A story both “sweet and sour”
Scandinavian settlements are found throughout the United States, but they are concentrated mostly in the Northeast, Midwest, and Northwest. In these regions, the Nordic countries have had a substantial impact in the agricultural, construction and maritime trades, as well as in the creation of social institutions.
It comes as somewhat unexpected—and wonderful— to find a Scandinavian influence in another part of our country, around the Port St. Lucie and Indian River areas of Florida.
Here one finds Jensen Beach, named after a Danish immigrant who settled there and carved out a large pineapple plantation. By 1895, Jensen was called the “Pineapple Capital of the World,” shipping over a million boxes of pineapples each year during the June and July season. Even today, you can celebrate this history at Jensen’s annual Pineapple Festival, a three-day event held in November.
While a place name harking back to Scandinavian history down South seems wonderful, it is even more exceptional when that history is available for us to see and experience today. That is what is unique about the Hallstrom House and Farmstead, located in what is today part of Vero Beach.
It is fascinating when you think how the new settlement offered a very different climate and terrain from the homelands of the Nordic settlers. Imagine what they had to endure and avoid, with the sweltering heat, relentless mosquitoes, swampy conditions, and even alligators!
Scandinavian success story
Axel Hallström (later Americanized to Hallstrom), born in Sweden in 1870, was an immigrant, who in 1898 first gravitated to Minnesota, where he worked as a horticulturist for the J. Hill Estate. The need to move to a climate that would be more conducive to his wife, Emily’s, health is what first brought him to Florida in 1909.
Upon arrival, he purchased property in a town named Viking, (less than 2 miles from Fort Pierce), which had been established in 1892, earning its name from its many Nordic settlers, who came to work in the pineapple and citrus fruit farming industries.
For four years, Hallstrom ran a successful pineapple farm, but tragedy struck when his wife died. In mourning, Axel sold the farm and bought 49 acres near the town of Oslo, now incorporated within Vero Beach. The town was named after Norway’s capital by a Norwegian immigrant, Ole Olson Helseth, whose family had a large influence there.
Axel’s sister moved to Florida from Chicago to join him and care for his only child, Ruth (born 1901), who was only 4 at the time of her mother’s death. They resided in a temporary residence, while Hallstrom began the construction of his stately home, which was completed by 1918.
Hallstrom served as president of the county’s Citrus League. This made sense, as the area’s pineapple farms eventually changed over to citrus crops for several reasons, including two years of frost and the inability to get fertilizer during World War I.
He also held a job as a banker and served as chairman of the board of the St. Lucie Bank, until his death. He seems to have been savvy at business, for it was the only local bank that survived the Great Depression. Other evidence of his business smarts was the fact that he built and sustained two successful farms.
The Hallstroms lived a plush life in a beautiful palatial home, built by craftsmen of Nordic heritage. They were a very cultured family. Ruth took art lessons from A. E. “Beanie” Backus. She spoke five languages and often traveled abroad with her father. Today, their home is filled with exotic treasures she collected on her travels, including exquisite china from Bohemia, what is now the Czech Republic.
Ruth also collected paintings of Floridian landscapes by a local artist, Alfred Hair of the Highwaymen. No, not the musical group, but a consortium of African-American artists, who, owing to racial discrimination during the times of segregation, sold their work from car trunks along the U.S. Highway 1 out of financial necessity.
Proud of the family’s Swedish roots, after she graduated from the local high school, Ruth attended finishing school in Sweden.
Hallstrom must have been delighted when King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden presented him with the Royal Order of Vasa in 1958 “for his contributions to the furtherance of good relationships between Hallstrom’s native Sweden and his adopted country, the United States.”
The Hallstrom residence serves as an encapsulation of a specific time and a specific experience, creating a luxurious intimacy that allows the visitor to look into the inner workings of the Hallstrom family. Even Ruth’s fancy black dress still lies on her sofa.
After her father’s passing in 1966, Ruth, who never married, took over the farm of 100 acres. Upon her passing in 1996, the house and 5 surrounding acres were willed to the Indian River Historical Society, whose trustees serve as its custodian to this day.
The Hallstrom legacy
Today, the Hallstrom home is completely preserved, with the one new addition of a handicapped bathroom. Visitors are welcome Wednesdays through Fridays and by appointment for groups. A cadre of dedicated volunteers helps with day-to-day operations. And in tribute to Hallstrom’s original crop, the historical society has planted pineapples on the estate.
In October 2002, the Indian River County purchased the additional 95 acres that had been part of the original plantation. Fortunately, this land is saved into perpetuity, because it is home to two endangered species. One is the Florida scrub jay, unusual because it uses sand to build its nest. The other is a mint plant found in only two places in the entire world: here and in the nearby town of Viking.
The county and the historical society are working in tandem to preserve and enhance the entire original Hallstrom Plantation. The county has plans to create walking trails, and the land includes some old buildings from the Hallstrom family, including the two-story house that Axel and his sister Johanna lived in for 10 years while he built the Hallstrom House.
With all of the county’s plans, the historical society isn’t resting on its laurels. On a larger scale, they have been laying the groundwork to transform the carriage house into a café and meeting space. Another project is to build an outdoor kitchen.
These endeavors should prove lucrative for parties, meetings, and other rental opportunities, generating enough funds to sustain the property. The latter project will be completed first, as it is easier to create something new, rather than redesign within a historic structure—but all will be realized within due time.
Like historical organizations and properties across the country, educational and entertaining programming connected to the site and its history is a must. In the spirit of Ruth Hallstrom, teas are held with Swedish coffee and food. Another nod to Scandinavia occurs at Christmastime, when the house is decorated with Swedish flags and a popular Santa Lucia program is held.
The Hallstrom House and Farmstead is an artifact from days gone by, evidence of a forgotten, but important part of Florida’s past as the reigning pineapple-producing region of the world, largely because of the Scandinavian pioneers who settled there. And, like Swedish immigrant Axel Hallstrom, their ability to switch production from pineapples to citrus had a huge impact on how the area evolved.
Perhaps the best legacy of what these pioneers began over 120 years ago, a story both sweet and sour, is that citrus fruit continues to be grown in this region of the Sunshine State to the present day, an important commodity that is enjoyed worldwide.
To learn more about Hallstrom House, visit the Indian River County Historical Society’s website at irchistorical.org.
This article originally appeared in the May 22, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.