miles south. Again, the house reminded me of why I would not have made a good pioneer. This was the house of a prosperous Swedish settler, mind you, at the top of the social ladder, and the rooms were still tiny and certainly drafty cold. It was like walking in a 3/4 size house. Even so, it was charming and left in its original state, right down to the Swedish newspapers used as wallpaper in the less public rooms, the sawdust used as insulation between the wallboards, the one-foot deep closets, the genteel and fragile furniture in the parlor, and the very big woodstove in the kitchen.
There were two blacksmiths working in the smithy's shop, and they were fascinating. I'd never seen smithing done, and the village smith must have been an important man because he made, well, everything the settlers needed: nails, farm implements, tools. Two little kids there was enthralled, having never seen metal that was red-hot and could be bent and hammered into malleable shapes.
For lunch, we had red hot dogs (I assume that these are not authentically Swedish). In The County, hot dogs have bright red casings. I have no idea why. Nobody else did, either. We finished that off with maple ice cream. There was a public dinner that we could not attend, as we were meeting another friend for dinner in St. Agatha, so we missed the Swedish meatball supper. (Are Swedish meatballs Swedish?) But the festival itself was great fun: low-key, utterly local, utterly charming.