Midsummer in green meadows
A cherished tradition is alive and well at Chelberg Farm in Chesterton, Indiana
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
Throughout all of Scandinavia, Midsummer festivals have been held on summer solstice since pagan times. And it’s no wonder: after months of darkness, the longest day of the year is something to celebrate.
In Norway, the longest day of the year is marked with bonfires, singing, and dancing into the night, while in neighboring Sweden the traditions are somewhat different. Instead of a bonfire, the Swedes put up Midsummer maypoles. With two Swedish grandparents, I have to admit that I have a predilection for the Swedish tradition with its colorful flowers and joie de vivre, and recently, I was happy to experience it Midwest-style at the historic Chelberg Farm outside of Chesterton in Porter County, Ind.
Chesterton is located 47 miles from Chicago near the south shore of Lake Michigan. As in the Windy City, there was a large Swedish settlement there, and its footprints remain there to this day. Records indicate that the first Midsummer celebration took place in 1901, and by the 1920s, people were taking the train from Chicago to join the festivities.
Starting in the late 1840s, Swedish immigrants first came to Indiana to practice their trades and to farm. Anders and Johanna Kjellberg, both born in Sweden, immigrated to the United States in 1863 and put down roots at the site of the present-day farm site in 1869. They built the red brick house there in 1885, and today the old farmstead has been preserved in the Indiana Dunes National Park as an open-air museum. Today’s younger generations can learn about life in the old days there. It is the perfect setting for a traditional Swedish Midsummer celebration.
There is much that goes into putting together a successful outdoor festival. The organizers and musicians arrived in the morning to set up before visitors began to arrive around noon. There were food stands to offer coffee, raspberry lemonade, Danish pastries, hot dogs, and Swedish meatballs, of course, along with traditional Scandinavian craft booths.
Marilyn Arvidson, a second generation Chesterton Swede, has been coordinating the festival since its inception 23 years ago. She and her mother had twice experienced Midsummer in Sweden, and she was inspired to revive the tradition back home. Co-coordinator Andy Johnsen, Sons of Norway District 5 president, is in charge of the maypole at the center of the celebration.
The maypole, majstång in Swedish, has nothing to do with the month of May. The verb maja means “to decorate with greens,” usually birch branches, representing the reawakening of nature and new life. To this day, one is raised in every Swedish town and village on one of the most important days of the year. Men and women in traditional folk costumes carry it in a procession, accompanied by young men in white shirts and girls in white dresses with flower crowns on their heads.
In Chesterton, things are done in much the same way. The festival organizers led the parade, followed by others in their homespun Midwest-style folk costumes. Others were dressed in jeans or summer garb, many with flower crowns they had made at one of the booths. Gradually a ring was formed around the maypole before the dancing began.
Music and merriment go together, and there was no shortage of talent at the Chelberg Farm. Over the years, the folk group Lingonberry Jam with Marti Pizzini, Suzanne Keldsen, and Andy Johnsen has taken the lead. More recently, my close friend and colleague Jim Nelson has joined them, and two of us also had the pleasure of performing a couple of folk songs from our CD Emigrant. Other folk instrumentalists had come from as far as Indianapolis, and a group of girls from the Vasa Nordik Folk Lodge #761 in Munster, Ind., sang a medley of summer songs in beautiful Swedish.
Throughout the afternoon, there were many opportunities for everyone to participate, first with the grand procession around the maypole, then in traditional dance songs, and then in the folk dancing. The organizers provided enough information so novices would understand what was going on without things getting too didactic or long-winded.
Dr. Kenneth J. Schoon of Indiana University Northwest spoke briefly about his latest book Swedish Settlements on the South Shore of Lake Michigan (2018). He is proud to be married to the granddaughter of Swedish immigrants and enthusiastically underlined the importance of the early settlers for Northwest Indiana.
I talked with some of the visitors, who confirmed that they were having a good time. Sara Högland from Linköping, Sweden, who was there with her husband and two young children, said she impressed with the day’s program. Now living in the local area, as a Swede, she always gets homesick on the big holidays, and the folk festival at Chelberg filled a gap for her and her family. If they aren’t in Sweden next year, she definitely plans on coming back.
But you didn’t have to take a test for Swedish DNA to come and join the fun. I talked with Yeli Roberts, an immigrant from Columbia who had married into a family with Swedish ancestry. She took a strong interest in the day’s musical offerings and explained that she wants to expose her daughter to different cultures around the world.
Barbara Jones had come with her two grandchildren. While she is mostly of German heritage, she was curious about Swedish ways, and she also wanted the kids to learn something about life on an Indiana farm in times past. Both she and her husband had grown up in the country, and they explained that many rural households didn’t even have running water until the 1950s. They enjoyed going inside the old Chelberg farmhouse and barn, and seeing live chickens, pigs, goats, and cows.
When I asked festival organizer Marilyn Arvidson what keeps her and all her volunteers going year after year, she stressed how important her heritage has been to her. She doesn’t want younger generations to lose touch with what has come before them and the many sacrifices made by their ancestors to create a new, better life. Today other ethnic groups are facing the very same challenges, and there is much to share with them.
But perhaps most of all, for Arvidson, the summer celebration is about welcoming back the warmth and light after the long, cold, and dark winter. As with many indigenous cultures, it is important for modern-day people to feel a connection to the earth and the cycle of life. It is important to take time for one another in our communities, to keep the traditions that hold us together as a culture.
And from all observations, this year’s summer solstice celebration was a great success—even the cows seemed to be happy with the day’s events. Throughout the afternoon, they grazed in the green meadows behind the fence, coming in closer as the music swelled, adding to an atmosphere that was organic and natural. Midsummer at Chelberg Farm was a day of pure, simple fun for young and old alike, as a cherished tradition is kept alive and well.
Lori Ann Reinhall is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association and state representative for Sister Cities International, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.
To learn more about the Chelberg Farm, visit www.nps.gov/indu/learn/historyculture/chellberg.htm.
To read more from the author’s travels to Nordic heritage locations in the Midwest, see also:
This article originally appeared in the July 12, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.