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Tucson, Arizona, United States
I work as Panther Peak Bindery and am a bookbinder, conservator and instructor working outside Tucson, Arizona for individual and institutional clients across the country. I am a two term President of the Guild of Book Workers, was a Fulbright Scholar, taught at North Bennet Street School for over nine years and was the fastest in my middle school class at running up and down a flight of stairs (really!).

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Monday, November 21, 2016

The Illegal Immigrant from Sweden

I love the mundane. I don’t find it boring or meaningless. I love all it tells and find what is common to be rich, interesting, and full of life. You just need to look beyond the words, read between the lines.

My Swedish grandfather, my father’s father, was an illegal immigrant who jumped ship in New York. He stayed in New York City for a while before bouncing around Colorado, Illinois, and Nebraska, always one step ahead of Immigration and their attempts to deport him. He didn’t accomplish any great things, but his life tells the story of immigration, or at least one immigrant who came here to escape a circle of poverty.

He came from a long line of tenant farmers who faced bouts in debtor’s prison and the like. It clearly was not a happy life in Sweden and he got out the only way he could, it seems. Worked on a boat and took off when it moored in the city.

He died before I was born, and I never heard much about him when I was growing up. He came from Linköping. His family had lived in that part of Sweden for centuries.

Never knowing him, and not hearing much about him, made me curious. My father had this book of his and it fascinated me when I was younger. It’s funny how much it says about him and his life, but not in words exactly.

To me this book says more about him, and his life, than a diary would have.


Here is the book. A limp leather binding, about 5 x 8 inches. It was not an expensive book, was meant to be an account book of some type, but he bought it to use as a notebook.

The book is filled with all kinds of writing.





He used this book for several years. The earliest writings are from his time in New York City, but on the front flyleaf he’s written his locations as Osceola, Nebraska, and Rockford, Illinois—two of the three cities he ran between to avoid being deported.








Many of his early writings are songs in Swedish. Some religious, some not. He was not a religious person but had attended the state church until his confirmation and I think he just liked music and singing.

One thing that’s interesting is that many of the songs are carefully written in nice handwriting. As the book progresses they are written in pencil without the same level of care and they are more and more in English. Of course they would be.



This one, as you can see, was written 14 months later in Nebraska, in 1911, and is in English.




This page sort of makes me laugh. It is a reference from the Michigan Avenue Garage and says two things that aren’t true. One is that he had worked there since 1902. He didn’t leave Sweden until several years later. The other is that he is a sober and industrious young man. From what I learned from my father we can say that he was a young man. Let’s leave it at that.

That date is either 1912 or 1913.

But he was an illegal immigrant and, after reading this, a fraudulent one as well! Maybe I should be deported because of his actions?






But there are also pages in there with financial records. Hours worked and money received. That’s a lot of 9 hour days and only one day off a week. And a grand total of 29.03 for the month.

I’ve never taken the time to figure out what year this was though it wouldn’t be hard to do based on the dates and day of the week.  And one could extrapolate where his wages fell, was he doing well or barely getting by?





The book also has contributions from my Aunts. I’d like to think they were children when they did this. Hopefully.




Towards the end of the book he wrote this song out. Was it only a song or was he missing Sweden? I understand from his niece, who I met in the 80s, that he only wrote back home a couple of times and then disappeared.

“Last night I dreamed a dream so sweet I thought I saw my home sweet home”






I think the fact that I was so fascinated by this book was an omen that I would enjoy doing what I do now. Preserving the small and seemingly insignificant stuff that can mean and tell so much. And often in a much more interesting way than the broad and “important.”

Folks ask what I’ve enjoyed working on the most and they want to hear it’s all the old stuff, but really it’s the stuff that has a story to tell that’s worth preserving. Even it’s the story of a poor Swedish immigrant who spent years running from deportation.

Eventually World War I began and he joined the army, and in so doing he became a citizen and his problem was solved. He served in Colorado and settled in Denver where my father was raised near Washington Park.

In 1980 I attended college in Linköping and was able to walk around streets that would have been familiar to him. In a way it felt like completing a circle for him.

1 comment:

  1. I love, love, love this. I also have old diary-type books that let me live my ancestor's lives. I also love that you have met him through this book.

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