I had no idea how much Swedes contributed to the growth and development of Chicago until I visited the Swedish American Museum on N. Clark Street in Andersonville, just a brief stroll past condos and homes east of N. Ashland and north of W. Foster avenues.
I walked into the museum at 5211 N. Clark St. on a Tuesday not knowing that the museum is free to visitors that day. While that was a pleasant surprise, even more pleasant were the art exhibits and history I found inside this three-story museum that even includes an interactive children’s section.
Swedish artist Bjorn Sjogren’s colorful Streets, Blocks & Neighborhood exhibit is on display on the first floor until March 15. On the second floor, you’ll find details of the Swedish-American immigrant experience as well as information on some more famous Swedes who had a significant impact on Chicago.
Swedes built Chicago, the museum will tell you, helping it start anew after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Many Swedes had agricultural and industrial skills that helped this city grow into an economic powerhouse. They built homes and other real estate and started businesses, churches and hospitals.
Just to give you an idea of how many Swedes immigrated to Chicago, by 1890, Swedes were the third largest ethnic group in the city, behind only the Irish and the Germans. Swedish men, women and families came to the United States in search of jobs and religious freedom and to escape compulsory military service in their homeland.
Some famous Swedes include Albert Ivar Appleton, who founded the Appleton Electric Co. and whose grandson was Albert Goodman of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Andrew Lanquist was a well-known builder and developer whose company built the Wrigley Building and Marshall Field’s on State Street. Per Peterson established his own nursery called Rosehill and supplied most of the nursery stock for Lincoln Park. All three of these men were born in Sweden.
Perhaps the most famous Swedes were actually second-generation Swede-Americans. They were Charles R. Walgreen Sr., who opened his first store on Chicago’s south side, and Carl Sandburg, a writer who won two Pulitzer Prizes. Both were born in or just outside Galesburg, Illinois.
The museum offers visitors just a taste of Swedish art and artistry, including examples of Swedish folk dress, wooden shoes, and a Nyckelharpa, a type of musical instrument. A gift shop selling traditional Swedish wares is on the first floor.
For those who are interested in Chicago’s history, this unassuming museum will answer questions and give you a sense of how important immigrants were to this city’s bourgeoning growth.
Victoria Marty has written for newspapers and magazines for more than 15 years and recently moved to the Lincoln Square, Chicago area. A frequent runner who loves learning and exploring new places, she has perfected the art of getting lost while simultaneously finding unique landmarks, boutiques and out-of-the-way nooks worth writing about. Her blogs are geared toward the newly transplanted who want to learn as much about Chicago as they can, as quickly as possible.