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Early History of the Cemetery Property

550 Upsala Road, Sanford, Florida

Henry Sanford in 1870 purchased over twelve-thousand acres of wild, virgin land on the south side of Lake Monroe, which became known as the Sanford Grant. In 1871 Henry Sanford started sponsoring Swedish immigrants for the purpose of developing his citrus groves. The first group of sponsored “Sanford” Swedes were promised paid passage to Florida, along with one year’s maintenance for themselves and family members in return for one year of labor in Sanford’s citrus groves. After a second group of sponsored Swedes arrived, Henry Sanford in an attempt to keep the immigrants happy, later promised five-acre lots to be given to the loyal and faithful ones after a year’s work. The New Upsala settlement began in 1872 when Henry Sanford granted five acres more or less to 17 Swedish immigrants.

In time, these first immigrants were joined by many of their country men. Some came as they had, solicited by an agent. Others in Sweden, hearing of the Florida colony, began the adventure with their own funds for transportation and for the purchase of land when they arrived. Still others came to the growing settlement from other Scandinavian communities within America. Together they built the community that was first known as New Upsala then simply Upsala.

The population grew during the following decade as more Swedes acquired property from Sanford and settled in the area. Physically, the colony was separated by a swamp, which divided it in two parts; the upper and lower settlement. The upper settlement was built along both sides of Upsala Road, and the lower part followed the winding curves of Vihlen Road.

Most of the Swedish homesteads were roughly five acres. Some of the Swedes purchased extra land to add to their original five acres. For their land to be more useful, it had to be cleared of the native trees and thick palmetto underbrush. This labor intensive task, along with building their homes, was often accomplished by a community effort of neighbor helping neighbor. The emerging citrus industry offered promising prosperity with many Swedes starting their own orange groves.

In 1877, Henry Sanford provided the Swedish community with a public building, known as the Scandinavian Hall. This one-room wooden structure provided a place to hold town meetings and social gatherings. The Scandinavian Hall was built as a modest, one room wooden building.

The Upsala settlers knew the importance of educating their children and so the Scandinavian Hall also served as a schoolhouse. On May 28th , 1877, the Orange County School Board authorized the Superintendent to open a school at the Swedish settlement. The Scandinavian Hall building was designated as Orange County Public School # 51 with Josephine Jacobs (Stenstrom) serving as the first school teacher in 1877 and again in 1878.

Henry Sanford, on April 15, 1878, deeded the acreage of land and the Scandinavian hall building to the trustees of the Scandinavian Society and their successors forever.

The Scandinavian Society Church was built on the same property just south of the Scandinavian Hall. This little wooden church was a testimony to the craftsmanship of these Swedes and their willingness to give of their time to erect a place of worship for their settlement. Historical records state, the church was built not stark for salvation’s sake but with beautifully carved pulpit and pews. The church goers were not concerned that ornamentation would distract from spirituality. In the beginning the church was non-denominational. The services were in Swedish and usually led by itinerant preachers, lay leaders of the community or occasionally a minister from a nearby Lutheran church. Yards away from the church is where the community’s cemetery was started. Today, this property is know as the Upsala Swedish Cemetery located at 550 Upsala Road.

The New Upsala post office was established on November 11, 1884. The post office was located in the general store. The first postmaster was John Monson (this would be Mansson in Swedish) who was followed by Joseph Harrison, Benjamin O. Seltzer, and Sofia Lundquist. The New Upsala post office closed in 1904 when mail services were moved to Sanford.

By 1887 the Sanford and Lake Eustis Railroad had been built through New Upsala giving the settlement its own depot. The station, located on the north side of the tracks, was simply a wooden platform enclosed on the end. The station with its “New Upsala” sign offered daily passenger and freight service. Passengers could connect with the South Florida railroad at Sanford, which by train was only fifteen minutes from the Upsala depot. Today’s Greeneway Expressway crosses Upsala Road over the route of the old railroad bed.

The main profitable business of the community was citrus production. By 1891, twenty-three principal grove owners were shipping five-hundred to one-thousand boxes of fruit a season. Several grove owners had their own packing house. The railroad line provided the necessary transportation for the harvested citrus crops.

For about the first fifteen years of the New Upsala community the Scandinavian Society Church had been the sole place of worship within the community. Written in the minutes from the Southeastern Mission District, Lutheran Augustana Synod, declared that this Upsala Scandinavian Society Church had “the most peculiar history of any congregation in the district.” At first, no official congregation took form. Instead, spiritual needs were met by a variety of speakers: transient preachers of different denomination, lay leaders of the community, and an occasional visiting minister from a nearby Lutheran church. Two events changed this arrangement- the aggressive missionary efforts of Florida Presbyterians and the arrival of Reverend John Frederick Sundell.

The Reverend John Frederick Sundell moved from New Sweden, Maine where he had been a lay leader of a Baptist congregation for ten years. Although he had been greatly admired there, he made a break with the church over a point of doctrine. He arrived in 1883, seeking a new beginning. He preached in the Upsala Scandinavian Society Church for about six years until the Presbyterian missionaries arrived. Then Sundell along with other members converted to the Presbyterian doctrine.

As the younger generation who had been born in Sweden, became accustomed to their new land, they felt the urge to break away from the old customs. In 1891, they helped to organize the Upsala Swedish Presbyterian Church. The first trustees were: E. Hermanson, H. Nelson, and C.F. Enroth. They constructed the new church a quarter mile south on Upsala Road. Using their own labor and building skills; they built a trim, white, wooden church, with a modest steeple overlooking the settlement. Today, this is the church property located at 101 Upsala Road.

While the younger Swedes were drawn to the new church, the older members of the Scandinavian Society Church held to the old traditions and ways of worship. At the old church, the trustees at that time included; August Bertelson, Olof Lundquist and John Lindgren. In fear of a Presbyterian takeover, they declared themselves a Lutheran Church in 1892, by deeding the church property to and affiliating with the Augustana Synod. The church became know as the Upsala Lutheran Church. Salomon Anderson was known for ringing the bell at the Lutheran church to call members to services. Fifteen minutes later he would ring it again, at which time everyone was expected to be firmly in their seats.

Both churches had been built by the same hands. Although the official Lutheran membership was never large, for a time members of the community attended both churches. The two congregations worked and worshiped together and often combined their efforts for social affairs. In fact, one was seldom sure which church group was supposed to benefit from ice cream socials and suppers. Since everybody attended such events, it didn’t matter which church was responsible.

Change came during the winter of 1894-95 in a double catastrophe called “the big freeze”. The first drop in temperature came on December 1894 and severely damaged the citrus trees. But then January was warm and rainy. The groves were fertilized and already had signs of new growth. Then on the night of February 7, 1895, the area was hit with a second deep freeze. All night long grove owners listened to the loud cracking sounds as their trees literally exploded from the freezing sap. At sunrise, the air was still bitter cold as the growers inspected the groves. What they saw was total and pure devastation; almost every tree had been killed by the freeze.

The people of the New Upsala community were almost entirely dependent on their citrus groves for income. Family after family became discouraged and left in search of other opportunities. Soon only sixteen families remained of what had been a thriving community. The few who did not leave their land managed to survive with the use of good old Swedish-American determination. A few years later, some of the groves were replanted and cultivated, but New Upsala’s citrus acreage was never again as extensive as it had been prior to the big freeze.

The freeze was a major turning point in New Upsala’s history and although many people left, the community did not completely vanish. Services at the Lutheran church were held only about once a month. In later years, when a traveling minister was not available, Karl Gustaf Soderblom, an immigrant from Helsinki, Finland, conducted services in Swedish. At the Presbyterian church, it was the Ericson and Borell families that kept the congregation together, but like the Lutheran church, they went without a regular minister for many years.

Swedish immigrants had continued filtering into the county well after 1900. While some came directly from Sweden, others migrated from other parts of the country. Most of these people were attracted by the area’s fertile farmlands. Some of the families that had moved away from the Upsala community began returning. In 1906, Emma Vihlen wrote about her family’s return, “Yesterday evening came all the settlement people to welcome us back. There were twenty-five people and they had seven cakes with them, so I had to make coffee.”

In the early 1900s, the Upsala School, with so few students, had difficulty keeping a teacher. This resulted in the Upsala families deciding to send their children to the newer and larger schools in Sanford. These students had to walk miles, much of it along the railroad tracks, to the Sanford Grammar School. While the older children could make the long walk, it was much too far for the little ones. This concern led to the first “school bus”. Carl Leonard Vihlen took it upon himself to convert a farm wagon into a horse- drawn bus. His oldest daughters, Olga and Signe, volunteered to drive the bus which was pulled by Roy, the family’s faithful horse.

In 1913, when Seminole County split from Orange County, Olga Vihlen became one of the new county’s first bus drivers, for which she was paid twenty-five dollars a month. Long before sunrise she would itch Roy to the tarpaulin-covered wagon and start picking up children around the Belair area. Then she would drive over to the Upsala Lutheran Church to collect the rest of the children, which she always called “A beautiful bunch of kids”. The dirt road to Sanford was low in places and often very wet. At the school, she would tie Roy to a wagon wheel under a shade tree and at noon would feed and water him. At the end of the school day, as the children were piling on the wagon, Olga would hitch-up Roy for the long trip back to Upsala. Olga continued this routine until 1915, when the school district began providing motor buses.

Over time one by one, the familiar structures and institutions of Upsala disappeared. The train station with its “New Upsla” sign was torn down in 1927. In 1926, Minutes of the Southeastern Mission District, Augustana Synod stated that “there are only five members left and they are all old people, two past eighty”. For years the supplying of even a part time pastor to the congregation had been a problem for the Mission District. Finally, on August 16, 1946, by official court order, the congregation of Upsala Lutheran Church was dissolved and all its property deeded to the board of Home Missions.

The building where once the Scandinavian Society held meetings and dozens of young Swedes had their early education disappeared. The Upsala Lutheran Church building disappeared and for a long while nothing marked the site. Only the giant live oak trees overlooking the cemetery graves, marked and unmarked, of the Swedish pioneers of Upsala remained. Although the hall and church buildings have been gone for so many years, these pioneers and their descendants continued to be laid to rest there unto the twenty-first century.

In 1951, a bronze tablet was placed to mark the site where the church stood which reads as follows:

Upsala Church
Augusta Lutheran Synod
Marker Placed by

St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church

Orlando, Florida
May 18, 1951

In 1979, the historical plaque was erected on the property by the Seminole County Historical Commission which reads as follows:

Seminole County Historic Marker
Upsala Swedish Community

This site was the center of the earliest and largest Swedish community in Florida. Located here were the Scandinavian Society Lutheran Church: its cemetery, and a meeting house which served as a school until 1904.

In May 1871 thirty-three Swedish immigrants (twenty-six men and seven women) arrived under sponsorship of Henry S. Sanford for the purpose of developing his citrus groves (St. Gertrude, which extended from what is now Central Florida Regional Hospital south to Third Street: and Belair, west of the railroad tracks on Old Lake Mary Road).

General Sanford’s initial cost was $75.00 per person ($65 for transportation and $10.00 to a recruiting agent). He also agreed to give each immigrant free rations and living quarters for one year, after which each would be given a parcel of land. In November 1871 twenty additional Swedes arrived and joined the original immigrants to form the Upsala community. Many descendants of these early immigrants still live in the Sanford area.

Seminole County Historical Commission

In New Upsala, residential areas now sit where Swedes once tended vast orange groves. Commercial development has claimed the old site of Nels Stenstrom’s dairy on west Highway 46, from where Orin Stenstrom made early morning milk runs when milk sold for five cents a quart. Carl Carlson’s celery fields have since been transformed into apartment complexes. But evidence of our Swedish past can still be found in the names of Vihlen and Upsala Roads and the old Upsala Swedish Cemetery, although many graves are unmarked. The old Presbyterian church still stands near its original site at the south end of Upsala Road. In December of each year, the Swedish Christmas tradition of St. Lucia is held at the Museum of Seminole County History.

The forefathers of our Swedish descendants came to this country with few possessions and most could not speak English. Through perseverance, they learned the language and overcame hardships to establish their place in America’s mainstream. More importantly, we have benefited from their endurance and accomplishments. Their descending generations have produced skilled tradesmen, farmers, business professionals, educators, entertainers, military and civic leaders. The Swedish pioneers have passed a legacy to all of us, one that is firmly rooted in the history of Central Florida.

This history story features excerpts from the Swedish History of Seminole County, Florida. Researched & Written by: Christine Kinlaw-Best, Charlie Carlson, and Teri Patterson. Published in 2001 by The Sanford Historical Society Inc. A non-profit organization. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Upsala Swedish Cemetery Preservation Society, Inc.
We are a non-profit that has been formed by Upsala Swedish Community descendants.
We seek to honor, restore, and maintain the Upsala cemetery and its history.

Everyone is welcome to join our society.