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How Swede it is!

WARREN, Minn. -- At a meeting last year of the Agassiz Swedish Society, Neil Mattson looked around and saw the writing on the wall -- and the gray in the hair of most members of the heritage group.

Dorothy Manz
Dorothy Manz of Alvarado, Minn., (left) chats with Edith Soli of Grand Forks during the Swedish meatball dinner on Thursday evening at the Warren Community Center. Manz and Soli went to UND together more than 50 years ago. Herald photo by Sarah Kolberg.

WARREN, Minn. -- At a meeting last year of the Agassiz Swedish Society, Neil Mattson looked around and saw the writing on the wall -- and the gray in the hair of most members of the heritage group.

"I was going to make a motion to disband because there didn't seem to be the interest," he said. "I've seen it rapidly declining, the further you get away from the people who came from Sweden.

"Most of our members are old now, like me, and very few young people want to get involved. I think that's true of all these organizations -- the Sons of Norway, the French over in Red Lake Falls -- that formed trying to hold their heritage up a little bit."

His friends heard him out last year and responded -- by electing him to the society's board of directors. His wife, Marilyn, was named publicity director.

"It showed there was a little interest, I guess," Neil Mattson said.


And the flame, if flickering, endures. At the society's 25th annual meeting here Thursday night, Neil was re-elected to the board. Marilyn got another term handling publicity.

Swedes came from Roseau, Middle River, Stephen, Lancaster, East Grand Forks and other towns. They elected Lyndon Johnson of Hallock president again, after a one-year retirement due to term limits in the society's bylaws, and not just because he has a presidential name; Johnson teaches the Swedish language to young people.

Michael Swanson, a UND archivist, talked about doing genealogical research, and Ann Woinarowicz of Stephen sang, though not in Swedish. Virginia Anderson of Thief River Falls won the evening's door prize, a red Dala horse candle.

And everyone proclaimed Judy Munger's Swedish meatball supper first-rate.

"The secret to Swedish meatballs is that beef was very expensive in Sweden, so they added a lot of pork," Marilyn Mattson said. "And they added bread crumbs soaked in milk and eggs and some seasonings."

About 55 people attended, counting a few Norwegians drawn by the meatballs. The association claims the allegiance of about 80 households, said membership director Marlene Silnes of Warren. "At one time, we were sending out 200 newsletters," she said.

Reaching out to younger Swedes

Young Swedish-Americans are interested in their ethnic heritage, Johnson said, and the society tries to fan that with its annual Midsummer festival and other gatherings.


"When we have a Lucia fest (in December), there are teenage girls in costume representing Sankta Lucia and her attendants, and sometimes a few young guys, also wearing white, singing with the girls. A few younger ones dress up as 'tomtar,' or elves."

The Midsummer celebration will be June 22 this year in Lancaster. "We'll have some young violin players and enough little kids to try a few ring dances around the freshly decorated pole, the 'majstang.' Whole families show up for that. It is held outside, and little ones can wear a crown of flowers."

Fifth generation

Neil Mattson, retired proprietor of the Warren Sheaf newspaper, cares deeply about history, especially the history of his own family and others who brought a strong Swedish influence to this part of Minnesota.

He's been involved with the Minnesota State Historical Society since 1959 and was president from 1970 to 1974.

"My people came from Sweden to Illinois in 1855," he said. "They were among the first Swedish people to come to this country."

He has tried to trace the early years of a great-grandfather, Nels Mattson, but records were lost in an Illinois courthouse fire in the 1870s.

"He came in 1855 with two brothers when he was about 27," Neil said. "They probably were working as farmers. The Panic of 1857 forced land prices out west to go way down, and he heard about cheap land in Minnesota. In the fall of 1858 -- just months after we became a state -- he came to Minnesota, and he was the first to buy land in the area outside Watertown, around Swede Lake.


"It's still called Swede Lake. I don't know whether he named it. But he went broke there; they sold him swamp land."

In 1862, during the Sioux uprising, Nels Mattson sent his family to Waconia, Minn., for safety. "He stayed home and took care of the cows and helped build fortifications in Watertown as protection against the Indians, who never did come that far."

Later, Nels joined the 1st Minnesota heavy artillery regiment and served at Chattanooga, Tenn., guarding rebel prisoners at the end of the Civil War.

He returned to Minnesota and his family, which included son John P. Mattson, Neil's grandfather, who studied to be a teacher.

"At a county fair, he saw a display about the Red River Valley put on by the Great Northern Railroad," Neil said. "They were offering tickets, $5 dollars one way, St. Paul to Crookston. He did that and worked on a farm by Crookston in 1882."

John Mattson's first attempts to land a teaching job failed, and he wrote about it in his diary: "They hired the woman teacher. Dead broke." But he did eventually get a teaching job, and in 1883 he was elected Marshall County superintendent of schools. Three years later, he bought the Warren Sheaf.

Edgar Mattson, Neil's father, and an uncle took over the paper, passing it on to Neil in 1970. He retired in 1995 and turned the Sheaf over to son Eric.

Neil and Marilyn have never been to Sweden.


"And I have no desire to go," he said. "I have had some contact with relatives in Sweden, but I want to know about them in this country. I don't really care about them over there.

"The generations that came here in the 1800s and early 1900s, they made a determined effort to become Americans. They wanted to speak like Americans. My folks both could speak Swedish, but I never heard them speak in the home. Eventually they lost the ability."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

Marilyn Mattson
Marilyn Mattson and her husband, Neil (both from Warren, Minn.) get their plates of Swedish meatballs on Thursday evening at the Warren (Minn.) Community Center. The meatball dinner was held before the Agassiz Swedish Society meeting. Herald photo by Sarah Kolberg.

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