Winters in The County are long and rugged, and summer is a time of festivals and fairs. Few events can top the annual Midsommar Festival held in New Sweden and Stockholm, two small towns at the center of northern Maine’s Swedish Colony.
It’s a time of laughter and dancing, renewing old friendships and making new ones. But mostly the three-day event – June 17, 18, and 19 – honors the rugged spirit and determination of Swedish settlers who immigrated to the area in 1870.
It’s also a time of remembering how difficult it was to establish successful communities.
Brenda Jepson, a long-time resident who co-chairs the annual event, said credit goes to politician William Widgery Thomas Jr., who was a U.S. consul in New Sweden in the mid-1860s and was certain that the hardworking Swedes would be perfect settlers for the northernmost regions of the state.
In part, his interest was driven by the fact that after the Civil War, many farmers headed west out of New England and Thomas saw the hardworking Swedes as perfect immigrants. By 1870, Thomas had encouraged a colony of Swedes, who he called his “little children of the woods,” to come to America – specifically northern Maine – where each family would be given 100 wooded acres and a log cabin.
The first group of immigrants arrived in July, too late to plant crops, and the land had not been cleared and cabins not built. Despite how hard they worked, building the cabins and planting turnips, the only crop likely to survive, they settled in for a hard winter. Many of the immigrants fell ill with the flu and died that first year.
However, Thomas was true to the promises he made to the immigrants to support the growing community and he spent a good amount of time in the area, hunting and fishing to help feed the new immigrant families until they could establish the community – and establish they did. Many of the original buildings constructed by the first settlers are still standing and will be open during the festival, where there’s always traditional music and food.
Last year would have marked the 150th anniversary of the settling of New Sweden, but it was all done remotely, so this year’s event will also include that celebration. It’s not unusual for more than 500 or more people to come to the festival. Some are descendants of the original settlers; others are just folks who enjoy Aroostook’s rich history.
If you haven’t seen this part of The County, it’s well worth the trip.
Jan Grieco is a retired college instructor and former newspaper reporter. She lives in Perham, where she farms and lives off the land.