Bäckegruvans småskola, akvarell av Tiiu Swan
Oilpainting by Tiiu Swan, 2006



The world seemed to be coming to an end the day I heard that we were to move to a small village in Bergslagen by the name of Backegruvan. Dad and all my friends lived in Halmstad, so why couldn't we just stay there? Mom had found a job teaching a total of eight first and second grade kids in that no doubt godforsaken place--probably for ever--and I was one of them, since I was to enter second grade that fall. By the way, the eight of us were to constitute the entire student body of that school. The hamlet couldn't even be found on a map, all we knew was that it was supposed to be located near Lindesberg and Riddarhyttan, or some places like that. Nobody listened to my objections, so all I could do was sulk. I did just that for several days, as a matter of fact.

Many a year has gone by since then. Right now I am sitting in the middle of the North American Continent, reminiscing. And my memories from those two years we spent in Backegruvan keep on multiplying the more I think. That's why I decided to write them down, mostly for the sake of my immediate family, but with some luck perhaps others will find some enjoyment in reading them as well, for you see, those two years turned out to be a period of happy days, peace, and a sense of security never again equalled in my life. In a way I now wish they had lasted for ever, just like I feared they would in the beginning....

This is how I think I perceived the world in those days: There was peace on earth (except perhaps in Korea which was a long ways off), the king sat on a throne in Stockholm and under him was a governor of some sort, and under the governor was the principal of several surrounding schools in our area. Lowest in rank, but not least, came Nils Lilja who was ancient and who lived right next to the deserted mine hole in the middle of the village. (It must surely have taken an awful lot of courage to live that close to the big opening in the ground, filled with black water and probably bottomless). Nils Lilja and his wife Ebba took care of the heating, cleaning, and maintenance of the school house. They could answer any questions about the village and a great many other places in the vicinity. Thus they must be almost all-knowing and worthy of the utmost respect. With the king, the governor, the principal, and Nils Lilja in charge of things, all seemed well. Nothing unpleasant could possibly happen as long as they stayed where they were supposed to be.

And nothing unpleasant did happen during the two years we lived in Backegruvan. Come to think of it, hardly anything happened at all. Looking back at it, time seems to have stood still. More or less, anyway.

We traveled from Halmstad to Bergslagen by train, as was most customary in those days. The railroad ended in a narrow-gauge stretch, starting just before we reached Riddarhyttan.

The furniture we brought with us was all made of dark, heavy oak with beveled mirrors and pretty carvings. Dad had bought it at an auction just before our departure and I can still remember how satisfied he was with the reasonable price he had paid for the whole lot.

Tiius photo from 1950

I can't for the life of me remember how we got from the railway station in Riddarhyttan to our final destination with all that furniture. But I distinctly remember how awed I was at my first sight of the two-story school house on a little hill in the middle of the village in the forest. And it even had a cellar with several rooms in it! The teacher's quarters took up half the house, both first and second stories. The other half consisted of the classroom (first floor) and a huge gymnasium and a boys' carpentry room (second floor) which of course no longer was in use due to the very young age of the children then attending the school.

The cellar contained a huge heater, a laundry room with a big tub of cement, and a sauna. There must have been some kind of a law in those days that school kids in the whole country must be given a bath at regular intervals. In Halmstad we had had a giant room with at least a hundred round, steaming bathtubs in long rows for that purpose. Ladies in white uniforms and with hard brushes went around scrubbing and scrubbing. I still shuddered at the thought and decided to stay clear of the cellar as much as possible.

But how would I ever learn to find my way in the rest of that huge house? Everything seemed so big, so light, so newly varnished. The smell of varnish still reminds me of school. Even the outdoor toilets were freshly varnished and had an expanse that could serve four (or was it five?) kids at the same time. The wood shed was in the same outbuilding along with a small carpentry shop and another room of uncertain purpose up the stairs on the second floor.

There were apple trees, lilac bushes, and peonies in the huge garden. In the middle of a lawn stood a flag pole, and we had a wide area to play in, covered with the coursest gravel I had ever seen. Almost like cobble stones. There were two gates and a beautiful maple tree had been planted at the larger one.

A little creek with crystal clear water ran outside the fence, circling almost the entire house. It was bordered by willow bushes. Thousands of white wood-anemones grew there and also among the many neighboring birch trees in the springtime. A little farther out was the beginning of the real forest, consisting mainly of spruce with deep, soft moss underneath. And way beyond that, at a safe distance, was the rest of the world of which I knew very little and which at the present time was of no concern to me at all.

The village itself consisted of 7-9 farm houses, painted red and with white gables just like the school house. They were spread out at a small distance from each other with fields and meadows between them. In the middle was a Methodist prayer house and a stone's throw from there was the little country store, owned and operated by Nils Lilja. It was kept open at various hours or when somebody knocked at the door of his house and asked to go down and buy something. The ceiling in the little store was very low. On the counter was an old-fashioned scale, requiring much time and patience to balance with the weights in one bowl and the merchandise in the other. Once the groceries to be purchased had been thorougly weighed, they had to be individually wrapped in white paper which was kept in a big dispenser on the counter. And, as a final touch, paper tape had to be applied to keep the parcels from coming open. The tape had to be dampened in order to stick.

Nils Lilja had a brother by the name of Karl who lived right next to the store. Karl was married to a sister of Ebba's and their eighteen-year-old daughter Maj-Britt did the cooking of the hot school lunches for us. It was invariably very wholesome food (although we were too young to appreciate some of it in those days), such as mashed potatoes and turnips, grated carrots with raisins in them, and fish dumplings. She used to polish the wood stove until it sparkled. Her boyfriend worked in Greenland and she used to call him on our telephone (the only one in the village) once in a while.

Nils Lilja also used to sell honey out of his own beehives for two kroner a jar.

Between the prayer house and the school was a farm inhabited by two elderly sisters, Hanna and Gerda Berggren. They used to cook for the itinerant preacher that sometimes paid a visit, and Hanna also taught Sunday School. I remember how once she gave every child a piece of cardboard with a picture of an apple tree on it. Each time we put in our attendance, she handed us a little red paper apple to be glued on the tree, until, hopefully, the tree would be loaded with fruit. It was at the Berggrens' that I first saw a mangling-machine and a cream-separator, both of which fascinated me a great deal.

Kapellet i Bäckegruvan
Tiius photo from 1950

Two strips of grass grew between the wheel tracks on the road going through the village. Only one car normally frequented our neighborhood. It was the old squarish taxi cab that brought the kids to school from other villages and also picked up milk, deposited at the mine hole by the farmers, to be taken to some far-away dairy. The local vehicle most often seen was the horse-drawn wagon with wooden wheels belonging to the Pettersson family living a little ways beyond the school house. That's where the road ended. That's also where Kerstin and Hasse lived, the only two children in the village, not counting myself. Kerstin was my senior by a year and Hasse was a couple years younger.

Talking about the gravel road, our 'main street' through the village, it was closed off at a couple of places by gates that had to be opened and shut each time one passed through in order to keep the cattle confined to where they belonged.

I just now remembered another vehicle local to our village. It was the bicycle used by Walter Berggren (I believe that was his name) to carry mail with, six days a week, come rain or shine. He must have spent 4/5 of his life on that bicycle. A quiet and patient-looking man. Thanks to him we were able to get letters, newspapers, and once in a while even packages ordered from Ahlen & Holm in Stockholm.

Speaking of news, there was certainly no shortage of that in those days either. As I already mentioned, we had our daily papers and also the daily news broadcast at precisely 19 o'clock from Stockholm. Mom always assumed a tense expression while listening to the news and I wasn't allowed to come with any interruptions while the business-like voice on the radio ground on and on. Ever since then I have harbored a distinct aversion to news, which, as a matter of fact, seems to get stronger as time goes on. I wonder how come...

As I said before, we also had a telephone, so communicationwise there was never any basis for complaint. Our phone number was 'Granhultsbruk 24'.

The social life among neighbors was not overly lively, but always picked up around birthdays and name-days. All names, first, middle, and, if applicable, third names, were celebrated with the customary coffee, cake, and seven kinds of cookies, if not more. Always home-baked, of course. Many older folks had a liking for drinking their coffee from a saucer instead of a cup, frequently with a lump of sugar in their mouth to strain the coffee through. And the coffee was never brewed, it was first ground with a hand operated grinder and then boiled on the wood stove.

Everybody from the village and the surrounding area used to gather at the school house on certain memorable occasions. Once I remember that we had a so called parish catechetical meeting, conducted by a vicar from Ramsberg, a far-away place I never had a chance to visit. At other times many people came to attend the children's Christmas program. I still remember how once we girls were made to perform a ballet-like thing, dressed in white skirts of crinkled paper. The raised area of the classroom where the organ and teacher's desk, with the blackboard in the background, used to be, served as stage. Mom always practiced on that organ every evening after school to make sure that the music would be just right at morning prayer-time the following day. Not that I think any of us kids would have noticed any sour notes. We mostly sort of mumbled through the singing anyway, without much enthusiasm. Now I tend to get sentimental thinking of the beautiful hymns we had in those days and wish I had memorized the words a little better.

During the time of Advent we each had a little candle lit on our desk, right next to the cavity for the ink well, all through morning prayer. What a Christmassy feeling that gave us!

During break time the girls mostly used to gather on once side of the play ground and the boys on the other. The girls had their hair tied up with silk ribbons of various colors and they wore striped or checkered pinafores and knitted button-up sweaters. The boys frequently wore knickers, socks with diamond patterns, and waistcoats. Rubber boots were often worn by all due to the climate. In the wintertime we always wore ski boots.

The winters were wonderful. Always lots of snow and much skiing, mostly the cross-country variety. Every household owned at least one so called chair-toboggan which provided occasions for some of the most fun-filled escapades of the season. Of course, those were things we did mostly in our spare time, away from school. It was exhilarating to hook up several of those toboggans in a row and then take off down-hill, each kid sitting on his own conveyance. But it was also dangerous, since the smallest pebble in the snow could easily upset the whole train and cause everybody to fly head first into space. But it was fun as long as it lasted.

As soon as most of the snow had melted away, Mom and I resumed our long walks in the woods. In the spring there was an abundance of morels to be picked and later in the year 'regular' mushrooms. I can still conjure up the moaning of the wind in the trees and the smell of the damp ground in my imagination. Here and there we happened upon little round openings in the woods, all covered with fresh light-green grass. Those marked the place where there had recently been a charring stack, carefully tended to night and day by a man staying in a little hut built of spruce branches on the very edge of the clearing.

We sometimes lost our way and didn't get back home until after dark. And once during our wanderings we found a little lake deep in the forest. Later we learned that it was called Haraldsjon. The water was so clear that one could easily see the pebbles on the bottom quite a long distance from the shore. Next to the lake was an abandoned farm house with a barn built of logs and with one long side of the second story protruding over the lower part, the kind of barn one can find pictured in history books when reading about the 16th century, the time of Gustav Vasa.

Another ancient log structure could be found a little ways from where the road to Riddarhyttan branched off. It looked like it might have been a blacksmith's shop or something of that nature a very long time ago. It was surrounded by lilies of the valley in the springtime, one of my favorite flowers.

There was of course an infinite variety of all sorts of other plants as well. Walking along the road in the early mornings, especially toward fall when the dew was caught in the many spiderwebs covering the plants, the whole place was set sparkling by the sun hitting it from just the right angle.

Well, all of the sudden it seems as if I don't have much more to say about Backegruvan. It's no doubt best to finish at this point, before I think of something else and then keep adding to it for ever. Strange as it may sound, I am really a person of few words. Most of the time.

Perhaps one more thing: The school house burned to the ground many years ago. The place where is once stood is overgrown with spruce trees. And in the middle of the trees stands the flag pole...

Tiiu Swan

February 2007

Än är flaggstången något lite högre än granarna...
Photo: Maria (Ströman) Lagerman, 2006.

Photos from 2007

Visitors since 18 dec 2009

Visitors since 8 mars 2007 - 17 dec 2009 = 611

Besökare sen flytten 14 dec 2009


By Tiiu Swan, Nebraska, Amerika