Occasionally an obituary seems like a dispatch from a long-lost world. That’s how we reacted to the Sun-Times’ obituary for Ingrid E. Bergstrom, 91, a prominent leader in Chicago’s Swedish-American community in the 1960s and the owner of the Verdandi Club:
With a huge painting of Stockholm behind the bar and a jukebox that played “Halsa dem da rhemma” and other Swedish songs, the Andersonville restaurant reminded immigrants of their homeland.
Nearly every weekend there was a wedding reception or other event, and once a month there was Scandinavian dancing that packed the house.
The Swedish and Norwegian community on the north side was once one of the city’s largest ethnic concentrations, and of course named a major neighborhood (“Andersonville,” which at the time was a rather sardonic allusion to a much more infamous place of the same name), but it has left little permanent imprint on the city other than a couple of places for Sunday breakfast. So Bergstrom’s death reminds us that it wasn’t that long ago that Swedish-Americans were a major constituency in the city— including on the restaurant scene.
Born in 1921 in Sweden, Bergstrom and her husband had run a cafe in Stockholm when they got visas for America after World War II, and picked Chicago on a coin toss as the place to settle. She worked as a server in many restaurants, including the once hugely popular Kungsholm Puppet Theater (where Lawry’s the Prime Rib is now). The Sun-Times reports this curious story:
Once, after a woman told her she could never work at an American restaurant, Mrs. Bergstrom went to the most beautiful place she could think of — the Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago — and landed a job as a waitress.
Why, exactly, couldn’t an attractive Swedish woman with experience get a job in a non-Swedish restaurant? 1950s prejudice against Swedes? Did that exist? Was she perceived as some kind of rube straight off the turnip farm, like Loretta Young in The Farmer’s Daughter? Will anyone ever tell the story of the Swedish-American struggle against injustice? Will you have to click through to the Sun-Times story to find out how Richard Nixon and Cheetah figure in this tale? Yes.
In any case, at some point in the 1950s or 1960s she opened her restaurant, the Verdandi Club, apparently (there’s very little trace of it online) at 5015 N. Clark in Andersonville. She also founded Svenska Gillet, a Swedish friendship society, and seems to have been an important leader in the Scandinavian community. But times were changing in Andersonville; by the early 1970s the Verdandi Club was gone and, in a note of rather too obvious symbolism, the address has been a gay bathhouse since the mid-1970s. Her last business venture was The Sweden Shop at 3304 W. Foster, which she owned from 1971 to 1989 (it’s now owned by the owners of the Swedish restaurant Tre Kronor).
Valsigne dig fröken, Mrs. Bergstrom. Let us say goodbye to your world with a chorus of “Halsa dem dar hemma”:
(H/t Catherine Lambrecht)