Letters to Emil, Part 1

Learning Swedish from “Google Translate”

This is my great grandfather, Nels Johnson, in his tailor shop in Ludington, Michigan. I’m not sure of the date, or of the exact location, because he had a few different shops in Ludington over the years. If you remember, he’s the one who made the wool quilt that Foster likes to sleep on.

Why, you might ask, am I letting a cat sleep on a quilt that’s anywhere from 90 to 100 years old? I would say “Because I can”, but that’s not really it. It’s because I want things to be out where people can see them, and where they can be used. Since Foster is an indoor cat, he doesn’t come in with muddy feet or anything. And cat hair is pretty easy to brush off.

So I’ve told you that I “know two and a half languages”, and Swedish isn’t one of them. But I have inherited boxes of old letters, from both sides of my family, and many of them are written in just that: Swedish! In the process of scanning them so relatives can have copies and organizing them into binders, I finally “got the revelation” that if I understood any of this, I could learn more about my family’s history.

I started with this one. The two English phrases are what caught my attention and made me determined to know more. “Ludington Daily News” and “nothing was saved from Nels Johnson’s tailor shop”. That’s it. I understood nothing else, except for “Dear son Emil” and March 8, 1916. I could only assume this was referring to either a fire or a flood, and it was up to me and Google Translate to find out.

In 1916, the tailor shop occupied one side of the Rath Building, at 108 South Charles Street. According to Wikipedia, William Rath, the building’s owner, died of a heart attack in August of 1916, only five months after date of Nels’s letter. The name of the street was changed from “Charles” to “Rath” sometime after that.

As a side note, the Rath Building is now home to a shop called “Nautical Yarn”, which sounds like a place both Foster and I would love to visit! (Photos from “Yelp.com”)

I discovered that you can go into your settings and add a Swedish keyboard to your iPad or computer, and use certain keys to get the three letters with the circle or dots on top. I made a copy of the letter so I could write on it. In working through it, I learned some good “tailor shop-fire-related vocabulary”. Fönster, for example is window, elsvådan is fire, and patterns are mönsteren. I also learned that vatten is water and borden is tables.

But now I wanted to read the article itself. I knew it existed, because Nels quoted it in his letter, but my favorite Newspapers.com only goes back as far as 1930 for the Ludington Daily News. So for awhile I was “stuck”. Still, now that I was “hooked on Swedish”, I kept working on the letter, and learned that, while the insurance didn’t pay as much as it should have, in the end everyone was just thankful that no one was hurt. Nels also had an interesting conversation with Mr. Rath himself about repairs to the shop (part of which I gave up trying to figure out).

Then I branched out to some of the other letters. It dawned on me that for this endeavor, I don’t have to actually speak Swedish, I just have to be able to read it. So gradually I have learned how to read (but not pronounce or write from memory) some key letter writing phrases such as Tack för brevet (Thanks for the letter) and Vi har hälsa (We are well) and Kära hälsningar från oss alla (Dear greetings from us all).

I learned about their Christmas celebration in 1930, and how Leona, then an RN, was called in 1932 to take care of a lady in a neighboring town, and that in 1918 Alfred was somewhere in France but was not allowed to say where. Still, I could not stop thinking that the Ludington Daily News article had to be out there somewhere. It wasn’t among the countless newspaper clippings my grandpa had saved either. I know because I looked.

Finally, one day, rather half-heartedly and as a last resort, I searched “Ludington Daily News 1916” and found another newspaper archive that included the dates I needed. Working backward from the date on Nels’s letter, I discovered the article on the front page of the February 27, 1916 edition.

Here is the first part of the article, which you can in its entirety by clicking here, (although you will definitely have to “zoom in”). It turns out that the fire had started in the plumbing shop which occupied the other half of the downstairs .You can see the “Plumbing” sign if you scroll back up to the photos of the front of the tailor shop. There were even apartments upstairs, but everyone got out safely.

So now that I have several Swedish-learning apps on my phone, I should be on my way to reading fluency (or not).

I’ll be happy if I just find out what happened to seven year old Frank, who appears with J Alfred and Margaret in the 1920 Census, but nowhere before or after.

28 thoughts on “Letters to Emil, Part 1

  1. Julianne Lugo

    Wow. Thats a lot of information!!! And these are your relatives! Amazing! I haven’t heard of very many people having as much history as you do. Have fun!!!
    Hope to hear more as you continue your research!!!

  2. I’m glad Foster is enjoying the quilt. I agree with you – what good is it put away? And congratulations on persevering in your research. I did a little bit of that in the past but got exhausted with dead ends and I only had to deal with the English language! 🙂

    1. Thanks! Fortunately I have quite a bit of information from letters my grandparents and great aunts wrote to me (in English!) when they were alive. But now I wish I had asked more questions when I had the chance! 😊

  3. How fascinating! I clicked on the link to the paper and that was really interesting too. Besides the report of the fire, which really held my attention as a former fire insurance surveyor, I was intrigued by the arsenic remedy for rheumatism, silk stockings preventing divorce and what was on at the local theatre. Oh, and the ad for Royal baking powder. I never came across that in the UK, but we have it here and the design of the tin hasn’t changed at all. I might come back and read some more – possible future story fodder(!)

    Good luck with the Swedish and your ongoing research. 🙂

    1. Thanks! Seriously, I could peruse through those old newspapers for hours. Everything was so fascinating, even the writing styles were so different from newspapers today. And just tonight I found an ad for Nels Johnson’s tailor shop in a 1918 issue, which was cool to see!

  4. It all sounds very interesting and probably contains much fascinating information. I found some letters of correspondence sent to my father starting just after WW II ended. Friends looking for him and getting in touch. I wrote out many of them on the PC but it was easier for me than it is for you because these letters were in Latvians and I speak both Latvian and English fluently.

  5. Charlee: “It’s amazing what that Google Translate can do!”
    Lulu: “Maybe someday I’ll be able to use it to understand how you kitties like to play.”
    Chaplin: “Some things, Lulu, will be forever beyond the reach of technology …”

  6. jarilissima

    As an aside, the app “Drops” is what I use to learn Korean and Italian vocabulary and it has worked great for me. I use Drops as an addition to my Living Language courses. It might have Swedish, too 🙂 Happy learning!

      1. jarilissima

        Oh nice! I hope it helps you jump-start your learning 🙂 Right now I’m focusing on Italian, and it’s helping me with vocab but it also has important travel sentences. Yay! I hope you enjoy learning a new language, even through the frustrating parts Hahaha

  7. How fun for you! I purchased several old postcards years ago written in French. I purchased a French/English dictionary so I could “read” the messages. I wonder if you could find a Swedish dictionary at your library? I enjoyed seeing your old photos and the correspondence you have kept. So nice to make copies for your family too!


    Fascinating! Nels is my great grandfather and Emil is my grand/great uncle! My grandfather was Emil’s brother Axel.

      1. Mark Johnson

        Cousins, yes, and I do have an Ancestry.com tree. We’ll have to compare notes sometime.

        Living in Michigan from birth to 14 and Southern California from 14-58, I got to know several people you’ve mentioned (including great Aunt Anna, who was a hoot!) and only knew great Uncle Emil via his artwork and a few stories from my grandparents.

        I’ve only caught up with Brad B. from your branch in person, but I’ve friended Jean P., Karen S., Eileen J., and Mark and Eileen’s twins – funny Aunt Anna story about them – on Facebook from the Uncle Emil branch of the Johnson family.

        Small world!

      2. Mark Johnson

        My wife and I are living in FL, helping my mom avoid assisted living, and I was telling Mom yesterday that my great grandpa had been a tailor in Ludington based on an article I’d read somewhere about the fire at his shop. Mom asked where his shop had been, as she was born and raised in Ludington. He died the year before Dad (Axel’s only son) was born and 4 years before Mom was born, but I figured Google might lead me back to the article… Instead it led me to your blog. As it turns out, Mom ended up living about 4 blocks down Charles/Rath Avenue from where the tailor shop had been, probably from 1943-1953.

      3. That is so exciting! Did you happen to read any of the other family history posts? “Letters to Emil part 2” and “What’s in a Name?” both have excerpts from Aunt Anna’s letters. I try to link my posts together so people can go back and forth between them. 👍

  9. Mark Johnson

    I’ve gone through some, including one with a scan of a letter from Aunt Anna. She was a sweet lady with a voice I can still hear in my head! We used to take the C&O car ferry from Ludington to Milwaukee, then drive down to Kenosha to see her and Uncle Ernest when I was young. I think she moved back to Ludington after he passed away.

    I’ll have to go through more of your pages. I do know that the Swedish side of the family has connected with (at least) the Michigan side and there’s a Sweden Johnson (or Johansson, etc) family tree on paper which shows when various members – including Nels – left for the USA. My Dad had a copy I saw once. I’ll have to check with my step-mom to see if she still has it or if any of my Michigan cousins or siblings do.

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