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John Nordstrom (1871-1963) was a Swede. He immigrated to the United States at the age of 16 and worked his way across the country to Seattle — where, in 1896, he read newspaper accounts of the Klondike Gold Rush and set out to Alaska to make his fortune.
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When another miner bought his claim, he took the money and returned to the Lower 48, having decided that he could earn more money making shoes for miners than digging gold.
The Wallin & Nordstrom shoe store, at Fourth Avenue and Pike Street, grew into the national Nordstrom department store chain.
Ivar Haglund (1905-1985) was born in Seattle, the son of Swedish and Norwegian pioneer immigrants. Originally a folk singer, he opened the city’s first aquarium in 1938 with a fish-and-chips counter on Pier 54. Following World War II, he expanded into a full-service seafood restaurant, Ivar’s Acres of Clams; today, there are two dozen Ivar’s around Puget Sound.
He bought the iconic Smith Tower building in 1976 and in his later years was elected a Seattle port commissioner. Yet many Seattle residents remember him best for the huge fireworks shows he presented over Elliott Bay every “Fourth of Jul-Ivar,” beginning in 1965.
These men are two of the best-known individuals of Scandinavian heritage in recent Seattle-area history. But they are far from alone.
Other men and women with roots in Seattle have included Sen. Warren Magnuson, Swedish Hospital founder and surgeon Nils August Johanson, Boeing Company president Philip Johnson, inventor Alfred Moen, graphic artist Tuulikki Pietila, golf-club designer Karsten Solheim and educator Pearl Anderson Wanamaker.
Like me, they may have found Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood to be just like the “old country.” This was the district that new arrivals from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland, most often called home. Generations later, the descendants of Nordic fishermen continued to shop for lingonberries and pickled herring at Olsen’s Scandinavian Foods, and wash down their fish cakes and meatballs with aquavit at The Copper Gate.
Sadly, these Ballard icons have recently closed — Olsen’s in 2008, the Copper Gate in 2012. But park-like Bergen Place, in the heart of Ballard, continues to fly the national flags of each Scandinavian country and to host the Norwegian Syttende Mai (May 17) celebration. In mid-July, it’s the site of the Ballard SeafoodFest, complete with a contest to determine who can eat the most foul-tasting lutefisk, a gelatinous, lye-soaked cod.
And the Nordic Heritage Museum is such a stanchion of the community that it has raised more than half of the funds needed for a new $45-million visitor facility in the heart of the Ballard community. With the support of organizations like Seattle’s Swedish Club and the Sons of Norway’s Leif Erikson Lodge, the museum hopes to open at 26th and Market streets, beside the Lake Washington Ship Canal, by 2018.
The current museum, at home since 1980 in the historic 1907 Daniel Webster Elementary School, is an ideal place to begin an exploration of Scandinavian heritage in the Pacific Northwest. A cultural center as well as an exhibition space, the Nordic Heritage Museum has 11 galleries that relate the story of European emigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries, tell success stories of new arrivals and their descendants, and showcase traditional crafts.
My favorite exhibits are on the upper floor, where former classrooms have been converted into “national identity” galleries that describe the unique heritage of each of the five main Scandinavian cultures. As three of my grandparents came to America from the farmlands of central Sweden at the turn of the 20th century — and my maternal grandfather, Johan Gottberg, grew up in the maritime lands of southwestern Finland — I am able to imagine their early years in North America through the various interpretive displays.
The largest of the permanent exhibits, however, is “The Dream of America,” on the ground floor. Through photographs, sound bites and various artifacts — some authentic, others replicas — it demonstrates the difficulty of the immigrants’ journey to America and the Pacific Northwest. One exhibit captures the mood of steerage-class passage on a steamboat that cut trans-Atlantic travel time from 53 days to just 12.
Several million Scandinavians came to the United States between the 1860s and 1914. (More than 1 million residents of Washington and Oregon still claim Nordic descent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.) The opening of the Pacific Northwest for settlement and the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883 drew numbers that remained substantial until the start of World War I. In the Northwest, logging and fishing, and (to a lesser extent) boat-building, mining and farming, employed the majority.
Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, northwest of downtown on the north side of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, became an urban center for the immigrants. Fishing was the big industry: As described in museum displays, the Europeans’ skill in angling and seafaring, and the richness of the Pacific resource, led Ballard to boom. The community incorporated as its own city before annexation by Seattle in 1907.
Swedes became known for their expertise in salmon trolling, Finns as gillnet trollers, Norwegians as deep-sea halibut fishermen, Icelanders for cod fishing. And Old World craftsmen found other outlets for their skills, like Sivert Sagstad, who built fleets of wooden fishing boats at his Ballard Boat Works beginning in 1905.
Crafts are further exhibited in Nordic Folk Art galleries, which show work valued as much for function as for artistry. Decorative elements such as Norwegian rosemaling, or decorative painting, provide a thread through centuries of national heritage. Folk costumes of different countries are colorfully presented. And such traditional elements as birch bark and straw are demonstrated for use in baskets, bags and even chests.
The museum incorporates a research library, an auditorium and a gift shop. It acts as a hub for Nordic community activities, especially during the Christmas holiday period.
Bergen Place is the symbolic heart of downtown Ballard. Located on Market Street (at 5420 22nd Ave. N.W.), it was dedicated in 1975 by Norway’s King Olav V in the name of Seattle’s sister city, a port in the Norwegian fjords. The flags of all five Scandinavian nations fly beside a mural that depicts traditional culture and industry, while an adjacent kiosk offers community maps and information. A modern art installation called “Witness Trees,” by artist Jennifer Dixon, consists of separate poles dedicated to native heritage, Nordic mythology, folk art and the fishing industry.
A year after King Olav’s appearance, Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf arrived in Ballard to officially proclaim the Ballard Avenue Historical District. Extending south of Market Street, this area is today a “gourmet ghetto” where many fine-dining restaurants have taken over and refurbished historic buildings, most dating from the 1890s and early 1900s. The neighborhood’s two new boutique hotels — Hotel Ballard and the Ballard Inn — are also in this district.
At the north end of the district, a half-block from Bergen Place, a pocket park called Marvin’s Garden occupies the site of Ballard’s Old City Hall. All that remains of the municipal building is its 1,000-pound brass bell, rescued after City Hall was razed in 1965. Cast in 1892, it has hung since 2011 within a specially designed monument, where it strikes hourly from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily (with a less frequent Sunday schedule).
Another leading Ballard attraction is the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1917, the project includes two locks — one large, one small — that connect freshwater Lake Washington and Lake Union with the tidal saltwater of Puget Sound through the Lake Washington Ship Canal. Commercial and recreational vessels pass between the two; depending upon tides, they must be raised or lowered 20 to 22 feet.
A viewing platform allows visitors to behold the process, and also to observe salmon traveling through a fish ladder here. Nearby is a visitor center, open most days, beside the lush Carl S. English Botanical Gardens.
Nordic fishermen rallied the Port of Seattle to create freshwater public moorage along the Ship Canal. That led to the creation of Fishermen’s Terminal, now home to one of the world’s largest fleets of fishing vessels. Immediately south of the Ballard Bridge, it welcomes curious visitors to its port facilities and seafood restaurants. Among the vessels docked here are those featured in the TV series “The Deadliest Catch,” home-ported here when they are not going after king crab in Alaska’s Bering Sea.
Out and about
Some of the most typical Nordic institutions in the Ballard area are one to two miles north of downtown. With Olsen’s now a memory, Scandinavian Specialties is the place to go for all manner of imported Swedish and Norwegian foods, as well as a wide variety of gift items. It also has a small cafe where open-faced sandwiches and other Nordic fare are served with a “tack sa mycket” and “var sa god.” (That’s “thank you” and “you’re welcome.”)
Larsen’s Danish Bakery does a bustling business of freshly baked breads and Danish pastries for dine-in or take-out. And the former Copper Gate restaurant is now a neighborhood bar called Olaf’s, which maintains a bawdy Scandinavian flavor even if hamburgers have now replaced Swedish meatballs on the menu.
Fremont, the quirky neighborhood immediately east of Ballard, is as famous for its engaging sculptures as for its excellent restaurants. None is as well-known as the Fremont Troll, which hides beneath the Aurora Bridge on North 34th Street, like some scene out of the Norwegian folk tale “Three Billy Goats Gruff.” Built of concrete, wire and steel by a group of four local artists in 1990, this wicked-looking troll, 18 feet high, clutches a Volkswagen Beetle with a California license plate. Out-of-staters, beware.
For those with a special interest in their Nordic heritage, two organizations — the Leif Erikson Lodge of the Sons of Norway and the Swedish Club, home to the Swedish Cultural Center — welcome visitors and especially new members.
— Reporter: firstname.lastname@example.org