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.