EAST DUMMERSTON -- Until recently, Earl Cavanagh didn't know that many of his ancestors came to Vermont from Sweden as part of a short-lived state-run program to help repopulate the abandoned hill farms with people accustomed to the rigors of living and working in a challenging rural environment.
Cavanagh learned how his Swedish ancestors came to Vermont from Lyndon State College history professor Paul Searls, who is researching a book on the topic.
And Cavanagh is now researching his family genealogy with renewed vigor and remembering the Swedish he heard spoken by elderly aunts when he was growing up in Windham County in the 1940s.
"When you're 5-, 6-, 7-years-old, you've got things to do, you've got to go outside and play. I would just hear them (and think), ‘Oh, well, I don't know what they're saying,"' Cavanagh, 73, said recently at his East Dummerston home, where he displayed pictures of his Swedish ancestors living in the Vermont countryside.
Searls stumbled onto the Swedish immigration project while writing another book, and he saw newspaper articles from across the country on the Swedish immigration program. Now, he's writing a book on the program.
"It was huge news in Vermont, hugely controversial, and big national news," Searls said. "Mostly, it was a news-of-the-weird kind of thing. It was an oddity or a curiosity."
"For a lot of reasons, people hated it. They couldn't figure out why the state of Vermont's program was to give $25 and a cow to every Swede who came over," he said. "They couldn't figure out why the state was supporting Swedish immigrants while there were native Vermont boys who could use that money."
The program, which started in 1890 and lasted a couple of years, didn't work as well as officials had hoped. It's unclear if any of the immigrants actually received the cow and the money.
"They wanted to import Swedish farmers, and they ended up with a bunch of impoverished lumberjacks," Searls said.
More than a century later, the state is still working to attract people to the state and keep the youth. Now state officials are pitching the state's low unemployment rate, offering scholarships to talented high school students and a high quality of life.
But the Swedes who moved to the Vermont towns of Weston, Wilmington and Vershire from Grava, not far from the Norwegian border in western Sweden, have descendants across the state, many of whom are unaware of how their ancestors came to live here.
Searls recently spoke with Lillian Fellows-Abbott, the 93-year-old daughter of one of the families that settled in Weston and Landgrove.
Fellows-Abbott's mother, Anna Nyren, was 4 when she came over from Sweden in 1890. At 18, Nyren moved to White River Junction, got married and helped support her family by taking in laundry from Dartmouth College students.
"She never, never said anything about being Swedish or growing up in Landgrove or anything of that," Fellows-Abbott told Searls.
The program has been examined by historians before, but the researchers had concluded that most of the Swedes who came to Vermont in 1890 had left, heading west. But Searls said that isn't true.
"It turned out they're all over the place," he said.