Magnus Rydholm and Kris Overby recently flew from Stockholm to the Twin Cities, eager to launch a new business with a peculiarly Minnesota bent: connecting locals with their long-lost Swedish relations and vice versa.
Called MinnesotaSwede, the enterprise is designed to help people with genealogy research while also coordinating tours of places important to their ancestors, like the family farmstead.
Rydholm and Overby, both of whom are bilingual, will even organize meetings for Americans and Swedes with living relatives in the other’s country.
“It’s a lot of work but it’s fascinating,” said Overby, who is from the north metro suburbs but moved to Sweden 40 years ago. “It’s doable today, where it wasn’t [before].”
Local experts say the business concept is an unusual combination and that the couple have tapped into a renewed passion in Minnesota for tracing family trees, especially Scandinavian ones.
“Clearly there is a huge interest in joining lost American descendants with Swedish descendants,” said Gregg White, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Swedish Council of America and a Swedish language teacher.
At least one million Swedes left their homeland for the U.S. from the mid-1800s to the early 20th century. Rydholm and Overby said that many Minnesotans would like to know what happened to the families left behind, but they face roadblocks that range from name changes to the challenge of reading old Swedish.
“I think many people in Minnesota think, it’s so many generations ago, it’s kind of hopeless,” Overby said.
The first group of Americans to travel to Scandinavia with MinnesotaSwede will go in May. An inaugural group of 30 Swedes will visit Minnesota in September; the couple recently traveled the state, stopping in Swedish strongholds like Lindström and Duluth, to do research and nail down logistics.
They also called one of Rydholm’s cousins living in West St. Paul, and made plans to meet up this summer in Sweden. “The next generation wants to reconnect,” Overby said. “We’re starting with our own family.”
‘What does it say?’
Swedish immigrants started moving to the U.S. just before 1850 and continued coming through World War I, with many settling in Minnesota.
“Minnesota [still] ... has more Swedish-American descendants than anywhere else,” Overby said.
While relatives regularly wrote home in the years after they arrived, the language was lost over the generations and connections grew tenuous.
Overby said she and Rydholm, a native Swede, got the idea for the business when American relatives and friends asked them for help in reading Swedish in century-old letters or family artifacts.
“They come to us, Bibles in hand, [asking] ‘What does it say?’ ” Overby said. “It’s such an honor to help out.”
Stumbling blocks include reading old Swedish, deciphering handwriting and figuring out name changes. For instance, at Ellis Island “Strehlin” might have become “Sterling,” Rydholm said.
Rydholm and Overby said they know the tricks and can help family sleuths make progress. Sweden kept immaculate records and required everyone to get permission before leaving the country, Overby said.
The curiosity goes both ways. Many Swedes yearn to find out what happened to the family that departed, Overby said, adding that it’s actually tougher for Swedes to track down Americans.
Patrice Johnson sees the same interest while teaching the popular cooking classes in Swedish cuisine at the American Swedish Institute in south Minneapolis.
“We want to know where we come from … and who brought us here,” she said. “It’s like a spiritual thing, in my opinion.”
Karen Nelson, a spokeswoman at the American Swedish Institute, cited the availability of genetic testing and two hit Scandinavian reality shows — “Allt för Sverige” and “Alt for Norge” — as factors driving fresh enthusiasm for Swedish-Minnesotan links. The institute offers regular genealogy workshops, she said.
Broken family trees
The ultimate goal of digging up the family tree is to find actual relatives and then going to meet them. Overby, a certified tour guide for Stockholm, in May will take Americans around and assist the visitors with “general tourist things” in Sweden and Norway while they do research and try to meet relatives.
A 10-day trip, minus airfare, costs $2,900, Overby said, which she granted was expensive but “an investment for generations to come.”
While recently here, Rydholm and Overby made plans for 30 Swedish tourists who will arrive in September. The couple visited places like the Chisago County Historical Society in Lindström and the American Swedish Institute to book tours and make reservations.
In Chisago City and Center City, the Swedish tourists will visit a winery and cheese-making spot. Also on the itinerary: Stillwater, where many immigrants arrived by steamboat; Taylors Falls, site of a Swedish settlement; and St. Paul’s Swede Hollow Park, once an immigrant shantytown.
Amid all the planning, Overby and Rydholm called Rydholm’s newly discovered third cousin twice removed, Tim Johanson, who was returning from a business trip and couldn’t meet up. But Johanson, who has been to Sweden and made contact there with kin, said he was happy to hear from his cousin and praised the business idea.
Overby and Rydholm anticipate their biggest challenge will be spreading word about their venture. For them, it’s about more than just money, they said.
“One hundred and fifty years ago, a family tree was broken, and now we’re in the position to re-establish that family chain,” Overby said. “How rewarding is that?”