A Brief History of Upsala
by Dan Hovland (1999; rev. 2005)
The city of Upsala had its beginnings as a settlement of Swedish immigrants. It remained primarily Scandinavian (and Protestant) throughout much of the first half of the 20th century, even though German and Polish neighbors were located in the surrounding areas.
Some of the first settlers in the area were not Swedish, but Danish. Jurgen (J.J.) Schultz cleared land a couple miles to the east in 1868. Ib Hanson Misfeldt and Knut H. Gunderson settled in the Elmdale area. John Henry Peterson, from Sweden, settled just south of what became Upsala in 1872. In 1880 the Northern Pacific railroad company began to sell land in the area, with John Kulander as their agent. Then the flow of homesteaders increased and included Gust Nelson, Ola Pehrson, L. M. Larson, John and Ola Bengston, August Johnson, John Swedback and many others. Swedback operated a sawmill and built a general store which was run by his wife, Ericka.
The new community was known for awhile as “Swedback’s Settlement” but residents agreed to use the name “Upsala” when the first post office was established in the 1880’s. The first postmaster, John Anderson, is credited with suggesting the name, after the large university city of Uppsala, Sweden. For a while John Swedback also ran the first creamery which was built in 1895 near Two Rivers. This butter making industry was crucial to the development of the community and was later sold to a cooperative of local farmers. Mr. Swedback died in 1899 but his wife continued to have an influential hand in business developments.
Another Swedish family that gave a lot of direction to community growth was the Borgstroms who came to Upsala in 1893. John S. Borgstrom started farming but soon supplemented that occupation by opening photography studios in Swanville, Burtrum, Grey Eagle, Holdingford and Elmdale, as well as in Upsala. John (or J. S.) also had his hand in a confectionery shop and a hardware store; later he worked as an undertaker and also sold furniture.
In 1914 J. S. Borgstrom and Peter Viehauser teamed up with J. W. Falk and Gust Lindgren of Little Falls and established the Farmer’s State Bank of Upsala. J. S. was the first president, a position that later became his son Axel’s. The bank was robbed of $2600 in 1932 by three gunmen, one of whom nervously pulled his trigger and slightly injured the cashier, C. W. Johnson. The bandits were eventually caught. Axel worked with the bank from its beginning until he retired in 1975, at age 87. He and his wife, Carrie, were involved with several business ventures including a candy store, hat shop, Maxwell car dealership and funeral home. Carrie lived to be 100; Axel to 106.
August Johnson had the first clear title to the property that is the main business and residential area of the town. He sold 60 acres to J. S. Borgstrom in 1913 and he, along with his son, Axel, platted that area. Upsala was incorporated as a city in December of 1916. Gust Nelson was its first mayor, serving from 1917 to 1920. He platted the north end of Upsala.
The following business and professional interests were listed in Morrison and Todd Counties, Minnesota, 1915: the bank, creamery, telephone company, lumber and furniture dealers, dry goods stores, grocery, confectionery and millinery, blacksmithing, feed mill, meat market, garage, and implement and harness shop. In the 1920’s a movie theater, drug store, billiard hall and resident doctor were added.
One reason Upsala did not develop a large industry during these years is that it was an inland city, never having a railroad or major bus line. There was not even a major road until 1945 when State Highway 238 was established. Upsala’s schools have always been an important aspect of the community’s strengths. The first elementary in the area, “the Rundquist School,” was built in 1887. By 1900 there were four others. They were consolidated when a new brick building was put up in 1920. The original school house was moved to become the post office building. The first students graduated in 1923. They were Vivian Anderson, Effie Jorgenson, Astrid Larson and Gladys Lunden. Further additions to the school were made in 1954, including more classrooms, a new gymnasium, cafeteria and industrial education and music areas. In 1969, at a time when area “country schools” were closed, a new elementary wing was built. In 2003-04 the elementary and 1954 sections were remodeled and the 1920 high school building was replaced. New administrative offices, a gymnasium and an auditorium were also added.
Their Christian religion was very important to early settlers and they met often in their homes for services. In 1879 J. H. Peterson, Andrew Johnson and Lewis Johnson signed an intent to organize the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Congregation (now Gethsemane Lutheran Church). The Swedish Mission Church (Community Covenant), incorporated in 1888, had its origins in 1885 when worshipers met in a 20 by 30 foot hall above Swedback’s store where they had regular services, Sunday School and Bible School. In 1891 the First Swedish Baptist Church was organized. It grew to about 60 members but the congregation experienced a setback in 1899 when the former pastor persuaded several families to move with him to the state of Washington. The church never seemed to recover fully and by 1930 the treasury was liquidated.
Other churches came later. Mt. Olive Missouri Synod Lutheran Church was established in 1935. The most recent addition to Upsala’s Protestant churches is the Word of Life Free Lutheran Church, organized in 1988. In 1953 St. Mary’s Catholic Church had its beginnings when nearby St. Francis built a new church and their old building was allowed to be moved into Upsala. This was probably the most significant event that eventually changed a town where Swedish was commonly spoken on the streets into a community where religious and ancestral differences are not only tolerated but appreciated. Upsala has developed into a “medley of cultural backgrounds,” blended by school, work, church and community activities.