Mine Barn I Skoggan: “My Children of the Woods” How New Sweden, Maine Began
A small group of men in the Maine government had worked for a decade to bring about the founding of New Sweden, but one man, William Widgery Thomas, Jr., is largely credited with the birth of the town on July 23, 1870. He had graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine in 1860 and been appointed by President Abraham Lincoln in the early 1860’s as one of thirty war consuls whose job it was to promote the idea of immigration to America under the Homestead Act. W. W. Thomas spent three years in Sweden in this role and not only learned to love the customs and heritage of the Swedes but became fluent in the Swedish language. He felt that the hard-working and pious Swedish farmer would be an excellent citizen to settle the wilderness of Northern Maine and proposed to personally escort a carefully screened group to the “Promised Land.” The “Thomas Plan” hoped to attract similar Swedes and Americans to the colony once its success became known.
The State of Maine had been losing its young population to the West, lured by the hope of better opportunity. Attempts had been made to secure settlers for the forest north of Caribou, but loneliness and wilderness had discouraged the few who had tried. The state even had given land to a railroad company, but that plan also went down the drain. The groundwork to promote Swedish immigration had been laid in the legislature with several failed proposals, but finally the plan was pushed through. W. W. Thomas, Jr. went to Sweden and recruited 51 Swedes to accompany him to New Sweden, Maine. The Swedes wanted land which was promised to them in one hundred acre parcels with no taxes for five years and a guarantee to become landowners after occupying and improving the farms during that time.
Groups of four families were to begin their new lives on farms that adjoined in an attempt to ward off isolation. Clearing of the land and burning the chopping was interspersed with the building of roads and sowing of turnip around the stumps during that first August, a seemingly odd time to be starting to grow a crop in Aroostook County! The building of the public building, the Kapitoleum (now called the Capitol), began in September and was mostly completed by November 1870. More Swedes arrived to grow the population to 114 by the end of 1870.
The spring of 1871 saw a tremendous influx of Swedish immigrants as the result of an aggressive campaign by Captain G. W. Schroeder, Thomas’ immigration office manager in Gothenburg, Sweden (and the leader of the Baptists in Sweden.) There were so many immigrants arriving that Thomas sent an urgent message to Schroeder to stop the flow. (It was rumored that the King of Sweden was coming to take up a lot!) Lots were taken up and occupied in New Sweden as soon as there was a trail to get to the plot.
The first school in New Sweden was held in the Kapitoleum in November 1871. The Lutheran pastor, Andrew Wiren, had been in America four years before arriving in New Sweden and had learned English. The thirty-one children learned mainly English, as did the adults who attended the weekly adult class. His dedication to the cause was motivation to ski to the Jemtland section of New Sweden to conduct school for part of the week, returning to preach and teach school at the Kapitoleum the other half of the week.
The population had grown to 553 by the end of 1871, a change of almost 400% that year. This peak of immigration was not exceeded in subsequent years.
In 1874 state aid was prematurely cut off from the colony of New Sweden causing a group of newspapermen to publicize the poverty and dire straits of the Swedes. A poor growing season and forest fires exacerbated the situation. Persistence and the determination to survive have been credited as the reasons the colony recovered from this crisis. The success of the colony was reported in the newspapers the following year. Thomas himself wrote that he only told stories of the victories of the colony and did not report about the struggles, which were soon forgotten.
A group of Swedish men became citizens when they traveled to Houlton, providing the necessary step to becoming a plantation in 1876. Local government had been organized to conduct the affairs of the colony even before New Sweden became a plantation. In 1895 the colony of settlers in New Sweden became an official town of the State of Maine.
Written by Jean Buzzell Duncan
August 29, 2006