The Swede Capital of Nebraska
The nice thing about this town is, it's even prettier in real life than it is in pictures. But here, we'll let pictures do.
Ron grew up on the farm three miles east of US 81, running north - south through Stromsburg. In a way, his life was quite separate from that of the town; in other ways, it was inextricably linked. His mom, Alice, taught at the town schools. The family dressed up and went to town every Saturday night to shop, see a movie, play in the town band or get a soda.
Stromsburg was a different place, then. As small farms have been sold and more and more farm families have disappeared from the countryside, town has grown smaller. The population is about the same, but the economy and the cultural activities have shrunk. Sometimes, as we drive around the quiet square on a Saturday night, Ron does some private mourning for a way of life long gone.
But there are signs of a cultural resurrection in 'Burg. Read on to find out more.
Nebraska has its German-Russian towns, its Irish towns, its Czech towns. Stromsburg is one of its Swedish towns - in fact, Stromsburg is, by proclamation of the governor, the Swede Capital of Nebraska. The Swedish blood has been somewhat diluted by now, but the tradition is still there.
I love the Economy Hometown Market in Stromsburg because I can pretty well satisfy my cravings for Swedish food there. Swedish food? you ask yourself. OK, yes, it has a reputation as either bland (Swedish meatballs) or disgusting (lutefisk). I can't argue with the disgusting part, but most of the rest of Swedish cuisine that has made its way into everyday American life is pretty tasty. I make some killer Swedish meatballs (see the recipe in the links to the left). I admit, though, for the gravy, I cheat and use IKEA dry cream gravy. It is unbelievably tasty. Of course, I wrote a column about it, once.
Click on the link to the left.
I also love lingonberries (that's jars of them, on the bottom shelf in this picture). They're smaller and snappier than cranberries, and the Swedes get just the right amount of sweetener into the jar with them. I can hook up on lingonberries any time at the Economy. Yum! One unusual and extremely tasty way I have found to serve them is alongside wedges of Kutter's New York State XX sharp Cheddar cheese, aged 3 years. (Find the Kutter's link to the left.) I put some cheese on a good cracker, add a dab of lingonberries, and life is good.
And in case you were wondering . . . yes, Ron is half Swedish. "Burke" derives from "Bjork," the name his family came to America with. It's an unusual Swedish name in that it's not a "-son," as in Larson or Olson. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Burke family in Sweden provided a cavalryman and horse to the King of Sweden for the Swedish army. At that time in Sweden, a number of nearby farms made up a rote, and each rote was responsible for furnishing one soldier to the King. The other farmers in the rote would take care of the soldier-farmer's crops and livestock while he was away. Often this position was passed from father to son, so that one family usually was the soldier family for long periods in any given rote. The army found it difficult to maintain order amid a slew of Johanssons and Andersons, so it gave a distinctive identifier to each soldier, based on the area he represented. The Burke soldiers were named Bjork, or Birch, recognizing the rote from which they originated, near Bjork Socken - an area heavily treed with birches.
Mike Branting owns the Economy Hometown in Stromsburg, and he is the resident butcher. People all around the region rely on Mike to cut and dress their meat for the easiest cooking and the best flavor. Here, he is removing the gristle from a piece of beef from which he will cut New York strip steaks. Mike makes all the local Swedish favorites, like Swedish meatballs and potato bologna. Yes, it's made with potatoes. No, it's not really a bologna. It's more like a sausage, and it needs cooking. Ron loves it. One of his cousins makes a regular pilgrimage from Kansas City every Christmas to restock his freezer with Mike's potato bologna. Of course, I wrote an article about it. Find it through the links to the left.
A look across the brick pavers to the north side of the Stromsburg square. I love the noise my car tires make on the brick. At slower speed, you can just about hear how it sounded when horses clip-clopped over them. Brick is devilishly tricky to handle in snowy or wet conditions, however.
Every small town around here advertises itself in a sign. Lately, it seems, there's been a spate of keeping up with the Joneses, as many small towns began erecting imposing, beautifully landscaped signs in brick and stone. Stromsburg has other signs, some the tidy Swedes would consider more appropriate for memorializing on the Web, I'm sure. But I love this old sign that points the way to Stromsburg off of NE 92 onto US 81.
What most people who don't live on the Great Plains (and that would be most Americans) don't realize is that country towns are very distinct and recognizeable as such out here. When suddenly a line of trees, a grain elevator and/or a water tower appear out of the corn and soybean fields like the unfolding pages of a pop-up book, you have reached town. Congratulations.
So far, Stromsburg still has a post office. And yes, Stromsburg's ZIP code is 68666. Go ahead, get it out: "The number of the beast!" I wrote a Coffee with Kate column about it. Find the link in the bar to the left.
Ron has warm memories of summer Saturday nights on the square in Stromsburg during the 1940s. He says that back then, that was the one night the stores stayed open - until 9:30! - and there were many more stores, then. Three grocery stores, two hardware stores, two drugstores - each with a soda fountain - several clothing stores and cafes, a Gambles store, a Swedish Bakery, a movie theater, and much more. That one night, everyone came to town, and there were many people coming and going from every business all evening. The old street lights were not nearly so bright as today's lights, but they did spread a warm, yellow-white glow in their immediate vicinity. So many cars were in town that there was no place to park near the square by the time the orchestra began playing. The town orchestra performed from atop the bandstand seen above, open to the sides in those days. The square was crowded with listeners. At one time, Ron's farmer father, Earl, played violin in that orchestra. The fountain burbled away merrily in the park, and just across the street, by the theater, was a popcorn stand selling popcorn for five cents a bag. After the orchestra finished playing and the movie let out, there was a drawing for door prizes donated by the merchants. One night, Earl won the grand prize - a sack full of 100 silver dollars. That was a good-sized sum back then, about the same as $1000 today, in 2011. Earl was careful to spend those silver dollars at businesses here in town, so merchants would know they were appreciated. But he spent them slowly - that sack wasn't emptied for a couple years.
There are some new movers and shakers in Stromsburg these days, among them Bob Berggren. Bob is a returned Stromsburg native who has undertaken the huge and expensive project of restoring the beautiful Anderson building on the northeast corner of the square. The building has many wonderful features, including many interior transom windows, such as these on the second floor. Bob is of a preservationist bent, so I trust he'll do an excellent job of bringing glory back to this great old building.
There's more to Bob's story; see the links to the left.
Stromsburg has erected lots of these old-time street lamps around town. The Victor-Anderson building is a cornerstone of the town square. Bob Berggren, who bought the building and is restoring it, says the row of little knobs visible near the roofline of the building are electric lights. Ron remembers when they would be lit on a Saturday night, adding a festive air to the square. They have been out of order for decades, now. Bob would like to get them lit again. I hope he can.
Bob Berggren and his sweet somebody Dana Andrews spent the last year or so gussying up their bed & breakfast before turning to the Anderson building.
Find the link for The Scandinavian Inn in the bar to the left.
Stromsburg has been attracting artists in recent years. Lynda Schnirl twists, shapes and colors glass at the Silver Flame Gallery. Woody Woodard comes up with practical and decorative solutions for all kinds of problems at Unlimited Welding. He dreamed up the metal stand for this wooden African mask at the request of the mask's owner. His partner, Dan Alt, does the same kind of imaginative problem-solving for farmers. Both establishments have a story; find them to the left.
I still love driving into Stromsburg at night. I love the big red S on the grain elevator, and I love the sizzling neon of the Ericson Hardware sign. Ron and I always check the temperature on the Cornerstone Bank building and compare it to the reading our car gives us, and what the thermometer hanging on the garage says when we get home.
We both hope that someday some of the life will be restored to Stromsburg on Saturday nights.