Welcome to the Swede Parade


Ah, back at the farm.


Someone once observed that I’m either sprinting or asleep. Generally I’m always in sprint mode in Chicago, and never in sprint mode at the farm.

So, once I get to the airport to fly to Kansas, I’m out. I sleep on the plane, in the car ride home, and on the couch. I think Dad and I even fell asleep for a brief moment while standing during a prayer at church on Christmas Eve.

The Messiah Festival at Bethany College

Four years ago (before I moved to Chicago), Mom and I sang in the Messiah Festival at Bethany College. We joined this huge community choir and started practicing right after Christmas to sing Handel’s Messiah on Palm Sunday and Easter, and Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew on Good Friday.

At that time, the college was one of my clients, and because they didn’t have the budget to hire a proper photographer and model, my art director used me as the Swedish poster child for all of the promotional materials. So, among the choir, I am somewhat famous. (Yes, I’m still available for autograph sessions.)

Messiah poster

The term “community choir” doesn’t do it justice — it’s over 200 people with a full orchestra. At one point in its history, the choir sang at Carnegie Hall, and it’s been shown on many a national TV/radio program.

The most notable thing is that this ole batch of Swedes has been singing Messiah for 126 years. Straight.

The original 40-person choir in 1881 was a motley crew of Swedes living in sod dugout houses, having just arrived in the 1860s  from Sweden via a stint in western Illinois. (The farm ground was too soppy there — this was well before the age of drainage tiles.) Most didn’t speak much English, and the pastor and his wife spent their time teaching both the music and the English words.

They started singing the Bach Passion piece annually in 1929.

At any rate, Mom has continued to sing with the choir since 2003, and I’ve been relegated to spectator with Dad.

I do really enjoy hearing the performances, especially because I know the music inside and out. And I really like having the musical score in my lap to follow along (which I forgot to bring with me this time). But, any 3-hour performance is going to have its boring parts (i.e. soloists singing arias). So I read the program over and over — no, I recite the program that I have memorized in my head a few times.

All this said, on the way to the performance, Dad and I were joking about whether our 8th-row seats would be good for a nap. (We’ve always sat in the cramped balcony.)

Notes from Nelly Farm History

As we were joking, Dad related a story from that morning about the history of the farm.

But first, you should know that I grew up on the original Nelly homestead, which great-great-grandpa Andrew bought from the railroad in 1870s-ish, after coming from Sweden, spending a few years in western Illinois, and living for a few years about 45-minutes from the final homestead.

He built a house on the homestead in 1884. I grew up in that house. People used to come to our house by busload to see the ruts from the Santa Fe Trail.

Since then, the family has acquired a patchwork of land within a few-mile area, including a quarter known as the “old Peterson place,” purchased with Grandma’s meager inheritance sometime in the ’50s. That’s where my grandparents built a house in the ’60s — and where my parents have now lived for about a year and a half.

(Definition for city-dwellers: A quarter is 1/4 of a one-mile-square piece of land.)

The Story of C. Peterson

Back to Dad’s story on the way to the choir performance.

He was talking to his neighbor-high-school-classmate-farming-pal Joe yesterday morning, and they started talking about an old farmstead (long ago dozed) that stood on the quarter where my parents live. There was a one-room school, a house, a jail and something else.

This was the farm of C. Peterson. Joe mentioned that he thought C. had seen the last wagon train on the Santa Fe Trail. Could this be right? This man was only three generations back from Dad.

So dad called another neighbor, who he thought was a descendant of C.

C.’s mom and dad came to the area, made their home in a sod dugout and attempted to survive on their meager farm. C.’s dad came down with a bad illness. A cattle rustler passed through and offered him some medicine to get rid of the illness.

That night C.’s dad died. C.’s mom was pregnant with C.  (Apparently the cattle rustler thought he could clean her out.)

As the story goes, C.’s mom held the farm together for the year. She’d take C. with her as she did her farm tasks, and she relied on the help of the neighbors.

A year later, she married a neighbor (a Peterson), who adopted C.  They now had two quarters of land next to each other, which was prohibited at the time. So they traded one quarter for two work horses.

Not long after that, one of the horses slid down the creek bank and died. The guy who “bought” their land had an oxen. So together they hitched up the oxen and the horse to complete the work on their two farms that year.

Out of this meager beginning, C. became and adult, settled his own piece of land, and had 9 children. Descendants of C and his half-siblings still live in the area today.

So Dad called Joe back, and the two surmised that it must have been C.’s dad that saw the last wagon train.

Isn’t it amazing that such a story really only happened four generations ago? My parents actually knew people who were alive during the Civil War.

And most interesting of all, some of my best friends are descendants of the best friends of my great-great grandparents.


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