Saturday, July 13, 2013

Unveiling Nelly

Nelly Gustafson was born in 1851 in Sweden. She died in 1934, so I couldn't have actually known her.

But I feel like I do.

Nelly was a midwife in Lindström, Minnesota in the early 1900s. She graduated from Lund University in Lund, Sweden in 1870 and came first to Philadelphia where she practiced for several years. Then, hearing about the large Swedish population in Minnesota, she came to Lindström to settle with her three children around 1903. She set up her practice here, delivering babies for a fee of three dollars, or five dollars, or whatever the person could afford.

I became acquainted with Nelly when I became director of the Chisago County Historical Society in 1994. Since we didn't have a museum at the time, we had several large display cases in the lobby of the Government Center in nearby Center City. It was my job to keep them filled with interesting exhibits.

We had been gifted Nelly's midwife kit, a fairly good-sized wooden box full of rather crude instruments. The kit contained bottles with dried-up medicinal fluids, old cotton and gauze, various forceps, scalpels and assorted and sundry items needed to safely bring a new life into the world in the early 1900s.

This kit was well cared for and well organized. It was clearly a collection of tools of a professional. And I was going to display it. Over the ensuing years, I would rotate this display many times, handling this valuable artifact totally in awe of it being in my care.

I became immediately enthralled with this pioneer woman of our county, bringing to our early population a learned and professional approach to midwifery, all the while raising children on her own. (It has been said she was married to a scoundrel in Sweden.)

Nelly has been a hero of mine ever since. And now she is permanently on display at our own Chisago Lakes library in the form of a bronze statue, unveiled this past week in a ceremony and reception with a crowd of over 150.

The statue was painstakingly crafted by sculptor, Ian Dudley. I cannot say emphatically enough how fortunate we are to have this expert artist in our own local area. Ian doesn't go to work until he has thoroughly researched his subject. In this case, it included a trip to Sweden where he met people who knew the family and shared old photographs, letters and stories.

Once back home, Ian began the process which he described in a talk preceding the unveiling. I had no idea it involved so many phases, beginning with a scale model. His knowledge of the way to present the most minute detail and his use of various metals and materials was mind-boggling to me.

Well, at last, the moment had arrived for the official unveiling.

We all held our collective breath as Ian humbly stood by the covered sculpture, his hand poised and ready to remove the orange parachute-like covering.  Neighbors greeted neighbors as the crowd gathered around. Folks were ready, cameras in hand. You could feel the expectant air as we all tried to get as close as possible for the very best view.

Finally, the parachute covering was dramatically lifted!

And then Nelly came back to life...well, in a respectful manner of speaking.

Isn't she just so elegant? 

I present to you, Mrs. Nelly Gustafson, on her way to deliver the town's next baby, riding in her carriage with the real-to-life naugahyde foot guard. So beautiful!

Following the official unveiling, a reception was held in the library featuring Swedish open-faced tea sandwiches and luscious desserts made by local caterer extraordinaire, Jon Ekstrom.

And as we enjoyed the Swedish refreshments, we were serenaded by the Twin Cities Nyckelharpalag, one of twenty groups in the Twin Cities (with thousands of groups in Sweden and about 175 in the US).

What is a nyckelharpa, you say?

Well, I just happen to know because the group distributed a card with its history and the composition of the instrument. Suffice it to say, it is a Swedish key fiddle. It looks like this:

The Twin Cities Nyckelharpalag

So there you have it. A wonderful evening, filled with everything that makes a small town great: neighbors, friends, a ceremony, music, food, local library, and beautiful summer weather.

Everything perfect to greet Nelly again. And she is most welcome here.