The recent summer solstice had me thinking about the time two years ago when we were in Sweden with my family celebrating my aunt and uncle’s 25th wedding anniversary at Midsummer. I decided that I wanted to take a short break from the current blogging topic at hand (Orkney) and work instead on a post about one of the highlights of our June 2018 visit to Sweden: the night we stayed at Västeräng, a traditional Swedish farm village and cultural reserve that dates back to the mid-19th century, with some elements that are even older. Västeräng is located in northern Sweden, about 317 kms (196 miles) northwest of Stockholm. The village is about 60 kms (37 miles) inland from the Gulf of Bothnia—the northernmost arm of the Baltic Sea, which stretches across a sizeable portion of the east coast of Sweden. Västeräng is part of the Delsbo urban area1 , which is located in the Hudiksvall Municipality of Gävleborg County in the northern portion of the historic province of Hälsingland2. Västeräng is also close to the Dellen lake system, with the shore of the South Dellen lake stretching to a point less than 2 kms (1.24 miles) southeast of the village.
Västeräng is made up of four individual farmsteads: Ol-Ers; Ersk-Mickels; Schäftners; and Bommens. The main buildings of the first three farms are clustered together in a central core while those of the fourth, Bommens, can be found a short distance of about 150 meters (490 feet) to the northeast. There is also another property known as Långsbovallen that is situated about 2.4 kms (1.5 miles) southwest of the main settlement on slightly higher elevated terrain that consists of a cottage, a few outbuildings, and meadowland that was formerly used for the summer housing and grazing of livestock. Today, Västeräng covers a total area of 360 hectares, of which 35 acres are suitable for farming; the rest, about 320 acres, is forested. 54 buildings can be found at Västeräng, including 23 barns. The oldest structure is a hay barn that dates back to 1580, and the newest is a cattle barn that was recently constructed in 2003. Grandest of all these buildings are three main dwelling houses (boningshus) that were built in the mid-19th century. The Västeräng cultural reserve encompasses all of this land, both arable and wooded, as well as the village’s many buildings.
Västeräng was inaugurated as Gävleborg County’s first cultural reserve in 2002. Three of its four farms are privately owned by a family whose members have called Västeräng home for more than 250 years (the fourth, Bommens, is owned by a separate family). They care for the land and its buildings in collaboration with the Gävleborg County Administrative Board. Västeräng continues to run as a family farm, with two current generations (Maj-Britt and Lennart Persson, along with their son Lars) sharing the work required to manage the buildings, the land, the animals, and the forest. Maj-Britt and Lennart are the 13th generation of the family to live and work at Västeräng; their son, Lars, is the 14th. The goal of the cultural reserve is to make it financially feasible for the owners of Västeräng to preserve the mid-19th century aspects of the village while allowing them to continue to operate as a working farm. Swedish cultural reserves are a means of cultural environment protection, and they strive to preserve the entirety of a heritage site (inclusive of all its land and buildings) in the same way that nature conservation does with ecological reserves. The Swedish agricultural landscape is changing so rapidly that traditional rural environments, such as the village of Västeräng, are becoming increasingly rare. It is essential to safeguard them, while there is still the opportunity to do so.
Västeräng is part of a greater Swedish cultural heritage site that is known as “The Decorated Farmhouses of Hälsingland“; Hälsingland is a historical province of northern Sweden in which Västeräng is situated. The 18th and 19th centuries were prosperous times for many of the farmers in Hälsingland, thanks to their location in the long, fertile valleys of the Taiga forest landscape. They were able to increase their incomes by selling timber and cultivating flax. During this period, local farmers began to use their wealth to build large timber farm houses and outbuildings. They painted their houses red, added magnificent porches, and had their interiors beautifully decorated. The decoration of these houses became a way for these farmers to assert their social status, and so they commissioned artists from Hälsingland and the neighbouring province of Dalarna (where the Swedish Dala horse originated!) to paint elaborate murals in their new residences3. The combination of local building styles and folk art traditions resulted in these distinctive decorated farmhouses that Hälsingland is now known for (they are arguably unparalleled anywhere else in the world). In Swedish, the name used to refer to these farms and houses is Hälsingegård (gård translates as “farm”). Some of these houses featured rooms that were so elaborately decorated that they were used only for special occasions, such as weddings. Today, over 1,000 of these decorated farmhouses4 have been preserved as cultural heritage sites—including Västeräng. In 2012, seven of these farmhouses were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites4.
Visitor accommodation is available in Västeräng at the Ol-Ers farmstead from June through September, and at Ersk-Mickels year-round. Schäftners is closed to the public, as it is where Lars resides with his family. The fourth farmstead, Bommens, also does not appear to be open to the public.
We had the opportunity to explore Västeräng because my family had spent time earlier that day in the city of Hudiksvall (located 35 kms/22 miles east), which was the nearest major centre to where my great-grandfather lived before emigrating to Canada in 1910. My aunt and uncle also knew that we would enjoy seeing Västeräng. They had previously brought my grandmother, another uncle, and another cousin here to stay during a trip they made to Sweden a few years earlier. We all spent the night in one of the buildings that were part of the Ersk-Mickels farmstead, and we were given a key so that we could also explore the dwelling house at Ol-Ers, which was unoccupied by other visitors at the time. My mom and I instantly fell in love with Västeräng, and we both spent the evening photographing the beautiful buildings with our respective cameras (several of her photos have been included in this post).
The agricultural landscape surrounding Västeräng consists of a flat valley with both steep and gently sloping sections. The land becomes increasingly steeper and hillier as you move towards the southwest (a range of tall, rocky hills can be found about 15 kms/9 miles further in this direction). Pockets of arable land in the form of open fields and meadows are divided by sections that are difficult to cultivate because they contain rocky slopes, forest, and ditches. Some of Västeräng’s pastures have never been fertilized or plowed; instead, they have only ever been used for grazing and cutting—the latter of which is still done using a scythe in areas where a mower can’t be used (rocky fields, around the barns). As a result, a rich variety of meadow plants can be found growing wild on the farm, including: small bluebell; yarrow; meadow carnation; wild carrot; buckthorn; common woodrush; lady’s bedstraw; as well as several kinds of tar flower and snakeroot, which thrive on the property. Rarer plant species such as mountain everlasting, spotted cat’s ear, alpine cinquefoil, moonwort, and lint oats are also present. Neither pesticides or fertilizer are used at Västeräng; cow manure is the only supplement added to the agricultural fields.
There were a couple of things that stood out to me when we first arrived at Västeräng. The first was how closely the three farmsteads of Ol-Ers, Ersk-Mickels, and Schäftners were to each other, and how densely packed the buildings were in each yard. With my experience of growing up in Canada, I am used to the idea that a farm is owned by a single family and that there is a distance of at least a couple of kilometers between neighbouring homesteads. Although three of the four farms of Västeräng are now owned by the same family, this wasn’t always the case. So why were these Swedish farmsteads built so that they were literally situated back-to-back? The second thing I was curious about was why Västeräng was called a “village” as three of the farms are presently home to two generations of the same family. I knew that, historically, there had been other families living on the property, but their numbers would still not have amounted to what I understand to be the population size of a village, with a range from at least a few hundred people to a few thousand. I have since learned that, in Sweden, the population of a traditional by, which translates as “hamlet” or “village”, contains only 1-200 people; in a statistical context, it is assumed to number less than 50. I have also discovered that the answer to both why the farmsteads were placed so closely together and why these settlements are categorized as a village has to do with the fact that the layout of Västeräng is based on the remnants of a much older form of agricultural land use than the one I grew up with in North America—a system that, in fact, dates back to the Middle Ages6 !
Farming in Sweden used to be regulated by a land tenure system known as solskiftet (“sun distribution”). This was a means of allocating land to members of a community in a manner that aimed to give everyone equal access to the sun throughout the year (in consideration with other factors), which was crucial for a nation located as far north as Sweden. Good quality farm land is scarce, as the Swedish terrain is predominately mountainous and/or forested (less than 7% of Sweden’s present total land is arable). Solskiftet sought to distribute what arable land was available in an equitable way. In order to do so, communities in the Swedish countryside were formed by grouping farmhouses together into a small village. Collectively, the village was then responsible for the surrounding farmland. This land was divided first into smaller fields, and then each field was further partitioned into individual strips. Every family in the village was allocated a single strip of land (known as a teg) from each field. The width of each strip of field corresponded with the size of the farmer’s share in the village, which in turn also dictated the size of the plot they held in the village itself. The strips were ranked according to how well or how poorly their conditions allowed for crop production due to variables such as sun exposure, drainage, existence of trees or rocks, etc. The strips were then distributed to families in an effort to ensure that everyone received an equivalent portion of good quality farmland. What this means in connection with this blog post is that, for a considerable portion of Sweden’s history, farms did not exist as individual, large contiguous areas of land but, rather, as a communal grouping of farmsteads in which individual families were responsible for a series of disconnected parcels of land scattered across different fields. This also led to the Swedish understanding of a by or village as a collection of farmsteads inhabited by a small population of people.
Solkskiftet endured for centuries, and was even exported to parts of England and Finland during the Viking Age (800-1100 CE). It was certainly the system that would have been put in place when the interior of the province of Hälsingland, in which Västeräng is located, was first settled by Scandinavian farmers in the 1100s and 1200s. There are a couple of clues that indicate that the Västeräng region was first inhabited during this time. The first is the presence of the Gubbåkern (“the old man”) burial field along Västeräng’s southeastern border, which is dated to the end of the Viking Age (1050-1100 CE). Västeräng’s name itself also hints at its period of settlement. In Hälsingland, place names that end in –äng(e), which translates as “meadow”, were generally used for an area of arable land that, as the local population grew, was gradually occupied and developed prior to the 12th century. Väster translates as “the west”, and so Västeräng would have referred to the meadow that was located west of Delsbo. It is not known what this area was first used for, although farming is probably a safe bet. There is also a theory that Västeräng once served as a place of pre-Christian worship. The name Västeräng first appears in written sources in 1422, and 1542 is the date given for when the village was officially established. The oldest surviving structure in the village, a building known as Gubbåkersladan, was built not long after in 1580 as a threshing floor. I’m not sure if the Gubbåkersladan threshing floor first existed as just an outdoor surface, or if it was enclosed within a building: both are possible. In either case, the structure managed to escape a devastating fire that burned down and required the village to be rebuilt in 1700. Gubbåkersladan was later renovated into a hay barn in the 19th century after the purchase of a threshing machine made the floor obsolete, but the structure still retains some of its original 16th century elements.
Solskiftet was a system that was relatively equitable in terms of how property was distributed. However, it did not allow for efficient land use or optimal crop yields. Access to and use of an individual strip of the field was impossible. This meant that all of the farmers in the village were required to grow the same crop, use the same crop rotation, and they also had to plow, seed, and harvest at the same time. The strips could be so narrow that it was impossible to turn a plow around without coming into contact with adjacent sections. The yields for each strip also varied widely; the smallest could be collected with nothing more than an apron. Having individual shares spread out across multiple fields also meant that farmers were required to travel long distances in order to tend to all of their land; in many cases, a number of allotments went unused because they were too far away and there was not enough time to get to them.
In 1749, the Swedish government began to pursue agricultural land reform through a movement known as storskiftet (“the large shift” or “great partition”). The purpose of storskiftet was to transform property allotments from these smaller, disjointed individual parcels into larger, contiguous field units. Each family would receive a fewer number of plots, but each of these plots would be larger in area. This would allow for more efficient working conditions, better agricultural yields, and higher profits. Of course, an undertaking of this scale required a full century and a number of different reforms before it was fully implemented; the first major breakthrough in land redistribution didn’t happen until the 1770s. Later, in 1803, a more radical program of land reform known as enskiftet (“single shift”) started to catch on in southern Sweden. Enskiftet7 involved breaking up the traditional Swedish village settings by moving individual families and their farmhouses away from their neighbours and onto their own private plots of land, which were then enclosed by their own contiguous fields. Although such a drastic change did involve considerable logistical difficulties and a degree of resistance, ultimately the financial benefits could not be denied. Enskiftet began to spread throughout the rest of Sweden in 1807. In 1827, the Swedish government made an official push to complete this process of land reform with laga skiftet (“legal shift”). Farmers were reimbursed for the cost of tearing down old buildings, moving others, and building anew on their new properties. A lot of countryside villages disappeared during this time, along with their historic structures. Laga skiftet was mostly accomplished throughout all of Sweden by the 1850s.
Although the Swedish government sought to introduce these agricultural land reforms in a way that was as equitable as possible, there was still incredible social upheaval. Many people ended up moving into larger urban areas during this period, either because they were pushed out of their former homes or because they willingly chose not to continue with farming. It is probably also not a coincidence that the mass immigration of Swedish people to North America began in the mid-1840s. Of course, urbanization and industrialization had been spreading throughout Europe since the late 18th century; laga skiftet and its predecessors seems to have merely propelled Sweden more firmly and briskly down a path that the country was headed down anyway. Still, it’s not a stretch to say that Sweden was forever changed by these reforms in ways that are too mixed and too complicated for me to explore in-depth here. Instead, let’s consider what this historical context meant for Västeräng.
At the beginning of the 18th century, the village of Västeräng consisted of five farms. There were four gathered on the main plot where three survive today (see the first detailed image above of the 1734 map), and a fifth where Bommens is now located. Three of these farms belonged to the Crown (known as kronojar, “Crown land”) and two of them were owned by the farmers themselves8 (skattejard, “taxed land”). One of these self-owned/skattejard farms, Ol-Ers, has belonged to the family of the present owner, Lennart Persson, since 1766; its name is derived from a previous owner, Olof Errsson (I’m guessing Ol-Ers is depicted as “B” in the first detailed image above). An adjacent farm, Schäftners, is also named for an owner from this time period, Lieutenant Schiffner (the farm is possibly labeled as “D” in the first detailed image, and its owner possibly listed as #4/D in the second). Storskiftet brought considerable change to Västeräng between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries, although not as much as was experienced elsewhere in Sweden. Between 1769-1772, one of the village’s five farms disappeared (I’m guessing this was farm “A” in the first detailed image above). However, the other four farms managed to survive and retained their original locations, where they can still be seen today. Västeräng underwent the necessary redistribution of its farmland but, interestingly, both the communal setup of the village and the layout of its buildings remained largely intact. The local residents seem to have decided that it was important to keep most of their small community together at a time when the entire Swedish countryside was being encouraged (and incentivized) to do otherwise. Four new dwelling houses and several outbuildings were even constructed at Västeräng during the height of laga skiftet between 1830-1865, but they were built in largely the same locations that the previous ones had stood rather than being relocated to private, individual farmsteads. This continued existence of Västeräng as a village has allowed it to preserve an aspect of Sweden’s rural history that is now largely absent throughout the rest of the country. It is an incredible feature that I wish I had been more fully aware of during our visit!
Storskiftet and laga skiftet brought a great deal of change to Västeräng over the course of 100 years, especially in terms of how its farmland was managed. However, very little has changed for the village since this restructuring. Both Västeräng and its surrounding landscape have retained most of their mid-19th century appearance. This is especially true for the three farmsteads of Ol-Ers, Ersk-Mickels, and Schäftners, where only a few small buildings have been demolished in the last 150 years. Even the land use, despite its earlier overhaul, remains largely the same as it was in the 1850s. This is why Västeräng is said to be one of Hälsingland’s best-preserved village environments from the mid-19th century, even though its existence—and some of its buildings —date back even further.
Let’s now begin our tour of Västeräng! Unfortunately, my coverage of the village is going to be dominated by two of the four farmsteads, Ersk-Mickels and Ol-Ers, as those are the ones we had access to. As previously mentioned, Schäftners is used as a private residence for Lars Persson’s family, and Bommens is owned by a separate family (and also appears to be closed to the public). Photos of these latter two farmsteads will be mostly limited to what I can find in the Västeräng guide book. With that in mind, I’ll focus on the core of the village, which consists of three separate farmsteads: Schäftners, which is situated in the far west; Ersk-Mickels, which is centrally-located; and Ol-Ers in the east. Each farmstead has its own courtyard, which is oriented toward the south. The three main dwelling houses are somewhat aligned in an east to west direction, with their entrances all facing south. The outbuildings of each farmstead flank their respective dwelling house on its western and eastern sides. There are a total of 18 buildings across all three farms. These include the three dwelling houses; two dual-purpose buildings that contain both residential and barn space; as well as 13 outbuildings that have served as barns, stables, threshing floors, garages, as well as stores for grain, straw, hay, and firewood. Although different families have lived at Västeräng over the centuries, today the three farmsteads in the village core all belong to the Persson family. Ol-Ers is the heart of this holding, as it was acquired by members of Lennart Persson’s family more than 250 years (and 12 generations) ago in 1766. Ersk-Mickels was bought by Lennart Persson’s father in 1951, and Lennart himself purchased the Schäftner property in 1998. It is actually a little surprising that the village had separate families living on these three closely-situated farmsteads until relatively recently in its history!
Before we begin our look at the individual farmsteads, I want to include a quick note about outbuildings: Västeräng has a lot of them, and many were designed to have multiple purposes. Some outbuildings were constructed as a whole, coherent structure. Others had separate smaller structural bodies joined together under one common roof. A number of these outbuildings have become obsolete due to changes in farming processes, especially with the increased use of machinery. Most of them still survive at Västeräng, although they do require maintenance and care to prevent their deterioration. These well-built structures are often the oldest buildings found on the property, and their continued preservation is part of what makes the village so special. I’ll discuss some of these individual outbuildings in greater detail throughout the post as we come across them in the tour.
We’ll begin our tour of the individual farmsteads with Schäftners. As previously mentioned, Schäftners is named for a previous owner, Lieutenant Schiffner, who may have been the owner identified as “Lieutenant” in the 1734 map of Västeräng I used earlier in this post. Lennart Persson purchased Schäftners in 1998, and today it serves as the private home of Lennart’s son, Lars, and his family. The Schäftners courtyard is concentrated around a mid-19th century dwelling house (S1 in the village plan shown below) that is two storeys tall and has been partially modernized. On a typical Hälsingland farm, the dwelling house is where family and servants slept, ate, and worked most of the year. The dwelling house at Schäftners is flanked on its west side by an outbuilding that contains a barn and a shed (S3). At the beginning of the 20th century, this barn was expanded so that it had a new wing (S4) that also included a stable. This building was used to house livestock until 2002. On the eastern flank of the dwelling house is an outbuilding (S2) that contains a guesthouse (gäststuga) at one end and a cattle barn/shed (fähus) at the other. In the summer, several inhabitants of a typical Hälsingland farm would move and stay with the cattle at a second property near the summer pasture (this was Långsbovallen in the case of Västeräng). The other residents of the farm would move into the guesthouse, which was also referred to as “the summer kitchen.” Like the dwelling house, both of these outbuildings at Schäftners date to the mid-19th century.
Southwest of the courtyard is an outbuilding that functioned as a shelter to store threshed grain (S5a), a barn, and as a shed to hold straw (S5c). Just behind this outbuilding, a new cattle barn was constructed in 2003 (not shown in the 2001 village plan). The owners of Västeräng constructed this barn in consultation with architects and antiquarians, ever-mindful of the need to preserve the mid-19th century appearance of the cultural reserve even as new structures were required for the farm’s continued operation. North of the courtyard is a building (S6) that was used as a firewood shed.
Next up on our tour is the Ersk-Mickels farmstead. The Ersk-Mickels courtyard is concentrated around a 1.5 storey dwelling house (EM1 in the detail of the village plan shown below) that serves as a private home for Lennart and Maj-Britt Persson. Although the dwelling house dates back to the 1850s, it was rebuilt and modernized in the early 1950s when Lennart’s father bought the farm.
This south-facing dwelling house is flanked on its west side by a structure (EM2) that, similar to the one at Schäftners, contains a residential area at one end and a former cattle barn/shed at the other. Like the dwelling house, this outbuilding was constructed in the mid-19th century. The living area of this building is now used as a guesthouse that is rented out to visitors (this is where we stayed, more about that soon). The barn section of this building was actually used until 2002 to house 14 dairy cows!
The cattle barn was one of the most important buildings on a Hälsingland farm, as the livestock were responsible for a large portion of the farm’s potential profit. Interestingly, taking care of the cattle barn was considered part of the female domain. Västeräng has five cattle barns in total. The three oldest, including this one, all date to the mid-19th century. All three of these cattle barns can be found in the three courtyards of the individual farmsteads, flanking their respective dwelling house. They all stand on a slope, with one end perched high above the ground on stone supports that are about the height of a person. Hatches in the barn floor allowed the cattle manure to be deposited and stored below, where it was safe from being washed away by the rain.
The cattle were led into these barns using stone ramps. Once inside, they stood in separate stalls with their heads facing the wall.
Unfortunately, the Ersk-Mickels cattle barn can no longer be used because the building no longer meets modern standards for animal handling and dairy production. These stricter regulations are the reason why Västeräng switched from being a dairy farm to one that raises animals for meat production; it’s also why the owners had a bigger barn built in 2003 near the Schäftners farmstead for a new herd of 70 cattle.
The eastern side of the Ersk-Mickels courtyard contains a 19th century outbuilding (EM3) that combined three different areas and their related functions under one roof. There was a stable on one end, a shed on the other, and they were both connected in the middle by what is called a portlider: a garage or storage area, possibly used to house bigger machinery or carriages, that has a large entry door. This type of outbuilding is actually quite rare, as none of the other Halsingland farms have a surviving example; this may be due to the tendency to dismantle and reuse these type of structures for other purposes. You may have noticed in the Ersk-Mickels courtyard plan that this outbuilding is aligned somewhat asymmetrically in relation to the manor house and the guesthouse; this is because the stable predates both of these mid-19th century structures, and was actually designed to align with the former dwelling house, which was demolished in order to build the present one.
Another outbuilding (EM4) can be found a few steps northeast of the stable/shed/portlider outbuilding, a short distance outside of the Ersk-Mickels courtyard. This structure served as a shelter, and it is dated to the end of the 18th century—making it one of the oldest surviving buildings at Västeräng. Shelters were where the threshed grain was stored, and so they were often situated just outside of the farmyard to help protect them in case of a fire breaking out. Shelters are often the oldest preserved buildings on a farm. Their design has varied over time as well as across regions, but Västeräng’s post-shelter is an example of one of the oldest types. These shelters were raised up high on wooden supports to help protect the grain from rodents and moisture.
Two other outbuildings can be found at the south end of the Ersk-Mickels courtyard. The first is a “swine house” (E5), and the second is a barn that contains both a hayloft and a threshing floor (EM6), as well as a side shed that was used to store straw (EM6a).
Before we continue, I want to point out that another notable feature of Västeräng is that it has a remarkable number of surviving barns, even when compared with other Hälsingland farms. In addition to the livestock barns, the village and the surrounding fields also contain plenty of barns that were formerly used for the threshing and storing of agricultural crops. In the 1950s, Västeräng had as many as 31 barns; today, 23 of these remain. These barns come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and ages. However, they all feature knot-timbered construction, which allows for them to be easily dismantled, moved, and then reassembled. As a result, more than half of these structures found themselves being adapted for different purposes over the years; many of them were later used as haylofts. Every barn has its own name related to something obvious such as how it was used, where it was located, and even who constructed it; however, in some cases the reasoning for a specific name has been lost over time. A few examples of names for these barns include: Vassladan (the whey barn); Stora Röladan (the large roaring barn); Lilladan (the small barn); Gubbåkersladan (the barn located by the grave field); Bäckladan (the barn by the stream/brook); Per-Olsladan (named for a farmer); and Palmensladan (named after a soldier). Today, the barns are often used to store tools. Old wooden posts, formerly used as hayracks (hässja) or scaffolds to dry harvested crops in the field, can also be found neatly stacked up underneath or against the sides of some of these barns.
Every farmstead at Västeräng has at least one of these former agricultural barns; Ol-Ers even has two. A number of these barns began their lives as small threshing floors, as is the case with Gubbåkersladan. Threshing was done by hand at Västeräng for a long time. For example, beating rye with a sledgehammer produced long strands of straw that served as preferable materials for roofing and mattress filling. These threshing floors were later renovated into larger structures so that they could accommodate the use of mechanical threshing devices. These barns thus serve as a historical record of how the process of threshing developed over the centuries (a threshing barn is a trösklada).
Now that our tour of the various structures at Ersk-Mickels is complete, let’s go back and examine the guesthouse in more detail. This extremely charming house was built in 1850, but has since been equipped with modern amenities to make it comfortable for visitors. There are three bedrooms, a kitchen and dining area, a bathroom (with a sauna!), and an upstairs lounge. We rented the whole house for the night since there were eight people in our group, but the bedrooms can also be rented out individually; the common spaces would then be shared with other guests.
Next up on our tour is the Ol-Ers farmstead, which has belonged to the Persson family since 1766. Ol-Ers is uninhabited today, but during the summer it is open to visitors. The present farmstead was built just east of its older location (which was gradually demolished) in the 19th century—possibly taking advantage of the fact that there was now more space in Västeräng because one of the original four farms sharing the village plot had vacated it sometime between 1769-1772. Two buildings from the older Ol-Ers farmstead have been preserved: the first is an 18th century threshing floor (OE5 in the detail of the village plan shown below), which still stands in its original location; and the second is a three-storey grain shelter (OE6), which was moved to its current spot south of the farm in 1862 (more on these later).
The Ol-Ers courtyard, like the two that came before it, is concentrated around a south-facing dwelling house. This residence was built in 1846 by Jon Larsson, the son of a district judge, and his wife, Kerstin Zachrisdotter; they tore down an earlier 18th century farmhouse that had been standing on the site in order to do so (the one belonging to the now-absent fourth farm, perhaps?). The dwelling house has two main floors, with a large hall situated at the eastern end of each, as well as an attic. The house is supported by a stone plinth, and has two symmetrical lines of windows circling all four of its sides. Most of the dwelling house’s present features date to the 1930s-1940s when it was extensively remodelled by Lennart’s grandfather, Per Olsson. The charming green paint on the exterior doors and the windows was also added in the 1940s.
Visitor accommodation is also available in the Ol-Ers dwelling house. The whole house can be rented out, or the four bedrooms can be booked individually with shared use of the kitchen. Cold water (no hot) and electricity are the only amenities available in this residence. There is no bathroom in the dwelling house itself: a shower can be used in an adjacent building, and there is an outhouse located nearby. History comes first at Ol-Ers!
The Ol-Ers dwelling house is flanked by two outbuildings on the western and eastern sides of the courtyard. They were also constructed in 1846, the same year as the residence. Both of these structures were designed to be dual-purpose. The outbuilding located to the west of the dwelling house contained a horse stable as well as a shed for carpentry work. The outbuilding on the east functioned mostly as a cattle barn, but also had a room in its upper level where a maid lived. We’ll take a look at the outbuilding with the stable and the carpentry shed first.
Hälsingland farmers such as Jon Larsson had several reasons for building both a stable and a cattle barn as close to their dwelling house as possible. Wolves were a real threat to the livestock, as evidenced by a wolf pit that was built in the fields nearby (we’ll visit it towards the end of this post). Jon Larsson would have wanted to keep an eye on his horses not only because they played an integral role in the work carried out on the farm, but also because they were good companions and prominent status symbols.
Caring for the horses was considered part of the male domain. Horses were used as draft animals at Västeräng until the early 1950s, when the first tractor was procured.
Jon Larsson also had a cattle barn built close to the dwelling house on the east side of the courtyard so that he could better protect one of the farm’s main sources of income during the winter. In the summer, the cattle were taken out to graze in a pasture. The barn was big enough to house 10 cows, and has a fireplace with a brick boiler. The barn also contains a maid’s room situated on the upper level that is accessed via a steep stairwell. Apparently, this stairwell still features a message that was inscribed by one of the maid’s nocturnal suitors sometime in the late 1800s. The building also features an outhouse located in an attached shed (seen below on the right side of the building).
Interestingly, it seems that some decorative elements of the demolished 18th century farmhouse were reused in the maid’s room, including a beautifully painted door, some wallpaper, and a fabric hanging that is located at the head of the wall-mounted bed. Unfortunately, the cattle barn and maid’s room were closed during our visit so we weren’t able to take any photos of the interior ourselves (this is understandable, as it would be really important to protect the fragile elements of this room). However, I was able to source a couple of photos of the maid’s room from a Swedish-language article featured on Västeräng’s main website, shown below.
However, I think I may have inadvertently photographed the door of the maid’s room while we were exploring the attic of the Ol-Ers dwelling house, as seen below. Of course, I’m now wishing I had gotten a better picture of it!
Below are some more exterior photos of the outbuilding containing the cattle barn and maid’s room, plus some images of the attached outhouse.
The three main buildings of the Ol-Ers farmstead (the dwelling house plus the two outbuildings) were designed to be perfectly symmetrical in relationship with each other. Together, they formed the central shape of the courtyard, which also served as a useful workspace; a metal forge was even located here at one time.
In the 1890s, an area south of the courtyard was developed into a garden. The garden consists of a sunken terrace that is enclosed by a hedge. Many of the garden’s 19th century features are absent today, although traces of its former splendour remain. The garden features a number of apple trees as well as a variety of flowers such as columbine, daylily, peony, and bellflower. Some of the apple trees may even date back to when the garden was first planted! The owners have expressed an interest in restoring some of the lost garden beds, whose rounded shapes can still be seen encased beneath a layer of grass, but that project would currently require more time (and funding) than they currently have.
The Ol-Ers courtyard includes two other outbuildings that can be found west of its garden. The first of these is a series of three connected structures that consist of a storehouse for threshed grain (OE4), a tractor garage (OE4a), and an 18th century threshing floor (OE5). As previously mentioned, the threshing floor is a surviving element of the prior Ol-Ers farmstead and remains in its original location; both the storehouse and the garage were built onto it in the mid-19th century.
The second outbuilding located west of the garden is a shelter that was used to store threshed grain. It is also original to the prior Ol-Ers farmstead, although it was moved to this new location in 1862. The shelter features a gambrel roof and stands three storeys tall, with a hatch at each level. This warehouse-type shelter was a successor to the post-shelter that we saw back in the Ersk-Mickels farmstead. Rather than being raised on wooden supports, this style of shelter is situated atop slabs of flat stone that lay directly on the ground. Warehouse shelters are the most commonly preserved form of shelter found in Delsbo.
Another building, the Ol-Ers baking cottage (bakstuga) can be found a short distance south of the Ol-Ers farmstead (not shown in the village plan). This building has retained its old interior, and is still used for baking bread. Historically, this cottage served as a gathering place for all of the women in Västeräng, as it was here that all of the village’s baked goods were prepared. Twice a year, Maj-Britt and other family members gather in the cottage for a week and continue the centuries-old custom of baking traditional Swedish flatbread (tunnbröd).
Now that our tour of the Ol-Ers courtyard and its various outbuildings is complete, let’s go back to the dwelling house and take a look inside. We will start by heading up the steps to the front door.
All of the iron fittings found on the old doors (the handles, locks, bolts, keys, etc.) were made by a forge that was previously situated in the Ol-Ers courtyard. Residents of the Delsbo parish were formerly widely known for their skill in the art of forging; their wrought iron pieces typically had a medieval character to them.
We’ve now taken a couple of steps back from the front door further into the front entry hallway. Note the old rotary phone sitting on the bookshelf to the left!
Below are three pictures that show the layout of the front entry hallway from left to right when standing at the front door, facing north towards the stairwell. The first picture shows a cupboard squeezed in between the door to the kitchen (on the left) and the stairwell to the second floor (on the right). This cupboard contains the kitchen pantry.
The front entry hallway also features a plaque mounted overtop two of the doorways, one leading into the stairwell and one into a bedroom. The brass letters and numerals on this plaque contain the year of the house’s construction and the initials of its first owners: J.L.S. for Jon Larsson; and C.L.D. for Christina (Kerstin) Larsson Zachrisdotter. This is one of the few remaining original features of the mid-19th century house.
The first room we will tour is the first floor hall, which is located at the east end of the residence. The decor of this room is very typical of the 1940s. A large dining table sits in the centre of the room. The walls are lined with various cabinets, dressers, and chairs as well as a white ceramic fireplace and a piano.
We’ll now look in the bedroom that is located immediately to the west of the first floor hall. This bedroom features a single bed and a stove tucked away in its southeast corner. The closed door connects to the first floor hall.
We’ll move onto the kitchen next, which is situated in the southwest corner of the first floor. It has many features that are well-preserved from the 1930s and 1940s. There are two stoves: a modern one is available for use by present-day guests, and an older range can be found beside it. A small closet is located to the right of the two stoves, and serves as a pantry. A doorway to the left of the stoves connects with a sitting room.
Also on display in the kitchen is a cute piece of needlework, shown below, that features the days of the week in Swedish (note: the hard English “g” is not pronounced at the end of each word).
The northwest corner of the house contains a sitting room. A pair of chairs and a round side table are located by two windows, while a white ceramic fireplace can be found in the corner opposite to them.
My favourite item in this room is an antique cupboard mounted on one of the walls. It has been painted a pale blue with delicate floral details, and is inscribed with the date of its creation: 1821 (nearly 200 years old!). The “H&D” are likely the initials of its first owners. I saw many examples of these painted wood-furnishings while we were in Sweden, and fell in love with them. They date to the 18th and 19th centuries and are beautifully decorated with folk motifs. Similar items were found elsewhere in the dwelling house, but this cupboard was the one I liked the most.
The final room on the lower floor is a second bedroom, which is located underneath the stairwell to the second floor. The bedroom is furnished with a single bed, a dresser, and a chair.
On the wall hangs another decorative needlework. Translated, it reads: “Happiness can never be taken, we can only love each other.”
We’ll now move the tour upstairs. The stairwell opens onto a landing, where a few more pieces of painted antique furniture can be found.
The landing leads into a south-facing room, possibly used as a study, that contains a desk and several pieces of furniture that look like they’re related to weaving. The black and gold wallpaper in this room dates to the 1900s.
One of the walls in the study features a framed gold medal certificate awarding “The Farmhouses of Hälsingland Project” with the “European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage” in recognition for its “Dedicated Service to Heritage Conservation.” Västeräng became part of the Hälsingland Farmhouses Project in 2002, with its designation as a cultural reserve.
The desk located in the study provided us with a further opportunity to explore, with some fun historical items hidden away in its drawers.
I was most excited to discover a leather wallet full of old ration tickets dated from 1941 to 1944!
The next room we’ll visit is the second floor hall, located on the east side of the house. I think this is the most fascinating room in the residence, as its appearance dates back to the 1800s. During this period, meetings were held in here by Delsbo’s newly-founded missionary assembly (Delsbo is the closest town, located 3 kms/1.5 miles away). Some of these meetings may have ended up running too long for some weary attendees, who found it necessary to lean their heads against the walls; the pomade these members applied to their hair left greasy prints behind on the wallpaper!
There were a lot of beautiful things to photograph in this room!
Sadly, the wallpaper in this room is deteriorating due to moisture damage. Unfortunately, restoring it will cost a lot of money. To acquire the funding needed for the project, the Persson family would need to apply and be approved for a grant with the Gävleborg County Administrative Board. I hope that they’ll be able to save the wallpaper, as it is really beautiful!
Before we leave the second floor hall, we’ll take a look through one of its windows to the courtyard outside.
We’ll now move to the southwest corner of the second floor (crossing back through the study, which we’ve already seen), where we’ll find a third bedroom furnished with two beds, a rocking chair, a sofa chair, and a white ceramic fireplace.
My mom and I noticed that a lot of people in Sweden like to put small pots of red geraniums in their windows. I don’t know when and where this tradition started, but it’s sweet all the same!
Our tour of the second floor now includes a bit of a mystery! There is a room located in the northwest corner that neither my mom or I photographed. All I have to show of it is a glimpse through an open door, shown on the left side of the photo below. I can tell that the room has a wooden floor, but that’s about it.
It is possible that I did take photographs of a couple items in that room, such as the two old trunks shown below (they were both located in a room with a wooden floor, like the mystery room, and I haven’t been able to place them elsewhere). During our tour of the dwelling house, I ended up mostly taking pictures of individual items in each room and often forgot to take a photograph of the room in its entirety. Thankfully, I had my mom’s photos to back me up! (She has a keener photojournalistic instinct that I really need to hone). The Västeräng guidebook says the upstairs contains an “unfurnished walk-in closet,” which is what this may be. I do know that this mystery room was not set up as a bedroom, because my mom and I did take pictures of the fourth and final bedroom—which is the next stop on our tour!
The fourth bedroom is situated on the north side of the second floor, between the landing and the second floor hall. It is similar in size to the first bedroom, which is located beneath it on the first floor. This bedroom has a small single bed and a green ceramic tiled fireplace. A door connects it with the south-facing study.
That’s it for the second floor! We’ll now go up one more level to check out the attic. There’s not much to see there, as the attic is largely an unfinished space used for storage of miscellaneous items.
Our tour of the Ol-Ers dwelling house and farmstead will now conclude with a look through one of the attic windows.
We have now explored the three farmsteads that make up the central core of the village of Västeräng. This leaves us with the fourth and final farmstead, Bommens, which is located a short 150 meters (490 feet) to the northeast of the other three. As previously mentioned, Bommens does not belong to the Persson family, and I think it is actually closed to the public. This means we have to be a little creative in our approach to the farmstead. Luckily, I have been able to find a way to do this!
For the most part, I don’t have a lot of information about the Bommens farmstead beyond the fact that it is presently focused on grain production, it has a 3-storey grain shelter similar to the one found in the Ol-Ers courtyard, and it seems to have fewer preserved historic buildings than the other three farmsteads. The most notable element is that the Bommens dwelling house is painted yellow, which differs from the rest of the red-timbered village. This is because the yellow house only dates to the mid-20th century! In the 1940s, the previous dwelling house was actually moved from Västeräng to the Skansen open-air museum in Stockholm. At Skansen, the dwelling house (occasionally referred to as Västerängsstugan, the Västeräng cottage) is part of the Delsbo Farmstead (Delsbogården) display. In addition to this dwelling house from Västeräng, the Delsbo Farmstead features three additional buildings that were relocated from other villages in Delsbo, as well as one building from the nearby Ljusdal parish (located 26 kms/16 miles west). The structures have been assembled together in order to replicate a prosperous Hälsingland farm, such as Västeräng, from the 1850s.
I was really excited to learn this detail about the relocation of the former Bommens dwelling house, because I had actually visited Skansen six months prior to our stay at Västeräng. We spent some time in Stockholm in December 2017, and on St. Lucia’s Day (December 13) I went to the open-air museum and took as many pictures as my memory card and the few hours of daylight would allow (the sun sets there just before 3:00 pm that time of year). It was a magical day, complete with Lucia carollers in full costume and many different seasonal exhibits. When reviewing my pictures I was thrilled to find that I had found my way to the Delsbo Farmstead, and had taken a few shots of the Bommens dwelling house and its adjacent buildings.
The great thing about having the former Bommens dwelling house moved to Skansen in the 1940s is that its new role at the museum allowed for the continued preservation of its 19th century historical appearance. The other dwelling houses at Västeräng were updated in the mid-20th century and onward in order to accommodate the modern needs of the families who were still living there; the former Bommens dwelling house did not undergo these same updates. Another benefit of this museum location is that I was able to source some more information about the history of the house which, in turn, provides further insight about the village of Västeräng. For instance, the residence was initially constructed at the end of the 18th century as a one-storey, knot-timbered cottage that would have been roughly similar in appearance to another building at Skansen known as Bollnässtugan. Two-storey houses weren’t a common feature of rural settlements until the 19th century, and they only began to appear in the Delsbo area around the 1850s. The late 18th century date of this lower storey makes the former Bommens dwelling house the oldest of the structures standing in the Delsbo Farmstead. The house underwent a major renovation in the 1830s when a second storey was added, and the interior rooms were entirely redesigned. The upper part of the wall used in the original construction of the one-storey cottage, known as the wall band, is still in place. Recesses for the original roof hooks can also still be seen overtop the living room window. An entrance veranda (known as a brokvist) was also added to the dwelling house a short time after this renovation; it was a little lower and narrower than the current one.
The exterior of the dwelling house was first painted Falu red (Falu rödfärg) a few years after the addition of its second storey in the 1830s. Västeräng was one of the first villages in the Delsbo area to adopt the use of this distinctive colour. Although the use of this exterior red paint is now widespread throughout Sweden, it didn’t really gain traction until the end of the 19th century, especially in rural settlements. Many houses had yet to feature any exterior paint as late as the 1860s, and even then only one or a few houses in a village were painted red. In some cases—such as at the village of Edsång, where two of the other buildings in the Delsbo Farmstead were relocated from—only one wall, the one facing the courtyard, was treated with a coat of red paint. The roof tiles used on the former Bommens dwelling house were also an innovation that later caught on throughout the rest of the Delsbo area in the 1850s; they were made in the neighbouring parish of Forsa.
Below are some photos I took of the interior of the dwelling house. Unfortunately, I didn’t get shots of every room—I think some of them were actually closed at the time of my visit. I think I only took photos of one room on the ground floor and one on the upper floor. I also don’t have a complete understanding of the house’s layout. I think the ground floor consists of an entry foyer with pine paneling; a special occasion room that is decorated with paintings done in 1819 by an artist from Leksand, Dalarna (located 200 kms/124 miles southwest of Västeräng); and a living room, which I did photograph (shown below).
The first corner of the living room is furnished with a bed and a grandfather clock, which is inscribed with the initials “E.O.J.” The second corner contains a table that is accompanied on two of its sides by a pair of fixed benches. A wall-mounted cabinet and a set of shelves can be found in the third corner, and a massive fireplace resides in the fourth. A stencilled decorative border adorns the top of the room’s four walls. A hand-painted date, “1837”, can be seen overtop the door to the left of the bed, just below this border. At the time of my visit, the living room was set up as if the inhabitants of the house were in the midst of making candles.
In addition to the stencilled border decoration found at the top of its walls, the living room of the former Bommens dwelling house features a beautiful pair of paintings in the corner overtop the table. These were also created in 1837, and the painting on the right features the initials of Zakarias Eliasson (“Z.E.L.”) and his wife Brita Jonsdotter (“B.J.D.”); they were the grandparents of the owners who later offered the manor house to the Nordic Museum (the organization that Skansen was a part of at the time). There is also a beautiful antique cupboard mounted between the two paintings, which is very similar to the one that can be seen at the manor house on Ol-Ers. I think the date painted on it reads “1841.”
Paintings such as the ones found in the corner of this living room belong to a rich tradition of decorative Swedish folk art that the farmhouses of Hälsingland are particularly renowned for. These interior paintings began to appear in the late 18th century and flourished in popularity throughout the 19th. Some were painted directly on the wooden walls of a farmhouse’s interior, while others were painted on canvas or textiles that were then hung up. They were done by local artists or, in some cases, by itinerant artists from the neighbouring province of Dalarna (the latter are known as Dalecarnian paintings, and are highly prized). I don’t have enough information available to me at this time to discuss which artists were responsible for the paintings in the former Bommens dwelling house, nor do I have any photographs of the other rooms that would allow me to illustrate their remarkable artistry. One source does mention the names of artists Ur Hans Hansson and Mårs Anders Andersson, who were active in the Delsbo area until the end of the 1850s, as well as Olhans Olof Jonsson, an artist from Altsarbyn in Rättvik. What I do know is that many practitioners of this art were influenced by the work of Gustaf Reuter (1699-1783), who is considered to be Sweden’s best painter of folk art; his style is referred to as “the Baroque of Hälsingland.”
In a typical Hälsingland farmhouse, the rooms on the upper floor were generally unfurnished and used as storage rooms, cloak rooms, etc. Although I didn’t see it at the time of my visit, one of the upstairs rooms at the former Bommens dwelling house contains a loom and other assorted textile tools, as well as an impressive collection of holiday clothes—this would certainly be fun to check out on a return visit. However, the room I did get to see and photograph, that of the upper hall, contains a special feature that was even more remarkable: a collection of murals that had been hand-painted by Gustaf Reuter himself! These murals are not authentic to the former Bommens dwelling house. They were actually painted on the walls of a one-storey dwelling house located in Karlsgården in Tjärnmyra, which is located about 8 kms (5 miles) south of Västeräng. Unfortunately, this building was too deteriorated to allow for its relocation to Skansen. Instead, the decorated wall panels were carefully removed and installed here.
These murals, of which my photographs are a poor representation, were painted by Reuter throughout the span of his artistic career. Samples from both his early and late periods are represented. Several scenes depicting a Biblical story, The Life of Jesus with Three Holy Kings, are dated to May 27, 1747. They flank the walls as if part of a festive train.
Let’s take a quick look at the rest of the courtyard and the other buildings found in the Delsbo Farmstead. You may notice that this farmyard is more enclosed than the ones presently seen at Västeräng, as the separate buildings are more tightly crowded together. That’s because the three-sided/open courtyard seen at Västeräng is actually a newer form than the one shown at Skansen, which preceded it. The closed farmyard, which was commonly used in the more northern areas of Sweden (including the province of Hälsingland), sought to have its buildings situated so that “not a fly could come between them.” On the one hand, I can see how this would better protect the courtyard from predators, as well as from strong winds and inclement weather. On the other hand, there is a substantial risk that fire could quickly spread between the buildings with devastating results. It’s interesting to have had the chance to see both courtyard forms at Skansen and Västeräng, and to consider what the village may have looked before several of its major structures were rebuilt in the mid-19th century.
The Delsbo Farmstead, like Schäftners and Ersk-Mickels back at Västeräng, contains a mixed residential and livestock building on the west side of its courtyard. The cattle barn was relocated from the village of Gåsbacka, which was also a part of the Delsbo parish. The guest/summer house was sourced from the village of Sunnanås in the nearby Ljusdal parish, located about 26 kms (16 miles) west of Västeräng; it was built in the 1830s.
One notable difference from Västeräng is that the Delsbo Farmstead contains a “Grandparents’ cottage” (Undantagsstuga) on the east side of its courtyard, where the older generation resided once the younger had taken over the farm. This building was relocated from the village of Edsångs, which was also located in Delsbo; it was first built as a single storey cottage a few years after 1806, with the second storey added in the 1830s.
The south end of the courtyard contains an outbuilding, also sourced from Edsångs, that functioned as both a stable and a threshing barn; it was constructed in 1812.
There are also two post-shelters situated just outside the farmyard. The shelter on the left was sourced, along with the guest/summer house, from the village of Sunnanås in the Ljusdal parish; it was probably first built in the late 15th century, and was rebuilt in the first half of the 17th. The post-shelter on the right was brought, along with the Reuter murals, from the village of Karlsgården in Tjärnmyra; it was probably built in the 18th century.
All right, let’s head back to Västeräng! We are almost finished with our tour. My mom did take a picture of one building that remains a mystery to me (shown below). I’m not sure which farmstead it belongs to, nor what it was used for. The right side of the building looks like it contains two pairs of barn doors, but the beautiful curtains on the second and third levels suggest that it might also have some residential space inside. If you have any ideas, please let me know!
There is one other area of Västeräng that I would like to discuss, even though we did not see it. The Långsbovallen property of Västeräng is situated about 2.4 kms (1.5 miles) southwest of the main village on slightly higher elevated terrain. This is where the cattle were taken to graze during the summer months. As previously mentioned, Swedish farms were historically set up so that they had access to land in several places, rather than having it all concentrated in one area. The centralization of arable land around a village meant that there was no room left for a meadow or grazing pasture. The solution was to find another area of land, often miles away, that could be used for this purpose. This meant that a farm actually consisted of three key regions that were all equally important to how it was successfully run and managed. The first was the main farmstead (hemby, “home village”), which was the focus of crop production and the winter housing of livestock. The second region was the bodland (“extra farm”), which was a small copy of the main homestead with its own house, stable, and one or two other outbuildings. The Långsbovallen property on Västeräng is an example of a bodland: lång translates as “far”; bo as “dwelling/residence”; and vall as “grazing ground.” Unlike the main farmstead, the bodland was only occupied in the early summer and the late autumn. In between these periods, during midsummer, the cattle would be moved to the third key region: the summer pasture (fäbod). Västeräng’s mountain pastures were still in use as late as the 1950s, where Lennart’s grandmother was responsible for tending the livestock. During the land reform of the 1800s, it became common to convert bodland into independent farms that were permanently inhabited.
Our tour will end with a walk we took after dinner, in search of the Gubbåkern burial field. We walked along a winding road that has marked the same route to the village since the 18th century. Here are a few pictures of some things we saw and friends we made along the way.
During our walk we came across the remains of a former wolf pit, which was used until 1865 when catch pits such as these were prohibited. The wolf pit would have been covered with a thin layer of rice, straw, and moss. Bait was placed in the middle of this cover, which would have tempted the wolf to cross over and fall through. The pit beneath was deep with steep, rocky sides that made it impossible for the wolf to escape.
Here is the final stop on our tour, the Gubbåkern burial field! It contains seven burial mounds that are dated to the end of the Viking Age from 1050-1100 CE. It is incredible to me that Sweden has so many sites like this (with graves that are nearly 1,000 years old!) that there is not a lot of signage or fuss made about this one. I wouldn’t have even realized there was anything special about it if I was just passing by.
That’s it for Västeräng! A big thank you goes out to my aunt and uncle for bringing us here; to my aunt for sending me a guidebook to help with the writing of this post; and to both of them for their help with Swedish to English translations. Thank you to my mom, for letting me use her photos in this blog post. And thank you, dear reader, for making it through this post. Happy Midsummer!
1 Urban areas in Sweden are organized based on their population size. This is a purely statistical exercise, as these areas are not defined by municipal or country boundaries. A storstad (“large city”) is a term usually reserved for Sweden’s three largest cities: Stockolm; Gothenburg; and Malmö. A stad (“town” or “city) refers to urban areas with a population greater than 10,000. A tätort (a “dense urban area”) is any village, town, or city with a population of 200-10,000. Nearby inhabitants are counted as part of a tätort if their houses are not more than 200 meters (656 feet) apart from each other (exclusive of the area taken up by rivers, parks, roads, etc.). The Delsbo tätort, of which Västeräng is a part, is an example of such a locality. As of 2018, the Delsbo urban area counted 2,192 inhabitants. In 2005, research indicated that Delsbo had the highest density of villages in Sweden, having about 104 of them scattered throughout the area, including Västeräng. A local newspaper described Delsbo as a place with “a village behind every tree.” The Delsbo urban area is sometimes referred to, especially in older literature, as the “Delsbo parish.”
2 Today, Sweden is divided into 21 counties (Län). Every county has a county administrative board headed by a governor, appointed by the government, as well as a separate regional council. The number of counties in Sweden have varied over time due to territorial gains/losses and to divisions and/or mergers or existing counties. Counties were first established as an administrative unit in 1634, superseding the historical provinces of Sweden. These 25 provinces no longer serve any administrative purposes, but they do endure as important historical and cultural legacies. Language dialects, folklore, and other cultural traditions tend to follow the former provincial boundaries rather than those of the counties. In some cases, the administrative counties correspond almost exactly with the provinces (eg. the traditional southern province of Blekinge with Blekinge County). In other cases, they do not. Västeräng is part of Gävleborg County, which encompasses the historical provinces of Gästrikland and most of Hälsingland. Although Västeräng and Hälsingland are, geographically speaking, located in central Sweden, they are often referred to as being part of “northern Sweden.” That’s because, like Canada, most of Sweden’s actual geographical north is largely inhabited, except by the Sami—an indigenous people whose land (called Sápmi in their language) spans Arctic Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia. Västeräng and Hälsingland are considered “north/northern” in terms of the regions of Sweden that are more densely populated.
3 In the 1850s-60s, these folk artists also began to create and install hand-painted and printed wallpaper in these Hälsingland farmhouses.
4 The majority of the decorated farmhouses were constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries, but there are some buildings that date back to the 1600s! I honestly can’t imagine a historical site that would appeal to me more. Anyone up for a road trip through rural Sweden in a year or two when this pandemic is (hopefully) over?
5 The seven farmhouses that were designated UNESCO World Heritage sites are: Gästgivars (in Vallsta, has a visitor centre); Kristofer (in Järvsö); Pallars (in Alfta); Jon-Lars (in Långhed); Beyond Åa (in Fågelsjö); Bommars (Letsbo); and Erik-Anders (in Asta, has a visitor centre). (There are also visitor centres at Ol-Anders in Alfta and Stenegård in Järvsö).
6 The Middle Ages in Europe span, roughly, from the 5th to the late 15th century, with the dates varying between the countries. Sweden’s prehistoric era ends around 800 CE when written sources became available with the advent of the Viking Age. The Viking Age lasted until around 1050-1100. 1050-1300 is considered to be the Older Middle Ages in Sweden. Scandinavia was formally Christianized by 1100 CE. 1350-1523 is considered to be the Younger Middle Ages in Sweden.
7 Enskiftet was modelled on a program undertaken in the province of Skåne by Baron Rutger Macklean, who inherited Svaneholm Castle and its estate of 8500 acres from his mother’s family in 1782. The property that belonged to the Svaneholm Estate was frälsejord (also called frälseland): land owned by the nobility (see footnote 8 for more info). About 40 tenant families lived in 4 different villages on the Svaneholm Estate. The solskiftet model of land tenure had led to about 7,000 acres of this estate being divided, over the course of its existence, into hundreds of narrow strip allotments across 53 different fields. Each tenant family had the right to farm 60-70 strips of land located throughout these fields. However, these parcels of land were so spread out that tenants only had enough time to tend to about ⅔ of their designated allotments, as the others were too far away for them to reach. This was very inefficient, and led to a lot of unused farmland; Macklean considered how this could all be better managed. His solution was to have the estate surveyed and divided into 75 separate farms that each consisted of about 40 acres of land. On each farm, a new cottage and barn were constructed; roads were then built to connect them. In 1785, Macklean forced all 701 people living on the Svaneholm Estate to leave their communal villages and settle in these new individual farmsteads. There was a lot of resistance: about 102 people opted to terminate their leases and leave Svaneholm. But the ones who remained found that they could grow more crops using half as much land as before. Although there were considerable difficulties involved with such a transition, there’s no arguing that it was ultimately a success. The increased crop yields and resulting profit led to a population boom; by 1802, the number of people living on the Svaneholm Estate had doubled to 1,400. In 1803, enskiftet was extended to the rest of the province of Skåne. This shift to single parcels spread elsewhere in southern Sweden in 1804, and then throughout the rest of Sweden in 1807. Enskiftet was more successful in provinces where the terrain is less mountainous and forested (such as Skåne), which allowed for a relatively equal redistribution of land. This was more difficult to do elsewhere; for example, the province of Dalarna has notably resisted much of this change. The growing seasons also vary widely throughout the 1,500 km north-south span of Sweden: in the south, the growing season in Skåne is 100 days longer than in the northern province of Norrland.
8 Generally speaking, there were three types of historical land ownership in Sweden:
- Land owned by the nobility (frälsejord/noble land);
- Land owned by the King (kronojord/Crown land); and
- Land owned by the farmers (skattejord/taxed land).
Prior to 1527, there was also church land (krykojord), but this was confiscated by King Gustav Vasa several years after he came to power, and it became crown land.
- Farmers living on frälsejord (known in Swedish as frälsebönder) owned their farmhouses and the right to farm the land they lived on, but they didn’t own the land itself. They paid for their tenancy most often in the form of a fixed number of days worked per year for their landlord. A period of tenancy normally lasted for 6 years, at which point it could be renewed. Tenancy was inheritable: it could be passed onto the next generation of a farmer’s family. Farmers living on frälsejord were not subject to the Military Allotment system, as their noble landlords were exempt from it. Until the 1800s, only members of the nobility were allowed to own land and have someone else farm it. In Sweden, references to a “crofter” (torpare in Swedish) and/or a “croft” (torp) often refer to a farmer of this category, as only the nobles had the right to rent out their private land to a tenant
- Farmers living on kronojord (kronobönder) had similar conditions to those who lived on frälsejord. Kronobönder also owned their farmhouses and the right to farm the land they lived on. They similarly paid for their tenancy with daily labour. Their tenancies also typically lasted 6 years, and were inheritable. Like the frälsebönder, the kronobönder did not own the land they tended. However, later reforms gave kronobönder the ability to buy the land they were farming from the crown, at which point they became skattebönder. Kronobönder were subject to the Military Allotment system.
- Farmers who owned their own private land were referred to as “taxed freeholders” (skattebönder). However, a farmer could lose their right to the land if they did not farm it or if they failed to pay their taxes; the land then became property of the crown. There were also restrictions on whom a farmer could sell their property to: until 1863, a farmer was obliged to offer their land to a family member before they could seek a buyer outside the family. Skattebönder were also subject to the Military Allotment system.
Until the late 17th century, Sweden had a Military Allotment system that relied on forced conscription. All farmers who lived on crown land or their own land were subject to it, while those who lived on noble land were exempt. Every eligible estate or village was required to provide a rote of ten men between the ages of 15 and 40 who were fit for military service. One randomly chosen man from this grouping of ten was then forced to serve in the province’s or county’s regiment in case of war. In 1682, King Charles XI decided to reorganize the army and introduced the new allotment system, which remained in effect for the next 200 years. With this new system, typically a grouping of four farms (also known as a rote) were responsible for providing and equipping one volunteer soldier for the army. The rote also provided the volunteer with a “soldier’s croft” (soldattorp), which included: a small cottage; some farmland; a cow; a few chickens, pigs, or sheep; a salary; and other necessities such as hay and seed. This was meant to be enough that the soldier could support himself and his family. In exchange, the rest of the men in the rote were free from conscription. The soldier’s responsibility was to attend military training several times throughout the year, and to report for duty in times of war. During war, a soldier could be away for years at a time, leaving the work of their croft to their family and/or the other men in the rote. The soldier’s croft only belonged to the soldier as long as he was fit for service; when he died, it returned to the rote, even if it meant that his family was now homeless. The rote was then responsible for finding a new volunteer recruit. This new system led to Sweden having one of the largest armies in Europe, and the only one in Northern Europe that did not rely solely on enlisted soldiers, mercenaries, or conscripted soldiers. The system also meant that Sweden was able to mobilize a group of already-trained and equipped soldiers within a matter of days, whereas it could take other nations months to get their recruits up to speed.