Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Vikings in Lake County
In 1951, Ronald Mason was driving a bakery delivery truck on the north side of Waukegan when he spotted an animal horn in the road. The horn had carvings on it, and though it was interesting, Mason just kept it on a shelf and occasionally drank beer from it.
In the early 1960s, an acquaintance of Mason's met Dr. O.G. Landsverk who identified the piece as being a "Viking horn." According to Landsverk, the carvings on the horn depicted ancient Norse gods and legends. The horn became known as the "Waukegan Horn" and members of the Leif Erickson Society felt it could prove that Vikings had explored the St. Lawrence River and traveled through the Great Lakes.
No, this is not an April Fool's joke.
The buzz about the horn continued into the 1980s when it was sent to the University of Arizona in Tuscon for Carbon 14 dating. You may recall that this same university also had the privilege of dating the Shroud of Turin.
Everyone was convinced the horn would pre-date Christopher Columbus's voyages of the 1400s. As it turned out, the bovine horn was dated to about 1920, and was probably carved by a Swedish immigrant to Lake County.
Though that may have been a let down for many, it did heighten awareness of Scandanavian immigration to this region. Swedish immigration began en masse to the United States in the 1840s, and in earnest by the end of the 1860s due to a series of famines in Sweden. The fertile farmland of the Midwest became the destination for many of these Swedes.
As a child, my knowledge of the area's Scandanavian heritage was limited, but represents some of my favorite memories. For instance, my favorite local landmark was the giant Viking ship constructed in a guy's backyard next to the Shirl's Drive-In on Washington Street in Waukegan. It was awesome with its classic dragon head and one of the reasons why I loved going to Shirl's. We'd get our soft serve ice cream cone and look at the ship from the Shirl's parking lot.
Another favorite spot was the Swedish Glee Club located at 621 Belvidere Street, and shown here in a Curt Teich postcard from 1957.
The Waukegan based Swedish Glee Club had its roots in 1892 when Hjalmar Fredbeck formed a Swedish quartet. In 1905, the quartet expanded to a chorus and became known as the “Swedish Glee Club.” By the 1950s, the club had its own building for performances and dinners, and became popular with not only Swedes, but also the surrounding communities.
My Irish grandfather was a member of the Glee Club. They had terrific dinners and the building was very open and full of light from its large windows. When we went there, my grandfather had to present his membership card before the door would open to let us in. What an experience!
There was also the Independent Order of the Vikings who bought property on Deep Lake to build a recreation center, but decided the site was too difficult to get to from Chicago. They then purchased property from David Beidler off “old” Grand Avenue in Gurnee in 1912. The Gurnee property was adjacent to the railroad line. The Vikings held annual picnics at this location, drawing upwards of 18,000 Swedish-Americans from the Chicago area. Below is a photo of the Viking Club House from the collections of the Warren Township Historical Society.
Also, at this location from 1925 to 1967, the Vikings ran a nursing home for Swedish-Americans. The building was sold to the village, then to the Special Education District of Lake County, and finally razed in 1973. Today, the site is owned and operated by the Gurnee Park District as Viking Park--a testament to the Swedish-American organization that once called it home.
So, Vikings in Lake County? Swedish-Americans would certainly agree!