My Mother’s Family
I’ve written/edited lots about my father’s family, since it continues a story that they themselves wrote about for several generations. My mother’s family didn’t write so much, but I’d still like to include something about them, from what little I know.
This side of the family is all Swedish. My Grandparents had been born in Scandinavia. My mother Virginia was born in Oregon, but she identified with Swedish ethnicity every bit as much as her parents did. Indeed they were all part of the immigrant Swedish community, which was tight-knit just like so many other immigrant communities.
And because the Swedes were perceived as different from the standard-issue Anglo Saxon, they occasionally suffered from prejudice, like so many immigrant communities. It wasn’t much compared to what Blacks and Asians had to put up with, but it was real enough that, to this day, my mother’s feelings still sting from the ethnic insults that were hurled her way.
Interestingly, my Grandparents never did teach Mom to speak Swedish. I guess they wanted to promote her English usage, or maybe they wanted to keep a language that their daughter didn’t know, so they could speak in secret behind her back!
My grandfather, Gustav Andreas Westlund, came from a little town named Korsnäs, a suburb of Falun, the administrative center for Dalarna province, which is located in the heart of Sweden. Falun has a copper mine that operated for a thousand years until quite recently. The leftovers from the mine were used to produce the red paint seen all over Sweden, known for its ability to preserve wood.
Dalarna is also where those little red-painted wooden horses come from. And Korsnäs is not far from Sundborn, where the famous artist Karl Larsson lived and worked. You can’t get more Swedish than Dalarna and Gust was born there on June 1st 1891.
Gust’s family lived in a huge house on the edge of a forest. Like so many places, it was painted red from the copper mine wiith white trim. It was actually closer to the town of Hosjö than it was to Korsnäs. The house was built in the 1700’s. I myself saw the proof of that when I visited there a couple decades ago. Each room was originally heated by a colorful ceramic wood-burning oven, overlaid with fancy ceramic designs. They have upgraded the heating system since then, but the old furnaces remain because they are so beautiful. The house still stands today, located a little ways into the woods, with a clear view of the Hosjö church (built in 1663 – also painted red, though without white trim) It was Gust’s church when he still lived there. It stands across a shallow valley from the house. In fact, the church and Grandpa’s old house are on the same road (Church Way)
When Gust was an infant, his mother died. His father remarried to a woman with two children of her own. She did not care much for little Gust, so at the age of eleven he “ran away,” to avoid spending too much time in the house. Instead, he spent as much time as possible in what was later known as “Gust’s Woods,” which was a vast thicket of medium-sized birch trees mixed with evergreens. So I don’t even know if he ever finished school In fact, it was still called “Gust’s Woods” when I visited the house in 1975. He matured into quite a carpenter, perhaps practicing on those birches. He even constructed a huge barn (still standing) on the family property. All of it was painted red, of course.
On September 22, 1911, he departed for America, along with a cousin and Axel Hansson, a family friend who later became Siri Hansson’s father upon his return to Sweden. Siri was actually born in that same huge house on Church Way. The three young men contacted an agent who sold sets of tickets to cover the entire route from Sweden to Portland. They took the White Star Line, which sailed from Göteborg, near Denmark, through Liverpool, in England, and from there to Boston, landing on October 5, 1911. From there they took a beeline (actually, a train) to Portland, Oregon.
It’s never been clear to us why Gust had wanted to come to America in the first place. He didn’t talk about it much. Perhaps it was the call of adventure. Perhaps, at the age of twenty, he wanted to avoid the draft. Or perhaps he figured he could earn a lot more money in America, where he already had some relatives living in Portland. His own home in Dalarna never seemed very welcoming.
In Portland, he showed up at his cousin’s, Marie Erickson’s. He knocked on her back door, and when she answered, he shouted, “I’m here!” Marie was surprised, because apparently they had not been expecting him and his two large trunks. Had he written them beforehand? Maybe the letter had gotten lost in the mail. Or maybe he figured they were family so they’d help him. At any rate, they did help him find a place to live.
It may be typical, by the way, for Swedes to use the back door rather than the front door, for family and friends. Gust’s big house in Dalarna didn’t even have a front door.
One of those trunks contained a piano accordion, and as quick as he could, Gust joined local polka bands. He learned music by ear, including a tune I’ll always associate with him, “I Finnlands Skogen.” (In Finland’s forests). He also liked to play the mandolin and the “juice harp.” How he ever learned all that while hanging out in the woods in Sweden is beyond me. Like many Swedes in Portland at that time, he got a job with Emerson Hardwood Mills – ten hours of work a day.
My adventurous grandmother, Anna Adelina Hudd West, was born on March 29, 1896, in (or near) Vasa, Finland, a Finnish region with a large Swedish minority, left over from when that area was part off Sweden.
She grew up on a farm, and enjoyed climbing trees and riding horses. In fact, she sometimes rode her horse across one of Finland’s oldest stone bridges, the Toby River stone bridge near Helsingby. Her family’s farm buildings themselves have long ago been torn down, so there was no house for me to visit.
When she was about thirteen years old, her father, John West (Johan Johansson West), left for America to seek his fortune. He settled in Portland, where his wife’s sister, Ida Hudd Berg, ran a boarding house at NW 19th and NW Johnson streets. This is probably where Gust also settled when he arrived in Portland a couple years later. John began working for the Electrolux Company, which was a Swedish company. Presumably he sent money home to Finland.
Anna was confirmed in the Lutheran church at the age of 16, which seemed to have freed her to travel, because a year later, “on a lark,” she came to Portland with her two brothers to visit her father. It could be, too, that the family in Finland was wondering what had happened to John after several years’ absence, and Anna was sent to “suss out” the situation. In Portland, she soon met Gust, so perhaps they had all ended up living at Ida Berg’s place.
Anna soon got a job as a domestic worker for a family named Soloman, who lived in a big house in the “Holladay” section of Portland (near where Lloyd center is now). She did the cooking and cared for their two children. Gust sometimes waited for her to get off work, so they could walk off together. On one occasion, while Gust was waiting, another woman began flirting with him. He walked away, but she kept after him. Eventually the story was picked up by a local newspaper. I guess life was a lot simpler back then, and it was much easier to be scandalized.
Anna was really close to her mother, and even though she was settling into Portland life, they exchanged letters every week.
Anna often came around when Gust was playing his accordion in a band. She loved to dance (more than she liked to eat, she said), but when she needed a rest from dancing, she’d walk over close to Gust to listen to him play. Anna had planned to return to Finland to live with her mother again, but reasons kept piling up for her to stay in America.
For example, she had always wanted to become a nurse. A doctor in Portland told her about a nursing program in San Francisco where she assuredly would be accepted. In fact, he would sponsor her. Not only that, Hilma Anderson, her childhood friend, was already living there. Gust didn’t like that idea, though. He said that if she went to San Francisco, she likely would never return. Of course, he could have gone to San Francisco with her.
But at any rate, he convinced her that, after three years of getting to know each other, they should get married. The wedding took place on February 17, 1917, in the home of Fred and Fay Anderson, with a large number of friends and family attending and eating. John West was also present, supporting Anna in the absence of her mother. And “I Love You Truly” was sung by “Miss Hazel.”
At the time, Gust continued to work for the Emerson Hardwood Company at Nineteenth and Front Streets for ten hours a day.
Gust and Anna’s married life
They moved into a house on N. E. 79th Avenue. Then, later in 1917, the Spanish flu epidemic caught up with them. Anna was stricken, but her doctor advised her not to seek help at a hospital or one of the city-managed emergency hospitals, as people there were “dropping like flies.” So she put a “quarantine” sign by their front door and went to bed for several days. Then one day she had a craving for bacon, so she asked Gust to fry some for her. Well, he tried. But she ate the burned and blackened mess anyway.. And she started to recover, if only so she could take over the kitchen, again.
And I have to interrupt to say that she was one of the best cooks I have ever come across. She knew no recipes, but she did know how to manipulate foods in an intuitive manner that came out perfectly every time.
Then they decided to try Southeast Portland, where several Swedish families that they knew were already living. But after a few years living there, they found that they didn’t really like Southeast Portland. They never should have left the Northeast! During that time, Anna’s mother in Finland died on December 2, 1920. Anna asked Gust if they could have a child, as she now needed someone else to love. She had asked many times through the years, but Gust had always said “no.” Now he said “Yes.” In fact, as he later explained, he’d have been happy to have as many kids as possible if only they could start their lives at the age of two and not as newborns. He was just no baby guy.
After Anna’s mother died, her father John moved back to Finland later the same year (He left on December 15th 1920) and never returned to America. When he got to Finland, he got remarried, to a woman only five years older than Anna! Anna was no fan of this arrangement. However, she loved her own mother so much, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could have taken her place in Anna’s heart.
1922 was a momentous year for the Westlunds. Their daughter Virginia (my mother) was born at Emmanuel Hospital on October 5th,, 1922. The labor was not easy, and lasted 36 hours. Maybe that’s why they never had another child. At the time, Gust was not in Portland. He was working in Reedsport, along with fellow Swede Axel Matson. Reedsport is located just above the mouth of the Umpqua river, West of Eugene and Roseburg, with close ties to the fishing industry and the logging industry. Though not precisely on the Pacific Coast, it was subject to periodic flooding from the sea.
W hile the men were a way, Irene Matson stayed with Anna. And when Virginia was born, and brought them home from the hospital. Irene could drive, and she said that Virginia’s “first outing” was to visit Tillie Benson at the age of three weeks. Tillie’s son Leroy, whom Virginia later got to be good friends with, was five years old then. He was playing outdoors when they came to visit..
Earlier that year, the Westlunds took out a loan to buy a vacant lot in Northeast Portland at the corner of 79th Avenue (the street that they had left a few years before) and Beech Street. I imagine they also bought a truckload of lumber. They truly intended to stay there forever. Though the lot started out vacant, they had the skills and imagination to build whatever sort of home they wanted.
So Anna would get the gables she always wanted, as well as fancy doors on each side of the fireplace, like she’d seen In home fashions magazines.
T hey began by building a small garage, shaped like a giant Kleenex box, on the east end of the property. For the next few years, they’d live there while constructing the big house that they really wanted. In fact, that little garage was Virginia’s first home. It faced Beech Street, and had a Beech Street address, whereas the big house that they would build would face 79th Avenue and have a 79th Avenue address. When it was finished, the Beech Street address came down off the garage
One of Virginia’s earliest memories was of that big house being built. She was standing in the back yard watching two men laying shingles on its steep roof. Was one of them her father? She was too young to be sure, seeing them from such an unfamiliar angle.
When the family finally moved in, the hardwood floors in the living room and dining room had not yet been installed, so one could look through the spaces in the wooden sub-floor into the basement. There were also a few knot holes in the wood where one could look through, too.
There were other kids in the neighborhood, though not as many as there would be if all the lots had been built up. One was Billy Bowman, who Mom didn’t visit often, because she had to cross the street to get there, and she was forbidden to do that. And then there was George Barnes, the boy two doors down on 79th street. It wasn’t necessary to cross the street to get there. And then there was Beverly Ericksson, another Swede, who lived a couple houses further down. Her father worked as a chauffeur for a wealthy man in town, and he even had one of those fancy “chauffeur’s hats.”
Beverly herself had a bit of a mean streak. Mom remembers Beverley chasing her and George. They both dove into George’s house, where his mother quickly hid them in a small cabinet. Beverly burst in after them, yelling “I know you’re in there!” But the two hidden ones remained silent, so eventually she gave up.
Gust had an old Ford in the Twenties. It did not have an upper body, and it was painted red with a black border around the top. Every now and then he would give the neighborhood kids a ride around a block or two. They would be so excited to be riding in a real automobile that they laughed and waved to anyone they saw.
We don’t know what happened to this car, except that the frame ended up in the empty lot next door on Beech Street. (much later a house was built on that site and the Poetz family lived there). It remained there for many years, half buried in weeds. Finally, in the 1940’s my mom and dad took the “frame” to a junk yard and sold it for four dollars a ton. When one of their friends heard about that, he said that if he had known about the Ford frame, he would have driven to Portland to pick it up and would have paid them seven hundred dollars for it!!
Decades later, Mom was helping Anna go through things after Gust had passed on. Going down to the basement one day, Virginia ran her hand along the woodwork over the door, and she found a part from the old Ford! It brought back memories of rides in the old Ford Tin Lizzie, and a smile to her face! Gust was truly wonderful about “hiding” objects or papers around the house or the garage, imagining who might later find them.
The Depression Years
The depression years were hard on most people, but not on Virginia, whose parents insulated her from the struggles of the day. Whatever they lacked, they could usually make themselves, or grow for themselves in the various gardens they’d planted, or sew for themselves. They planted a huge garden in the still-vacant lot on 79th Avenue , including raspberries, carrots, peas, etc. The parking strip in front of the house on 79th Avenue was planted with potatoes. Anna canned everything that she could. She also made all of Virginia’s clothes, though they always bought her the best shoes that they could afford.
And Gust, ever handy with wood, made a playhouse for Virginia and the neighborhood kids. It had a front door with a window, and small windows on both sides. It was tall enough for kids to stand up inside it, but adults would have to bow their heads, except maybe where the roof peaked. It stood on that same empty lot next door on 79th Avenue, by the garden.
And there was always a present from Santa Claus to Virginia every Christmas. Gust made them down in the basement. For example, he made a rocking crib for Virginia’s life-sized doll (named Rosie – she still has both the doll and the crib) and he made a large dresser for that doll. She told Gust that Santa must had built it in place, as she knew it was too big to drag through the chimney.
Anna didn’t want her to go down to the basement to see Christmas gifts under construction, so she scared her about the basement, and told her that the “boogie man” lived down there. The strategy worked, but too well, because ever since, she’s always had a “fear” of basements.
One year, on New Year’s Eve, Anna and Virginia were waiting for Gust to come home. It was a cold winter night with lots of ice on the roads. He was coming home on the Sandy Boulevard street car, and when he got off at 79th Avenue, he was hit by a car, a drunk driver, which injured his leg. It scared Virginia half to death that his leg had been injured. The man who hit him had Gust go to his doctor, who put it in a cast. And that was the end of the consequences for the drunk driver.. In those days, people didn’t sue other people like they do now.
Meanwhile, Gust spent so much time wearing that cast that one day, bored from being at home, he walked to downtown on his crutches and walked back, about five miles each way.
Virginia was kept blissfully ignorant of the many bills that needed to be paid. One of the most significant was the mortgage and the taxes on the property. Gust had always had a good job, but many lumber mills had closed because of the depression. The Westlund’s household income fell to the point that they were afraid they might lose the house. Gust angrily declared that if that happened, he’d go through the house with a hammer and punch holes in all the walls. But Anna said, no, they would leave the house in perfect condition if they had to leave. After all, it was their blood, sweat and tears that had built that big house back in the twenties. In the end, the house was safe from the bankers because Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1932. His administration made cheap home loans available through the new Federal Housing Administration (FHA).
Well, they didn’t lose the house, but Gust did have to sell the big piano accordion that he had brought with him from Sweden years before. It really hurt him to part with it. In fact, the big house had been built with music in mind. The dining room and adjoining living room had been built without doors between them – just a wooden border thick enough to hang a small picture on, to mark the border between the two rooms, making them essentially one huge room.
So for entertainment, they’d invite the Swedish community over to the house, roll the carpets back and dance on the hardwood floors. The double-size room had plenty of space for a dozen dancers. When the times got better, Gust bought another accordion, not as big or as good as the old one, but good enough to play in the house for informal dances.
Roosevelt also developed the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration), which offered jobs with the goal of developing public infrastructure. In a short time, Gust got such a job through the WPA. One time he was working on 82nd street and Virginia brought him a lunch. She saw that it was really hard for Gust to accept what he considered to be a “charity” job, but a job was a job.
Gust was good at fixing cars, and friends would come to him for help. In those days, everybody helped their neighbor or friend. There was no money exchanged, as most people did not have any money to spare, anyway.
For three years during the Depression, Gust was hired as a carpenter to do maintenance at a fish cannery in Alaska for three months during the summers. On the day he left town for such a long-term and far-away destination, Mom was awakened by Anna crying, which scared her because Anna was usually too tough to cry. Mom also cried that night.
Meanwhile, in Alaska, Gust was able to get canned salmon for himself and he brought cases of salmon home with him. Mom used to say that they had fish and potatoes for dinner one night, and potatoes and fish the next. One summer he brought back some of the menus from the ship that he took to Alaska. They’re still around the house somewhere.
On one trip home, he told about a man who had committed suicide in his stateroom on the ship. He said that he had shot himself in the head and his brains were splattered all over. The scene he described had quite an impact on Virginia. From the fish cannery, Gust sent fifty dollars each month to Anna. She and Virginia lived on that. They kept close records of what they bought in groceries. Anna made bread and was very creative with her cooking. They ate well, and they became very close to each other while Gust was away.
For a while, Gust also got a part-time job on Saturdays with Keller’s Bakery in Northeast Portland. He earned fifty cents each Saturday by doing odd tasks or maintenance work at the bakery. After five weeks he had earned enough to buy Virginia a used bicycle, which he painted red with black trimming, reminiscent of his old Ford. The new paint made it look shiny new.
Developing the Big House
Even after the Westlund’s big house on 79th Street had been “finished,” there were always modifications ongoing.
So, for example, the steep stairs down into the basement never had a railing, until one day Anna dashed down the stairs with some laundry in her arms, and she fell. She cried out to Gust, who rushed down to pick her up. The railing was installed right after that.
Most of the laundry, by the way, reached the basement through a chute built into the bathroom. It always seemed magical that, one moment, the dirty laundry was in front of you in the bathroom, and the next, it disappeared like magic and re-materialized in a completely different part of the house without anybody having to go there themselves.
A small corner of the kitchen was walled off as a nook, with a built in table and side benches. The wall also formed an entry way from the back door leading into the kitchen. Anna did not want a low window on the street side of this nook, because she didn’t want passersby looking in on them while they sat and ate. But she hadn’t reckoned with Gust and Virginia’s desire to look out. There were not many cars driving down Beech street in those days, and whenever a car did go by, Virginia and Gust had to jump up to look out the window to see what kind it was. Anna would say “sit down” and ask them why they would be so interested.
So one summer, 1940 or 1939, they decided to knock down the wall of the nook and open up the kitchen. The built-in table and benches had to go, too, to be replaced by a small red table and four chairs. This dining set is still there.
To knock out the built-in table and chairs involved lots of loud hammering. At the time, Maxine Miller (Hoddle) was staying for the summer. She slept right through the hammering din. She was a “hard sleeper” who would need two or more alarm clocks to awaken her whenever she lived alone.
When she finally woke up, all the work was done. She walked to the kitchen saying “What happened?”
The big house had a fenced-in porch, built around the chimney at the south end of the living room where a chimney stood against the middle of the wall. A narrow door on each side of the chimney gave access to this porch.
But then, one day, someone finally bought the vacant lot next door, where the Westlunds had planted so many vegetable gardens and built so much play equipment such as that play house for Virginia and the neighborhood kids. Up until then, the lines between the properties didn’t need to be known so precisely. But now, they discovered that the boundary was a couple feet closer to the Westlund’s house than anybody had realized, particularly where the porch wrapped around the fireplace. The porch didn’t actually cross the property line, but there was no longer much space to get around it on the ground while staying on the property.
So the porch had to go, and the doors were replaced with some long and narrow windows. They had planted camellia bushes just inside the property line, and to this day, every spring, one can see brightly-blooming camellia bushes on each side of the chimney through those long windows.