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UT Pan American History Professor writes history of Stockholm, Texas
Posted: 03/01/2000
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EDINBURG - Dr. David E. Vassberg, who taught history at The University of Texas-Pan American for 28 years, is writing the history of Stockholm, Texas - a Swedish colony that no longer exists.

Vassberg spoke on "The Rise and Fall of Stockholm, Texas: A Swedish Colony on the Rio Grande," at a Faculty Forum Feb. 2 at the Tower Club in McAllen. Faculty Forums are sponsored by the UT Pan American Alumni Association.

Vassberg, who taught history at UTPA for 28 years, is writing the history of Stockholm, Texas.

In the early 1900s, the Valley was "ranch country, sparsely inhabited," Vassberg said. "It was a political and economic backwater."

In 1904, the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexican Railway reached Brownsville, "which made Brownsville accessible to the outside world and crops from the Valley could reach northern markets," he said. Land developers from the North bought up cheap land, ranging from $2.50 to $75 an acre.

The developers organized special trains from the northern states to the Valley. Vassberg said the fare on the train from Chicago to Brownsville was $25, which was considered reasonable even at that time, and more than 1,000 northerners per week were "wined and dined, and given tours. The area was called the Magic Valley."

In 1912, a Minnesota partnership bought a ranch tract of 12,177 acres. It was called the Turner Tract. That was the agricultural settlement that became the Stockholm community, the professor said. Ads in northern newspapers told of the area's fertile soil, mild climate and low land prices.

By 1914, 150 Swedes had purchased land in the Turner Tract, which was then almost entirely native brush, and turned it into farms and small homesites. At night, Vassberg said, the Swedes heard birds, coyotes and other animals, and became aware of poisonous snakes, rabid animals, wolves and cougars.

Vassberg said the Valley was also the home of lawless humans, who carried rifles and pistols with them.

Nearly 2,000 acres of land had been cleared in 1914, and by 1915, Stockholm emerged with 28 houses. There were telephone lines, a farm club was organized and dirt roads graded, Vassberg said.

Stockholm soon had a primary school with classes exclusively in English. Many of the Swedish-speaking children were also fluent in Spanish, which was the language of the farmworkers and the children with whom they played. Lyford had a high school, and the children from Stockholm got there by horseback or truck or car. Eventually, he said, the school in Stockholm closed and the children went to school in Lyford.

The Swedish people were Methodists and Lutherans and had churches where their own language was used, but eventually they moved to Lyford churches. Their children preferred English. The children spoke Swedish "to their parents, grandparents and God," Vassberg said. "As the first generation died off, the second generation felt more American than Swedish," the professor said.

"During the Depression of the 1930s, many marginal farms were abandoned and people moved back north," Vassberg said. "Fifteen of the original landowners in the Turner Tract were still there in 1935," but by 1952, the area had lost its school, the general store and the last church.

By 1985, Stockholm had only "historical markers and a dust-blown cemetery," he said. The sole residents were two non-Swedish families and only a handful of farming operations remained. Farming and dairy operations were difficult, because there was no irrigation and scant rain, he said. The farm families got their water for bathing and drinking from wells.

In Vassberg's own family, his paternal grandfather was born in Sweden, emigrated to the United States, established residences in Massachusetts and Illinois, farmed in South Dakota and then in Alberta, Canada, where the temperature sometimes was 60 degrees below zero.

After graduating from high school in Lyford, Vassberg farmed with his father for five years, and then went to UT Austin and earned a Ph.D. in history.

During his academic career, Vassberg became an expert on the public lands of 16th century Spain and published two books in Spain and two by the Cambridge University Press. He has had dozens of articles in American, English and Spanish scholarly journals. He was honored twice as Distinguished Faculty, once by the Alumni Association and once by the University.

Although he has retired from the faculty, Vassberg said he is "more involved than ever in scholarly research and writing."

Vassberg said that while the Swedish colony may have been unsuccessful, it was "a resounding success in the micro-history of the immigrant community and its entry into the mainstream of society." Descendants of those Swedish pioneers should not be thought of as "defectors," he said. "They are now ordinary Americans, participating in American society."