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Better accommodations

Robert Stanger

When I was growing up in Erie, our family had properties we were concerned with besides our residence on the city’s southwest side.

As I now look back on those years, I am somewhat dismayed by realizing that one of those properties was shrouded in mystery.

The mystery property was my father’s family home, located on Nagle Road east of Lawrence Park and the GE plant.

The small home was situated on five acres, and I recall that Rudolph, my retired Danish-born step-grandfather, kept the immediate area around the home up in what perhaps was old-country style, with white-washed stones guarding flower beds set into the lawn area on which pear trees grew that produced a small, sweet fruit.

The rest of their land, which was farmed or used for pasture when my father was young, had grown up into a grassy field with a large blackberry patch. I once spent most of a day in that patch, picking the plump blackberries.

My step-grandfather, by then a widower for many years, fixed me fried eggs for lunch. Rudolph spoke no English that I ever heard. His main pastimes in retirement besides caring for his property as best he could were reading his Swedish newspaper and listening to his portable radio.

He got a regular radio once electricity was extended to his home.

A large hedge, which my father regularly cut, separated the home from Nagle Road, and the home’s water well, which featured a pump with a large handle, was in the middle of the brick-paved walkway that led in from the road to the front door.

The white clapboard home had only three rooms: a large kitchen with a trap door that led to a tiny basement, a central room that featured a large coal stove with beautiful stained-glass panels, and a large bedroom with bunk beds. My father slept on a narrow bed behind the stove.

The home wasn’t much, but it was adequate for a family of five: Agneta (my grandmother) and Rudolph, my father Christian, and his two younger half-sisters, Freda and Sophia.

My father had to walk about five miles from the Nagle Road home to Central High School in downtown Erie, where he graduated in 1903.

Agneta and Rudolph lived at the home from the time they arrived in the U.S. from Sweden in 1892 until they died. Agneta was 41 when they emigrated and Rudolph just 28. She died in 1932 at 82, and he at 81 in 1945.

The mystery to me today is how a family that emigrated due to apparently harsh and unstable conditions in Sweden seemingly established themselves relatively easily in Erie in a pleasant home located on prime land close to the Buffalo Road.

Societal factors in Sweden which are said to have promoted emigration were an arrogant aristocracy, degradation of the working class, religious repression, crop failures and lack of respect for women.

One and a third million Swedes emigrated to the U.S. in the 19th Century and early 20th. The population of Sweden in 1900 was about 5 million.

The main reason for the Stanger family’s stable life in Erie was obviously the Nagle Road home with its barn and five acres of land that could be used for pasture or farmed. Rudolph was also able to find railroad work in Erie.

My father hunted game in the area to help feed the family.

A genealogical researcher in Lund, Sweden, whom my wife and I visited during a visit to Sweden some years ago and with whom I corresponded later, was able to trace in some detail Agneta’s life in Sweden before she and Rudolph emigrated.

He also found church records in which my father’s birth was listed.

Agneta had lived at several addresses in Halsingborg, a city in Southern Sweden located across the Oresund from Denmark. All the addresses were apparently rooming houses. Her occupation was listed as “maid.” Besides my father, she had other illegitimate children. One died at age 6, another as an infant. Her oldest child, born in 1876 when she was 25, had to be sent to a foster home.

My father was born in 1883, when Agneta Svensdotter was 32.

Given the meticulous population records that are kept in Sweden, the Lund researcher had little difficulty in determining, with little doubt, just who my father’s father was.

For the birth listing, Agneta had used the name “Brun” as my father’s last name.

The researcher then found that a man named “Christian Brun,” a Danish waiter, had lived at the same Halsingborg address as Agneta. He said that he was quite sure that the Mr. Brun was my father’s father.

My father had never talked about his real paternal parentage, and even seemed to assume that everyone would just accept that Rudolph was his actual father, despite there being no physical resemblance.

Those who knew of the true situation, such as his two half-sisters, never mentioned it that I heard.

Agneta had married Rudolph Fritz Stange (the “r” at the end of the name had been added at immigration) a carpenter from the Danish island of Bornholm in 1886 when she was 35 and he just 22. Perhaps she was seeking stability by marrying a strong young man with a trade.

But stability still apparently eluded her and Rudolph, hence the decision to emigrate.

My aunt Freda (who married a farmer of Irish descent, had a large family and was the Harborcreek tax collector for many years) was one of two children Agneta had with Rudolph. (Their daughter, Sophia, was born in America. Sophia had had a severe case of scarlet fever as child and was partially disabled for most of her life.)

Freda always said that the family sailed to America in first class accommodations. She was just 3 at the time.

Given how harsh conditions apparently were in Sweden, I wonder how Agneta and Rudolph could have afforded such travel, and then purchase land and a home after their arrival in America. Could Agneta have gotten financial help from a benefactor in Sweden?

Perhaps someone from her youth when, as records in Lund showed, she worked as a maid at an estate west of Halsingborg near the small town of Valinge where she was born. If there was such a benefactor, the secret died with Agneta.

Benefactor or not, I’m sure that my father fared better in America than he would have in stratified Sweden.

For most of his working life he was employed at Griswold, the maker of cast iron cooking ware, where he was the comptroller for many years. He retired there in 1956 after 44 years with the company.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.

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