Looking today at the bustling economies, robust social safety nets, stable governments, and overall quality of life of the Scandinavian countries, it’s hard to believe that only a little more than a century ago, northern Europe was an economic, political and religious basket case. Back in the 1880s, when Aldine was first coming together, only Denmark’s borders retained much the same shape as those of today. Norway was still under Swedish control, and Finland that of Czarist Russia, and within those borders, adherents of various Protestant sects rebelled against state-sponsored Lutheranism.
In Sweden, a 19th Century population boom overwhelmed the wintry country’s arable land. Famine stalked the land, and at the bottom of this descent into hell, two percent of Swedes literally starved to death yearly. Often enticed by “America letters” from family and friends who had already made the jump, vast numbers spared themselves that fate only by sailing for the States. Some 150,000 arrived between 1861 and 1881, with 100,000 of those arriving between 1868 and 1873.
Most of these immigrants wound up in the Great Plains states, and while many took up farming, there were enough city folk to see to it that by 1900, with 150,000 Swedish immigrants and American-born children, Chicago trailed only Stockholm in Swedish population. Meanwhile, real estate developers and immigrant societies sought to entice the Swedish Americans away from Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, and Kansas with promises of bountiful crops and endless summers.
It was just such a pitch that brought dozens of Swedes to Aldine in its earliest days, and some of them planted some of the orchards of satsuma tangerines that gave Orange Grove school and community its name. A series of hard freezes put the lie to the real estate hucksters — then as now, Aldine is just a tad too far north for reliable harvests of most citrus fruit. By this point, the letters Swedes sent home were more measured than those of decades past.
“None who are not accustomed to hard, agricultural labor ought to become farmers in this country,” read one. “No one who is in any other way well off in his native land ought to come hither.”
But those that remained did work hard at trades like blacksmithing, as with the family headed by Swante Lillja of Malmo, Sweden, that gave Lillja Road its name. (Lilja is Swedish for “lily.”) Immigrant Gustaf Andrew Oleson spent some time in the Iowa coal mines before coming to Aldine, where he prospered, raised ten children with wife Hildur Theresa. One of those children — Gus Oleson Jr. — donated the land on which the former Marrs School once stood. Oleson was that school’s maintenance man for most of his life and five years after his death it was renamed in his honor.
By 1898, a Lutheran pastor had arrived, one who split his time between Aldine and Houston, and well into the 20th Century, Swedish was still spoken in scattered Aldine homes, and while all of those old homes are now gone, the Swedes certainly left their mark on the community. Not just the school and a few street names, but as late as the 1990s, it was reported that a few stray, stunted and thorny satsuma trees remained in the woods near Aldine-Westfield and Beltway 8. Odd that such a tropical fruit might have been planted there by an immigrant from a frozen and once-starving land.