Part One Of My Family Story. Marstrand, Sweden. The Soderbergs immigrate to Los Angeles, California from Sweden.
It is a rock. It is an island. Pre-historic man established abode here. Viking Age seafarers found the dual entrance deep harbor
much to their liking. The waters were rich with herring; and the herring made this Swedish west coast island rich. In
1658 Carlsten fortress was built atop the rock to protect the assets. Before yielding prominence to the towns of Kunglav
and Goteborg, Marstrand was the hub of trade and commerce.
Then change. The Herring population declined. Modern roads, rails and communications largely by passed Marstrand. She had to reinvent herself.
Marstrand’s Varmbadhus Båtellet. 1856 began a new direction for Marstrand. People came to relax and enjoy the theraputic warm water baths. The Island’s ion rich air and water were also highly touted for health benefits.
In 1887 Societetshuset was built. An invitation was extended to King Oscar II to visit and enjoy this beautiful social hall. To come and spend a summer in Marstrand. To bring his yacht. The King fell in love with Marstrand, as anyone might. He made it his annual summer destination.
King Oscar (that’s his bust atop the post) brought with him a flush of new activity. Dances, receptions, concerts and evening entertainment became standard fare.
Cold water baths became part of the Marstrand “therapy.” Swimming, sunbathing, and hiking are also part of the resume. However its most famous attraction is sailing. During the summertime national and international sailing championships, as well as regattas, are held.
The city plot or grid dates back to medieval times. A fire or two rolled through from century to century. But the charming architecture seen today is largely from the late 19th and early 20th century. Quaint houses and beautiful structures line the narrow cobblestone streets. No cars or traffic here. It is pedestrian heaven. Grand Hotel is on the left. City Hall is straight ahead at the top of the street.
The Island is one mile in diameter. You arrive via ferry; the ride lasts only a couple of minutes. An array of fine shops and eateries are immediately accessible.
The western two thirds of the island is undeveloped. Tucked between the large smooth rocks and in all the cracks are beautiful rare maritime plants. The ocean and archipelago views are magnificent.
Each entrance to the harbor saw a fortified outpost (the structure on the left and the wall). The vault of that structure was used in 1780 as a synagogue. The first in Scandinavia.
It was in 1783 that the first-ever revolving lighthouse light was erected at Marstrand.
There is another first to mention. Marstrand Electric was Sweden’s first municipal electric company.
My great grandfather, (My father’s side of the family), August Palm–seated right–had lived in Malmo as an electrical engineer at a prominent hotel.
Apparently a fully wired Marstrand presented opportunity for August and his wife Alma (seated middle). He went to work for the electric company and bought a large two story house in Marstrand.
That’s my great great grandmother, seated left. But I’m not sure if she belongs to August or Alma. (I think she’s Alma’s Mom) The girl is Margit, daughter of August and Alma. And my grandmother’s sister.
The house not only served as their residence, but as a functioning element of Marstrand’s tourist economy. What we call today a “bed and breakfast.”
The former Palm residence today. Undergoing remodel work. As I captured this image a gentleman named Oskar asked about my interest in the house. I mentioned the name Palm, and that my grandmother Gunhild lived here as a teenager. Oskar moved to Marstrand in 1972. He said, “I once knew an owner of that house. I have been to many a party there. Some I remember. Some I never remembered, beginning next day.”
I mentioned Gunhild in her teens was known to have played tennis with The King, Gustav V, up at Carlsten’s Fortress.
“The king was a bit famous for that,” he said. “Young was his preference. Maybe check; you might have Royal Blood!”
As Gunhild may have appeared after tennis with The King. As a child her nickname was Gulli, meaning gold, for her hair. This photo was taken Midsommer, 1918
Gustav Söderberg, 1918. He’s standing a top a WWI Submarine. He served in the Swedish Navy.
Both Gustav Söderberg and Gunhild Palm were born in Malmo, Sweden. It is not known when or where they met.
However, writing on the back of the above photo indicates it was taken in Marstrand. In any event, they married and in 1920 were parents of Bill Söderberg. The name Bill was chosen after she read a novel with a character named Bill. William was not the name chosen.
Bill in Marstrand. Gunhild, Alma and Bill’s great grandma.
Economic Times, worldwide–the 1920′s were difficult. Agriculture, coal mining, textiles, shoes, shipbuilding and railroads were all in decline. One factor in Sweden, among others then, it had an agrarian economy in the midst of a strong population growth. With so much of the country made of solid rock, agriculture was hard to expand. Young healthy Swede’s immigrated. In the later 19th and early 20th century 1.9 million Swedes immigrated to the U.S.
Swedes kept together upon moving to the U.S. Western Illinois, Iowa, central Texas, southern Minnesota, and western Wisconsin all sprouted sizable enclaves of Swedes. Some filtered to southern California.
We can only speculate why Gustav and Gunhild Söderberg chose Los Angeles. As a carpenter and house builder, perhaps he had read about the housing boom in Los Angeles. Perhaps with her experience in Sweden with some musicals and stage productions, Gunhild may have felt the draw of Hollywood.
What we do know is that Gunhild and Bill Söderberg arrived at Ellis Island on March 6, 1923.
Bill wrote: “We were pushed onto the streets of New York City, unable to speak the language. And no idea of where to catch the Greyhound Bus to Hollywood, California.
“My Dad had made the trip a year earlier to build a house for us to live in. When we arrived the framing of the house was up and I think it was ready for the roof. But we had to live in a tent, cook over a camp fire, and make do with an out-house.”
Youthful happy faces showing optimism for a life in their new country.
“My mother soon came down with typhoid fever and was in the hospital for what seemed like life time to me. Meanwhile I was sent to live with some long time friends, the Andersens–also from Sweden, while my Dad finished the house; and while my Mother recovered from the fever.
“Swedish was spoken at home. Even by second grade, my English was still not very good–the kids all made fun of the way I talked.”
Bill was held back one grade until his language skills improved.
The house that Gustav built is on Veteran and Olympic Boulevards in West Los Angeles. Olympic Boulevard was originally 10th Street; the name changed in 1928 as Los Angeles was bidding for the Olympics which came in 1932.
Bill remembered playing in the middle of Pico Boulevard catching “horny toe lizards.” He said Olympic Boulevard was mostly waist-high weeds growing through cracks in the pavement.
Weeds growing on what is today a busy street may have said much about the worsening economy the young Soderbergs faced. 1926 saw a sharp decline in construction. By the end of 1928 all construction came to a grinding halt. That amounted to $2 billion dollars no longer moving through the economy. Gustav wasn’t paid for his work. His own bills went unpaid. He must have thought he immigrated from a rock to a hard spot.
The solution he sought was in either Brazil or Australia. But Gunhild wasn’t receptive to the proposal. She had enough of starting over.
“It was too hard getting into this country, and we’re not leaving.” The last time Bill heard from his father was via a birthday card sent from Brazil, 1927. He believed and said his father finally settled in Australia.
Alone, Gunhild and Bill had to abandon their home in West Los Angeles. He often spoke of the long hike they made with suitcases along weedy Olympic Boulevard to downtown Los Angeles. They were homeless.
A kindly group of women observed their plight. They opened their doors to shelter and care for them until Gunhild was able to fend for her herself. These kind people were a Madame and her Girls.
Note and Update: It turns out the story of Gustav disappearing to Australia is pure fiction. At some point Greta had been told that Gustav went to Australia where he became a Communist and an alcoholic. Likely if one part the story is fiction, all of it is. Thanks to blog reader in Sweden, Berit Härén, we have learned Gustav died in Stockholm, Matteus parish on the 16th of April 1971. He lived at Karlbergsvägen 27A 1 tr (meaning the floor above the ground floor). He was buried in Skogskyrkogården, The Woodland Cemetary, in the Memorial Grove Park.
The records also show Gustav divorced through California court order on November 10, 1932. It would certainly seem for that to happen Gunhild and Gustav must have been in contact. From everything he said, Bill was completely unaware. The record then shows Gustav remarried in 1935 at Johannes parish, Stockholm in a civil service.
Clearly this information makes for a whole new chapter of this story to tell. And the possible discovery of other uncles, aunts and cousins to learn about in Sweden.
The next installments of Marstrand Continuum: Depression Era life in Downtown Los Angeles. Gunhild Remarries.
Bill gets a sister, Greta. Bad news from Sweden. Gunhild and Greta must visit Marstrand. A life in Sweden. Getting trapped in Sweden by the developing world war. Escape. Fast forward to 2006–Greta returns to Marstrand for the first time since her escape in 1940. Stay tuned!