Celebrating Scandinavian heritage
Vasa Park Resort in Bellevue, Wash., is an ideal summer retreat
CYNTHIA ELYCE RUBIN
The Norwegian American
The Vasa Order of America, named for King Gustav Vasa, who liberated Sweden in the 16th century and became the first modern king of the country, began over 100 years ago as a fraternal society for Swedish immigrants to the United States. Membership at the time was limited to Swedish-born men who wanted to meet like-minded men and who needed to learn English and the customs of a new country.
A benefit fund provided income to members during sickness and a death benefit that would cover final expenses. The history of the organization in documents and some artifacts can be found at the Vasa National Archives located in Bishop Hill, Ill. The archive’s main purpose is to preserve the records of the Vasa Order of America and its members.
Today, the Vasa Order welcomes men and women older than 14 years old with Scandinavian heritage and their spouses, as well as those not of Nordic ancestry but who are committed to the promotion of Swedish and Nordic heritage and culture.
Vasa members continue to observe and celebrate special dates, such as Midsummer, Leif Erikson Day, and St. Lucia’s Day. Today, with more than 150 lodges, governed by 18 district lodges in the United States, Sweden, and Canada, the order’s rationale is more a desire to share a rich heritage with fellow Americans, encouraging the study of the values of the “old country.” Many lodges and districts sponsor language classes as well as children’s clubs that feature folk dances and music.
Bellevue, Wash., has an active example with Vasa Park Resort. About 100 years ago, a group of Swedish immigrants in Seattle looked for a farm to buy in order to build a retirement home and have a place where they could learn English and get together with fellow countrymen. They found a 36-acre tract on the western side of Lake Sammamish east of the city. Eight lodges of the Vasa Order banded together and purchased the land in 1926; within a year, it became Vasa Park, today one of the older private parks in the Seattle area.
Volunteer workers cleared land, planted seeds of birches or young trees imported from Sweden, hewed heavy timbers, and erected park buildings. They threw nothing away, fashioning found wood from the property into benches, chairs and tables.
The idea of building cottages for retirees was abandoned, and the park became a place for recreation. It also became the setting for the annual Midsommar Festival, which in former times began on Saturday night with a dance in the ballroom and continued through Sunday, with a traditional breakfast of Swedish pancakes, bingo games, folk dancing, plenty of sports events, and then concluding with a meatball dinner.
A tavern, no longer there, was opened in 1934 and contributed to the park’s reputation for hard-drinking patrons. A creek formerly ran through the park, and it is said that the men participating in the dancing used to dunk their heads in the creek to sober up before continuing with their revelries.
The Swedish community took great pride in the park. The larger ballroom on the east side of the park was erected in 1929. In an alcove, there is a reminder of the homeland, a ceiling painting with rosemaling, featuring cherubs and garlands.
Today, Vasa Park Resort is a place for recreation with camping, boat launches, and kayak and paddleboard renting. There are also drive-in movies to enjoy. It is an ideal setting for the public to enjoy birthday parties, picnics, and family reunions. For additional information, email Executive Director Elizabeth Norgren at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The pandemic put a stop to a number of activities, but on Saturday, June 19, the long standing tradition of celebrating Scandinavian Midsummer once again took place, with live music, vintage Volvos, lots of food, drink, vendors, and camaraderie.
Our intrepid, peripatetic Editor-in-chief Lori Ann Reinhall attended this wonderful, lively celebration and sends you a visual diary of her visit.
All photos by Lori Ann Reinhall
This article originally appeared in the July 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.