Saturday, October 18, 2008

Spooked by Swensson

Each autumn after an annual membership drive, the Chippewa County Historical Society of Minnesota holds a special event, the "Enchanted Evening at the Swensson Farm."

"To say that these evenings are truly enchanted is an understatement!" touts the Society in its October 2008 newsletter. "Perhaps the best barometer of success is when your guests, volunteers and staff all equally enjoy the evening." This year, the Minnesota Sesquicentennial was celebrated with the lucky winners of a drawing from among new Society members. The guests were treated to dinner at the historic Swensson farmhouse amidst the atmosphere of original pioneer furnishings, and catered by a local restaurant. The meal included "Settler's Soup," "Root Cellar Salad," and "Pioneer Pot Roast." Of course, everyone anxiously awaited the fourth and final course: "Thresher's Pie" (lemon pie).

The Swensson Farm, Chippewa County, Minnesota. Now a museum, the house is on the National Register of Historic Places. USGenWeb: Chippewa Area Pictures.

The 17-acre Swensson Farm is the jewel in the crown of the Chippewa County Historical Society. Located six miles east of Montevideo, Minnesota on Highway 7, then five miles south on County Road 6, it is open to visitors from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend each year. The farm happens to be located quite close to the homesteads of many of my ancestors. My great grandmother, Malla Larson Johnson, grew up in a house just across the road from the Swensson Farm, and her sister-in-law, Julia Johnson Larson, lived near the farm most of her life.

But, is the farm truly "enchanted"? Or, is it... haunted?

Julia Johnson Larson (1864-1949), used to say that neighborhood children were terrified of walking past the looming Italianate/Georgian structure as soon as it was built, in 1901. Could it have had something to do with the spooky ambience created by its mansion-like architecture when compared to nearby farm houses? Or, perhaps it had to do with the small family cemetery at the edge the property, not to mention the large, public cemetery operated by Saron Lutheran Church just across the road?

For the most part, it probably had to do with the stories that circulated among timid neighborhood children about the severe-faced Olof Swensson (1843- 1923) the owner of the house. Swensson was a builder, writer, and unsuccessful candidate for Minnesota governor. He was also a fervent Lutheran, and conducted weekly religious services in the large room upstairs. His sermons, in Norwegian, have been preserved.

Even with the accomplishments of the elder Swensson, the house had an undeniable eerieness about it, and many would have testified in years past that it was, indeed, haunted. Did Swensson really build a secret tunnel leading from the house to the family burial plot? What about the flickering lights seen in the large windows at night by neighbors when no one was home? And, what is the story behind the cross on the basement wall, allegedly painted in blood, which appeared just after the local historical society took possession of the property in 1967?

According to Julia Johnson Larson, Swensson continued to hold church services in the upper floor of the building long after neighbors ceased to attend. There were open benches, placed along the walls of a large room upstairs, which served as pews for the folks who came to hear Swensson speak in those early years. Later, when no one came anymore, Swensson created his own congregation--out of rocks. He spaced them carefully on all of the benches surrounding the large, stark room. Pacing dramatically up and down the middle of the floor, he preached to his "stone-faced" and silently appreciative audience until he had his oratory fill.

The Chippewa County Historical Society continues to hold regular festivities on the farm property, such as the "Enchanted Dinner," and the annual Horse Power Event, held the second Saturday in September. The 22-room house, the grist mill, and curiosities such as the display of original wood forms for the family cemetery tombstones, continue to attract many visitors to the historic Swensson farm each year.

To judge for yourself whether or not the old Swensson place is truly haunted, see:

"Swenson Museum in Book on State Haunted Sites" (Montevideo-American News), and
Minnesota Road Guide to Haunted Locations, by Chad Lewis

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