In 1871 he hired Swedish laborers under the Contract Labor Law, using Wilhelm Henschen as his labor agent to build and maintain orange groves. In exchange for their paid passage to America, along with one year’s maintenance for themselves, the Swedish migrants were obligated to work for Sanford for 12 months. Later, in an attempt to keep the Swedes satisfied, loyal and faithful workers were promised 5 acres.
This inspired a few to write home to friends and relatives, encouraging them to make a contract and come over. They were joined by a second and a third wave of Swedes in the spring of 1873. Other Swedes paid their own passage and purchased land when they arrived.
With the skill and labor of primarily Swedish workers, the area’s pinelands were transformed into one of the most extraordinary groves in the country. Of the many varieties Sanford is credited with introducing, the most important was cultivated and later named Valencia. The Valencia was the basis from which evolved Florida’s citrus juice industry.
Early Sanford’s new residents mostly came from Uppsala, Sweden. They left behind their homeland and most of their possessions except for what they could stuff into a steamer trunk in search of the “American Dream.”
This was Florida’s first and largest Swedish colony, which was located on what is now Upsala Road, between State Roads 46 and 46A, about three miles west of downtown Sanford. They called their settlement “New Upsala.” Decades later, name was shortened to simply “Upsala.”
The population grew as more Swedes acquired property from Sanford and settled the area.
Within New Upsala these Swedish newcomers could adjust to the cultural differences at their own pace. There was a wide variety of occupations within the population, which contributed to the prosperity of the settlement. The community grew to include a Scandinavian hall and school, a railroad depot, its own post office, a general store, 23 citrus groves, and two churches: Upsala Lutheran Church and Upsala Presbyterian Church.
The two congregations were entwined and often combined their efforts for social affairs. As time went on,the Swedish immigrants spread across Central Florida into surrounding communities.
Change came during the winter of1894-95, in a double catastrophe called the “The
Great Freeze.” The first drop in temperature damaged the citrus trees. Then January was warm and rainy. The groves were fertilized and already had signs of new growth.
Then on the night of Feb. 7,1895, the area was hit with a second deep freeze. This killed almost every orange tree in Central Florida. The Swedes were essentially dependent on their citrus groves for income. Family after family became discouraged and left in search of other opportunities.
The freeze was a major turning point in New Upsala’s history. Although many left, the community did not completely vanish. Swedish immigrants had continued filtering into Sanford well after1900. Most of these were attracted by the area’s fertile farmlands.
Many became successful celery growers. These farmers contributed to the area becoming America’s celery capital. Some families that had moved away returned.
After returning to New Upsala in1906, Emma Vihlen wrote: “Yesterday evening came all the settlement people to welcome us back. There were 25 people and they had seven cakes with them, so I had to make coffee.”
Her daughter Olga wrote: “It seemed natural to be among the good old Swedes, as our family had always conversed in Swedish. My sister Signe and I conversed in Swedish until we started school in Sanford. It was then we found out that we were just dumb Swedes. We took such a kidding that we at once remedied the situation by becoming Florida Crackers…and we refused to listen to or speak the Swedish language from then on.”
In Sanford, new residential areas now sit where Swedes once tended vast orange groves. Evidence of Sanford’s Swedish past can still be found in the names of Vihlen and Upsala roads and the old Upsala Swedish cemetery. The old Upsala Presbyterian Church built in 1892, still stands near its original site at the south end of Upsala Road.
In December of each year, local historical societies host the Swedish Christmas tradition of St. Lucia to honor the families that helped found the City of Sanford.
Teri Patterson has coordinated the Seminole St. Lucia Festival for nine years. She is also a volunteer at the Museum of Seminole County History.