‘Supreme President’

Swedish immigrant turned Warren County judge founds the Scandinavian Brotherhood

Times Observer photos by Josh Cotton The founder of the Scandinavian Brotherhood, John H. Sandstrom, is buried at Oakland Cemetery. The memorial detailing his position was erected after his death.

“Founder and Supreme President” is quite the title.

If you know me, you know I run. A lot.

One of my favorite three-mile routes is from our office on Pennsylvania Ave. up to the top of Oakland Cemetery.

It’s a moderate climb. A nice way to pick up a couple hundred feet of vertical gain pretty quickly.

But that’s not the only reason I run there.

His gravestone, a few feet in front of the memorial.

I run there because the story of our community is there. From the bottom of the hill to the top, I can see over 150 years of our community’s history. It’s right there.

And while I’ve been running that route for a couple years now, I continue to see and find things that, well, I never would have expected.

So the next two stories for this space come from a random run through Oakland.

I hope they are as interesting to you as they were to me.

Times Observer photos by Josh Cotton The founder of the Scandinavian Brotherhood, John H. Sandstrom, is buried at Oakland Cemetery. The memorial detailing his position was erected after his death.

John H. Sandstrom was born in Sweden in April 1855.

I don’t know when his family emigrated to the states but by the 1890s Sandstrom had risen to a level of prominence in the community.

And the Scandinavian community – he was the founder and first supreme president of the Eastern Scandinavian Brotherhood.

“Every immigrating Swede, Norseman or Dane feels the need of sympathetic companionship and kind assistance, and he expects it first of all from those whom he can understand. Many express a similar need quite soon in joining some church activity, while others seek among their kindred that fellowship and mental occupation which mutual benefit societies stand for,” according to an article published in what appears to be a periodical entitled The American Scandinavian. “The first stages of the immigrant’s history will never be written; but the history of his church is, in accord with the very nature of that activity, well preserved. Association history will also be found fairly complete, thanks to records regularly kept. But few summaries thereof are written as yet.”

A 1911 article tells the story of Sandstrom and the Brotherhood.

“The Scandinavian Brotherhood of America (i.e. the organization of that name that is established principally in the Eastern states) came to the surface as an idea in the productive brains of Judge John H. Sandstrom, of Warren, Pennsylvania. As far back as 1888 or 1889, he discussed with his townsman and fraternal co-worker, Alexander Erickson, as well as with the writer, the advantage of uniting two or three local benefit societies that had already sprung up among immigrated Scandinavians in the East.

This idea kept Mr. Sandstrom planning for several years, until he, in 1894, was able to induce a few separate, but neighboring help societies to join with his own home organization in sending delegates to a convention for the tentative organization, which was held in Ridgway, Pennsylvania. The societies which took part in that convention were only four, Skankinaviska Vannen Odin, of Warren; Svea, of Sheffield; Norden of Ridgway, Pennsylvania, and Skandinaviska Nykterhets-Sjuk och Begrafningshjalp-foreningen, of Jamestown, New York. Of these, the three first mentioned decided to work together and they formed the nucleus to the Eastern Scandinavian Brotherhood of America, but the Jamestown society withdrew.

According to an article I found on the entity at www2.hsp.org, the Brotherhood was similar to many other ethnic organizations at the time and “was principally a beneficial group to aid its membership when threatened by sickness, unemployment, or death. Like many such organizations, it also had a separate category of social members with concomitant social activities, and, as a whole, was generally dedicated to the promotion and development of the ‘best qualities of citizenship’ in the new land.”

In the early years, membership was around 1,200 with a treasury totaling over $6,000.

More from The American Scandinavian:

“Now Mr. Sandstrom and his associates had to go to work and evolve the necessary forms for carrying on a Supreme Lodge business – for a Supreme Lodge is had to be; there was no smaller scope possible in Mr. Sandstrom’s planning. A constitution, a ritual, a charter, etc. were among the first requisites. Neither Sandstrom nor his associates possessed much fraternal experience of erudition, and their work showed traces of it, being an imitation to a large extent. But it served a purpose and was gradually revised and improved upon.

Mr. Sandstrom became, of course, the first supreme president and was ‘it’ for several years. Gradually the Brotherhood came to serve a political purpose and rendered valuable assistance to Sandstrom in his elevation to the bench.

But when this side issue, after three years, became too pronounced, the opposition was strong enough to elect another member for Supreme President (in 1898).”

Newspaper reports from the Warren Mail in 1895 and 1900 indicate that Sandstrom ran for associate judge on multiple occasions, a post he was eventually elected to.

According to the hsp.org article, the Brotherhood was consolidated in as part of the Scandinavian Fraternity of America in 1915 at a convention believed to be in Chicago.

“In 1983 declining membership occasioned a refinement of organizational structure, reducing the number of district or regional lodges to five. Two years later, in 1985, the number of local or subordinate lodges under these district lodges had dropped from 37 to 28. There were only 11 credentialed delegates at the national convention (held every three years) in 1986. Thus, loss of membership has been absolutely the key concern of all the recent convention, meeting, and newsletter materials.”

The national entity was disbanded in 1992.

1898 advertisements indicate that he was in the real estate and insurance business in downtown Warren.

Sandstrom died in 1902 and the periodical article said he died “in his best years, honored and beloved both within the order and by all who knew him” and that the “handsome memorial shaft” denoting Sandstrom’s efforts “was raised in 1903 by fraternity subscription, over the grave of the Brotherhood’s founder….”

The Warren Times-Mirror reported in an April 30, 1938 story that “(m)any of the younger generation perhaps will be surprised to learn that it was Judge John Sandstrom, whose grave in Oakland cemetery will be decorated during the afternoon, who fathered the order which has become one of the strongest Scandinavian fraternities in the country. Warren can justly be proud of the Scandinavian Fraternity of America and the commendable advertising it has brought to the community.”

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