After Valborg Swedberg died on Sept. 23, at age 96, her daughter Cindi Konitzer had a favorite photo of her mother enlarged.
It shows Swedberg in a dress that she almost certainly made herself, holding a coffee pot and smiling. “To me, that’s the epitome of who she was,” Konitzer said. “She loved people, and here she is serving people and wanting to make them happy.”
Rarely did her “social butterfly” mother visit anybody without something she’d made in hand, Konitzer said. “Even the car dealership where she bought her vehicles, she always gave them cakes. For doctors, cakes. It was just everyone.”
The Swedish immigrant, who was known as Val, developed a reputation for kindness and generosity throughout her long and varied career. As a young adult, Swedberg worked as a streetcar conductor in Stockholm; in the United States, she ran two elementary school kitchens practically by herself and then, after launching a sewing business out of her basement, went on to open fabric shops in Chaska and Excelsior. In her 70s, Swedberg went from fashion back to food, with a part-time job passing out samples at Byerlys in Chanhassen. She finally retired at 90.
“She was very ambitious,” Swedberg’s other daughter, Sue Wendt, recalled. “There were times I’d talk to her at 8 o’clock in the morning and she’d already made loaves of bread and washed the kitchen floor. She had a lot of energy.”
A friend commenting on Swedberg’s online obituary echoed that sentiment: “She was such a vital, alive person that I guess I thought she would go on forever.”
Swedberg was born in Sundsvall, Sweden, where, as a young child, she rowed a boat across a river by herself to get to school. She met her husband, Einar, at a dance. (They would cross-country ski to meet each other for dates.)
The couple came to America in 1948 and eventually settled in Rockford, Ill. After their daughters were born, Swedberg dressed them in handmade clothes. She frequently sewed five matching dresses in varying sizes: for herself, her daughters, and their two baby dolls.
After moving to Minnesota, Swedberg ran into her longtime friend Sharon Eklund at an elementary school in Victoria where Swedberg ran the kitchen, and offered her a job. She brought Eklund with her when she opened Val’s Fabrics. Swedberg’s shops offered alterations and classes (“the only thing we didn’t sew in those classes were bras — otherwise we did everything,” Eklund said). Swedberg even convinced her husband to serve as a model in ads that promoted the shop’s expertise in menswear.
After Swedberg quit the fabric business, a group of friends from the store, dubbed “Val’s Gals,” got together every month for decades. “She never met a stranger because the stranger became a friend,” Eklund said.
While her peers were retiring, Swedberg combined her love of cooking and being around people in a sample-lady gig. Her expertise with preparing fish earned her the nickname “Salmon Queen,” though she was also well known for her annual tradition of recruiting two vans full of Byerlys folks to attend a nearby church’s lutefisk supper.
Swedberg was also “the best grandmother,” Wendt said, recalling that, when her son was in college, Swedberg would make him homemade, foil-wrapped frozen dinners, sometimes 30-40 meals in one batch.
She passed on many beloved Swedish recipes — pancakes, meatballs, Christmas cookies, princess torte — for family and friends to remember her by.
In addition to her daughters, Swedberg is survived by two grandchildren and one great-grandchild. A memorial service will be held Oct. 12 at 11:30 a.m. at Family of Christ Lutheran Church in Chanhassen.
Rachel Hutton 612-673-4569