Submitted by SweAme Board Member Jeanne Rollberg:
Could Poehlers’ “Welcome to Sweden” Television Series Remind Massachusetts of Some of Its Forgotten Swedish History?
When Burlington, MA former resident Greg Poehler’s series “Welcome to Sweden” premiered in Sweden in March, it was so popular that it was picked up for a second season. Welcome to Sweden Trailer
The premise is that New Yorker Bruce Evans (Poehler) moves from New York to Sweden to follow his Swedish girlfriend and to make a new start, doing something meaningful with his life. Greg’s super-talented Poehler sis, Burlington’s Amy Poehler, portrays herself on the program that humorously explores the culture shocks and adjustments that modern immigration itself involves.
We Americans will be able to see the show stateside beginning Thursday (9/8c), July 10th on NBC. “It’s time the world laughed with Sweden,” Greg told Sweden’s The Local. "I'm hesitant to say I want the world to laugh at Sweden... Sweden is coming out pretty well in this."
What wonderful timing for Poehler to explore these Swedish issues when a historic Swedish farmhouse in his hometown of Burlington sits endangered at 26 Prouty Road. It is a little more than three miles away from the Poehler family residence where Greg and Amy grew up.
Johnson home photo by John Goff
The house and then 35 acre farm were owned for about 50 years by a Swedish family that welcomed everyone to “Johnson’s Grove” for weekend outings, immigrant and political gatherings, and religious activities. These fostered a historic kind of community from 1911 to 1959 that helped Swedes, Italians, and Irish find “welcome” in America. Simon and Olga Johnson and their families built their American Dream there by the sweat of their brows and the work of their hands and backs such as most of us avoid today.
As Salem historic preservation architect John Goff noted, when he presented a report to the Burlington Historical Commission last October, the house, circa 1850s, has key architectural features. In addition to being owned by the Johnsons at a time when Massachusetts had the fourth highest concentration of Swedes in the country, it also was owned by town father Augustus Prouty of the Burlington Public Library. The land itself went back to the time of Revolutionary soldier Giles Alexander. That land and the home have important and recently discovered stories to tell, and those stories should be preserved. However, a demolition delay order for the wonderfully historic old property ended in April.
It is good that Poehler is highlighting Sweden’s special characteristics, its healthy way of life, its less materialistic values, and its sheer beauty as he builds successful television programming. Maybe the Town Meeting and Board of Selectmen could find a public-private partnership that would enable the property to be preserved and made into a multi-history farmhouse museum or some other entity that would valorize Burlington’s past.
Amy Poehler is well known for her program, “Parks and Recreation.” And interestingly, one of the current MA farmhouse owners was Peggy Hannon-Rizza. Sadly, she died in February just after Billerica named the Peggy Hannon-Rizza Recreation Complex after her because of her outstanding service to the local community.
In “Welcome to Sweden’s” day, it is possible for immigrants to grasp with some detail the land to which they are going, and to learn with great detail what to expect. But when Simon Johnson arrived in Boston in 1903 with $25 in his pocket and stayed to earn his Burlington American Dream, the risks were much greater.
His grandchildren said that when he sold the farmhouse in the late 1950s, he stipulated that it must not be torn down. Simon’s farm played a large and important part in Burlington history for at least five decades. He would like it if the old farmhouse he loved, that now sits abandoned, bereft of its former life of smorgasbords and Swedish music, could be given new vibrancy and life.
If in some strange way the Poehlers’ delightful show about Sweden could heighten their home community’s appreciation of the immigrant history that sits in its midst, that gift would be extraordinary for Burlington and for its children’s heritage. One episode costs more to create than immigrant Simon Johnson made in an entire lifetime of work. As Independence Day nears, let us embrace the values that honor the long-term American Dream affluence that, after all, makes the television show – and well, Massachusetts and America - possible.
What can you, as a person of Swedish interest or heritage, do to help garner support for keeping the farmhouse? You can “Like” the Facebook web page that chronicles the Johnson Family’s contributions: Like This Facebook Page
NOTE: See SweAme’s website information on this Swedish emigrant family: Simon Johnson.
SweAme has co-produced a program in Massachusetts in January about the historic preservation of the farmhouse in which the Johnson family genealogical information was presented.