Our Neighbors: Life on 'that old street'

Saturday October 13, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- "I'd just like to see that street again."

Sitting in his living room on West Street in Brattleboro, his four cats sleeping or slinking through the yard, Carl Anderson waves his arm to the east, where West slopes up from Williams.

"You'd come up the street and this whole left side was huge old maple trees, and the branches curved over the street like an arbor. And on the other side ...."

Carl smiles. His voice comes to a hush.

"... Apple trees."

He leans back in his chair. He's lived in this house for almost all of his 86 years.

"There was one tree with big yellow eating apples, but the rest were mostly scrub crab apples. I'm sure the old Swedish women made something with them, nonetheless."

He smiles. "Those old Swedes." He nods. "I miss them, I do. And every one of them's gone but my sister and me."

In 1926, when Carl was born, Swedish families lived in every house in his neighborhood. The Vermont state government had begun recruiting immigrants from northern Europe, particularly Sweden, in the late 1800s, hoping the newcomers would work on abandoned farms and in factories.

Somehow, so many Swedish immigrants settled along the steep streets curving down from the south side of Western Avenue that the neighborhood came to be called Swedeville. There were even enough Swedes in town to fill two churches.

"There was the Congregational Church and the Lutheran Church," Carl says, pointing toward the left and the right. "The Congregational one decided to keep its services all in Swedish, so when the old Swedes started dying off, that pretty much meant the end of it. The building is a stained glass studio now."

He holds out a large black and white picture. "Here's the congregation at the Lutheran, which is up on Western Ave now. I don't know quite when it was taken, I figure 1910 maybe."

Four rows deep, the congregation is dressed in Sunday best, the women in formal hats, the men in clean black coats. Unlike many old photographs, though, the people don't look dour or spacey, like they don't entirely understand what a camera does. Instead, the Swedes look comfortable, sturdy, at home.

"That's my father in the front row." Carl points to a boy, 9 or so years old, kneeling with the other nicely dressed kids. "His name was Emil."

Carl's father grew up in the West Street house; his own father, having come from Sweden, bought it in 1893.

"A lot of the Swedes in Brattleboro worked at the Estey Organ factory," Carl explains, "but they mostly lived up around Estey Circle. Here most people did other work, carpenters and such. I guess there were so many single Swedish men that one of the ladies in town, well-to-do, I think, felt bad about it and organized a bunch of single Swedish women to come over as domestics."

He laughs. "Well, it didn't take long for the men and women to marry up. Honestly, though, I'm not sure what brought my grandfather here."

Whatever the inspiration, the first Anderson in Brattleboro came into a community that was hard-working and tightly knit.

"This was never an affluent neighborhood," Carl says emphatically. "It was working people, but people who helped each other. You asked for help when you needed it and you gave help when you could give it."

In the evenings, families would crowd on front porches, the Swedish flying. Carl remembers Sundays after church services, people standing in knots of two or three, more Swedish flying.

Sometimes the neighborhood was downright self-sufficient, like the time a group of men dealt with the occasional flooding from the swamp near the top of the hill. Rather than ask the town to fix the problem, the men dug a trench that stretched all the way down to the Whetstone Brook.

"The trench got plugged up years later and folks called the town to come fix it," says Carl. "The town didn't even know about it! It wasn't on any map. Those old Swedes ...."

Memories of long gone men and women keep Carl company these days. He can name every Swedish family who used to live in every house (including a staggering number of Johnsons), pointing to their old homes as if a housewife could step out with a broom and a pastry at any moment.

There was Herman Nilson, the postman who delivered the mail by horse and liked to drink a bit, requiring the horse to lead him back to the stable at the end of the day.

"I was awful tickled by him," remembers Carl. "Who knows -- maybe that's why I became a postman for 31 years."

There was Thor Linus Anderson, Carl's uncle.

"We called him Bab," he says. "He was my favorite, I think. Most evenings you could find me over on his and his wife Rosie's front porch, just talking neighborhood talk. He worked as a shipper for a printing company and he drove a 1929 Packard. That monstrous thing had solid wheels. It was a tank."

There was unmarried Anna Johnson, who lived with her four unmarried brothers, and who was a nurse and a baker and a kind of grandmother to Carl's own kids.

"Oh, I remember when the old Swedes were dying off and Anna was still there, she'd get on the phone with Greta Sprick over at Estey Circle, and you'd hear the Swedish flying," he laughs.

There was Old Carl Birkland, who went fishing on the Connecticut River and always invited young Carl to join him.

"We near about fed the neighborhood. One time we set out three buckets of good white perch on the front sidewalk and said, Help yourself!" He shakes his head "Everybody ate perch for three days."

There was pretty Berta Katrina. And there was the lead pipe that carried water from the spring up the hill down to the Anderson house. There was the swimming hole, which Carl would help ring with rocks each spring to raise the water level. There was the Swedish meatball suppers twice a year at the Lutheran church. There was the horse and V-shaped plow to clear sidewalks of snow. There was his whole childhood.

"I remember being 7 or 8, waking up in the morning and going out to play, and my mother didn't worry," Carl says. "It was, ‘Oh, he'll be home when he's hungry.' And I was. It was safe. You had to look pretty hard for trouble if you wanted to get in it, really."

He sighs. "I miss those old Swedes. I miss knowing my neighbors like we used to. They were good people, good solid people. It's a different world now."

He lifts a hand in acceptance. "But I don't worry. If I can do something, I do it, and if not, I won't worry about it. Besides," he grins, "my cats keep things busy enough around here."

Carl looks to the east and the west, up and down the hill, which was long ago lined with maple and apple trees.

"I'd just like to see that old street again."

Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at reformer.ourneighbors@gmail.com.


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