Immigrants and Politics

by Elder M. Lindahl

I recently translated a chapter from Jan Olof Olsson’s episodic book, Chicago, (Stockholm: Bonniers, 1958) and became interested in Fred Lundin, an immigrant from a poor, remote district of Ostergötland, Sweden. Fred was 12 when the Lundin family arrived in America in 1880. His father, Lars, according to Olsson was:

. . . one of those who were unlucky in everything they undertook in the New Land. After several years of farming on the prairies of Illinois, the winter storms and the summer heat broke his will and ability to work. The family landed in the Chicago slums, on the border of the North Side Swedish sector. (my translation of Olsson’s text)

Fred sold papers and shined shoes near a tavern, Quincy No. 9, where politicians hung out Though he had but two years of formal education, his talents for business and showmanship became evident in his teens. He concocted a nonalcoholic juniper berry drink, Juniper Ale, which he peddled by ox cart on Chicago’s streets, attended by two or three Black singers. Fred’s outlandish costume attracted attention—a cowboy hat, embroidered silk vest decorated with a large gold watch chain, a black Windsor tie, and a frock coat with cloth-covered buttons. His flamboyant oratorical style, the preposterous claims made for his berry drink, and his understanding of immigrant problems brought crowds and potential voters.

Lundin was a born politician. He began as a precinct captain, but an incident on Christmas Eve, 1893, catapulted him into political power. A rowdy Swedish lad, Swan Nelson, was murdered by two policemen. Lundin organized protests in churches and lodge halls against the policemen who, without his action, would have gone free. Able to marshal the Swedish vote on the basis of this incident, he served in the Illinois State Senate from 1894–98 and in the U.S. Congress as a Representative from the Seventh Illinois district in 1909.

After his first term in Congress, he worked in the mayoral campaign of William Hale Thompson, “Big Bill,” a rich playboy and Harvard graduate. Lundin made the rounds of bars, enlisting precinct workers with free drinks, and soon controlled the Chicago’s West Side wards. He won the votes of Swedes by his speeches and by the jobs and services he could promise and deliver. He worked mainly behind the scenes, devoting ten years to expanding his political machine in north and northwest Chicago. Thompson, with Lundin’ s strategies, was elected in 1915 and again in 1919. He played “Big Bill” like a marionette on a string, writing his speeches and determining when and how they were to be given. Lundin’s advice was simple:

“Get a Tent!”

“A tent?”

“Yep, a tent. Give them a good show, forget about the issues. Give them a good time and you get the votes” (Big Bill of Chicago, p. 49).

One issue, however, on which Lundin did have Thompson concentrate for his first election attempt was: Gas.

Ask the women to look at the gas bills and don’t say one word about anything else, not even if they ask you to. At all the meetings, say: “Go home and look at your gas bill—and then vote for me.” (my translation of Olsson ‘s text)

Thompson became mayor on the gas issue. And Lundin, through that victory, extended his control to the state government, controlling some 100,000 patronage jobs. In time, he became a nationally recognized political “player” during Warren G. Harding’s bid for the U.S. presidency.

In contrast to Lundin’s aggressive, this-worldly approach, the Swedish immigrants I knew in Upper Michigan had, for the most part, little desire to engage in political activity. They worked hard, as miners, farmers, tradesmen, loggers, sales-people, and so on; and they were good citizens who paid their taxes, met their obligations, supported their church, and provided for their families. But spiritual power, rather than political power, was their ultimate goal. They were fervent in the desire to be witnesses to Christ to the community, to establish their little immigrant church, located at 3rd and Adams and later at 4th and Adams in Stambaugh, as a light on the hill—the Stambaugh/Iron River Hill. With the author of Hebrews, these Mission Friends looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose maker and builder is God (11:10). Winning souls for that Eternal City took priority over structuring and running earthly cities. Certainly, U.S. Citizenship was important for them - they filed their papers as soon as they met the residency requirements - but they saw themselves as transients, pilgrims just passing through, bound for Zion, the City of God. The Bible and Sions Basun (Zion’s Trumpet), their beloved hymnal, focused their devotional thoughts and actions.

Still, America was their country and they identified with it solidly and proudly. The national leaders and problems were always upheld in prayer at Midweek prayer meetings and Sunday Morning worship. And they did their share of complaining and griping about taxes, restrictive laws, crime, taverns, and corrupt, lazy politicians, but they did little to correct governmental problems other than voting, usually Republican.

An impressive exception to the nonpolitical quietism of these Swedish immigrants was Charley Nelson, who spent most of his adult life in local government. Born in Vastergötland in 1881, he came to the Iron River area with his parents at age three. He attended the local schools and then, as a young man, worked at the Dober iron mine as a machinist and steam shovel operator. The village of Stambaugh, with a population then of around 2,500, was the center of his social, religious, and political life. He played baritone horn in the city band. Because he came over with his parents at such a young age, Nelson spoke with no Swedish accent whatever.

At various times, he was elected village assessor, a member of the school board, and village president. In 1924, the village of Stambaugh was chartered as a “city.” The newly elected city commissioners appointed him as the first City Manager. Reappointed every two years, he served in that office until his death in 1949. A remarkable record of service!

The Mission Covenant Church was significant for the entire Nelson family. His wife, Hilda, and their three sons—Clarence, Norman, and Carl—were also active in the life of the church. According to his son, Norm, personal devotions and prayer were essential in his father’s daily routine. He prayed each evening, on his knees, before retiring. Charley did not consider it impious or “worldly” to get involved in all the mundane decisions of village government. He used the resources, talent, and leadership abilities he possessed responsibly and ethically. A man of faith, he related positively to the political world.

Though he was a loyal and most generous supporter of the Covenant Church, Nelson never joined. Some say that his activity in local politics did not sit well with certain church members. Others say it was his own decision not to affiliate with any church to avoid the appearance of favoritism. In any case, member or not, he had presence—you just knew when you met him that here was a man of quiet dignity, Christian character, competence, and high moral integrity.

When the Commercial Bank of Stambaugh failed in 1932, community people were obviously desperate, angry, and skeptical. To reestablish depositor confidence, the officers named Charley Nelson as President. Despite the fact that he was not by profession a banker, no one in the community was more highly respected and trusted.

Nelson took a practical, “hands on” approach to government, making sure that the streets were plowed, contractors performed their contracts, city services were promptly provided, and so on. His concern really was for people more than politics.

In 1934, Nelson’s community contribution was immortalized in Nelson Field—a 15-acre athletic complex located just a block from the present Grace Covenant Church. Most of this acreage, the former Nelson farm, was given by the Nelson family to the city. Here young people from the area compete in football, soccer, tennis, track, and field events. Nelson Field continues to provide a place for recreation and enjoyment for. the entire community.

So what happened to old Lundin? His political machine ground to an abrupt halt in the early ’20s. Much of his clout had been built on contract skimming. Any contractor bidding for a city project had to join Lundin’s “Abraham Lincoln League” and kick back a portion of his bid. Lundin always took the highest bids to secure more funds for services and jobs. He made all bar stool drifters who helped him during campaigns “Inspectors of Steam Machines.” This job title, as well as an estimated 10,000 other “jobs” he provided, were phony—actually did not exist He was finally exposed for his kickback schemes and for misappropriation of money in Chicago’s public school system. He left for Cuba after the scandal broke, only to come back for his trial some months later with Clarence Darrow at his side. Lundin, obviously guilty, was set free through legal maneuvering. His role in Thompson’s regime was never the same; their relationship broke amid mutual harsh public outbursts and criticisms. Thompson, however, after a term out of office, came back to power in 1927, endorsed, supported, and promoted this time not by Lundin but by Al Capone and other bootleggers.

With all his political talent, drive, and success, Lundin is a sad, tragic figure. His love of power went to his head and he became the corrupt, unscrupulous politician. He manipulated and used other people for his own ends in his futile schemes to inherit the earth.

Clearly, immigrants had many different perspectives on. poht1cs. Lundin wanted everything to do with it; most Stambaugh pietists wanted nothing to do with it Nelson, one of those pietists, giving himself in honest and unselfish service to what was best for his community, showed some constructive possibilities for a better way to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

The title which Olsson gives to his Fred Lundin Chapter, “Gräv och dröm, dröm och hamra tills er stad år färdig”—from Carl Sandburg’s poem, “The Windy City”— actually fits Charley Nelson better.