Farm story 2. The family

Mölnebo Nedergård, 1937

In 1937 Olle’s father Johan paid a professional photographer to take a photo of him and his family, standing proudly in front of the new farmhouse he had built. That picture sits on my desk and is about 24 by 18 cm. Its thin frame is undoubtedly from the same era as the photo, and it is made of a sort of metal, tin perhaps, highly decorated with embossed scrolls and flowers in white and gold. Its glass is very thin and slightly domed, the centre lifting about half a centimetre above the photo itself. I’d never seen anything like it in England so wrote to the photography curator at the Hasselblad Foundation here in Gothenburg and was a little deflated to learn that domed glass like this was neither rare nor strange in Sweden, but was quite common in small photograph frames in the 1930’s. It certainly gives clarity and sharpness to the image behind it.

The photo shows the family as it was a few years before my husband Olle was born, with his parents and older brothers Einar and Henry standing at the gable end of a big barn. It is a summer’s day and Henry is three years old and has been dressed in his best clothes - leggings, white shoes and a straw hat. His half-brother Einar, then 20, is holding the bridle of a large horse called Ferma and Henry is astride her broad back. Everyone has dressed up for the occasion. Henry’s mother Signe, tall and slender and shyly avoiding looking at the camera, is wearing a pretty summer dress while her husband Johan, large and solid and fifteen years her senior, is dressed in a three-piece suit and tie and looking straight at the photographer, but he’s clearly uncomfortable. He’s got good reason, as he is wearing what was later known as a Hitler moustache, and it does not become him. However, we shouldn’t judge him too harshly as the war hadn’t started yet and Johan couldn’t have known what evil the little man was about to unleash. Nobody is smiling. Even Einar, who I got to know as an old man and who always had a twinkle in his eye, looks solemn despite casually resting one hand in his pocket in an effort to look relaxed.

Einar was the son of Johan’s first wife Axelina, who died tragically early at the age of thirty-two. She had been working in the fields, cut her hand and contracted blood poisoning, which the doctor could do nothing to cure. Until the invention of antibiotics during the Second World War sepsis was a common cause of fatalities and Axelina died a slow and horrible death with only the most simple pain relief to ease her last days. She had lost her baby daughter two years previously but left behind her a four-year-old son, Einar, and of course her husband Johan.

But her husband and son not only lost the love of a wife and mother. Axelina had also been a housekeeper, cook, farm labourer, gardener, washer women, milk maid and doer of the hundred jobs that made up “women’s work” on a farm. So when she died there was a job vacancy at Mölnebo Nedergård and that’s where seventeen-year old Signe came in. After Axelina’s death she went to the farm from the neighbouring village of Bäckevik as a cross between a nursemaid, a housekeeper and piga, a maid of all work. Her family was related to Johan’s – they shared common ancestors – and she was the fifth of ten children. There can’t have been much money at home, so it’s likely that it suited everyone for Signe to earn a little by helping Johan. On Tjörn at that time, a community of near-subsistence farmers, it was no disgrace for a girl to go to a neighbouring farm as a maid. In fact, when he grew up Einar married Anna, a piga at the next farm down the track.

But in the picture of the family, it’s not the people who are the focus of the picture – it’s the horse. Her name was Ferma and she is certainly the individual who is most at ease, standing calmly in the centre of the frame, taller than the family around her and looking directly at the camera with both ears pricked forward. This was a working animal, capable of drawing a plough or pulling a cart but Johan, not a man known for his softer side, apparently doted on her. He also shoed her himself, whether because there wasn’t a blacksmith around or because it cost too much to employ one I don’t know, but he also helped neighbours shoe their animals if the need arose. There are certainly lots of old horseshoes in the barn and we found a pair of thick leather over-trousers which I guess Johan used when riding, or working with Ferma. A while back I found some large round bells attached to a piece of harness in the barn, which could well have belonged to Ferma or a predecessor. I sold them in a car boot sale as part of an effort to get rid of the pile of junk we have in the barn, but I regret it now.

In 1943, seven years after the black and white photo of the family was taken, we can read a short description of the farm in Sweden’s Estates and Farms: Bohuslän (Sveriges Gods och Gårdar: Bohuslän). The description is accompanied by a small photo, very similar to the one on my home page, which tells us that the farm was 19.8 hectares, which included 2½ fields used for growing crops, while the rest was woodland (both conifer and deciduous) and grazing land. I can also add, although this wasn’t stated in the book, that around the farmhouse there were redcurrant bushes, fruit trees and a couple of beehives. The soil was a mixture of clay and sand and the farm was home to three cows, two heifers, 50 to 60 hens, three pigs and one horse. The book adds that the farm had been in the family since the 1600’s.

Naturally it doesn’t say what the farm didn’t have in 1943, which included a tractor, electricity and an inside water supply. For despite the idyllic picture of rural life which drifts across your mind’s eye when you read the description of this snug little farm, for Johan and Signe and other small farmers like them the work was exhausting and unremitting. No wonder that Einar, Henry and Olle and many of their friends moved to the city as soon as they had the chance.

2023©Gwyneth Olofsson

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