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Festival has deep roots

The name of Cottage Grove's "Strawberry Fest" originated in fields of the delicious late spring fruit grown by the Swanlund family on Hadley Avenue across from Pine Hill Elementary School.

In 1940, a 24-quart crate of strawberries cost $1.50 to raise, pick and crate. Martin Swanlund could not get that price at the St. Paul Market, so he made wine.

The market did not improve, so the strawberry patch at the Swanlund home, in Newport, north of Ford Road on the east side of Highway 61 was opened to people who were willing to pick their own berries and pay for the privilege. In 1948, Swanlunds opened another "U-Pick" field on Hadley.

The story of the Swanlund family was presented to the South Washington Heritage Society at its annual meeting and luncheon held Oct. 14 in Newport United Methodist Church.

Michael Swanlund, four generations from Martin Swanlund, the family patriarch, presented the family's history. It was written by Howard, Martin and Sarah's oldest son.

While mostly known for U-Pick strawberries, the history of raising market crops such as berries, melons and corn goes back to the beginning of Newport, known then as Red Rock.

Martin Swanlund was taken from a state orphanage in Owatonna, by Willis and Jenny Ford in 1900, and they later adopted him. Willis was a descendent of one of the area's earliest white settlers, John Ford.

Martin's biological father, John Johnson, emigrated from Sweden in 1882.

"He found there were 37 other Johnsons on the ship and he decided he didn't want to start his new life as one more Johnson so he took the name of Swanlund, after an area of Sweden," according to Howard's narrative.

He married Christina in 1884 and the couple had four children including Martin and Mary. Christina died when Martin was not yet 3 years old.

John became ill and could not take care of his children. Three sons, including Martin, were sent to the orphanage.

"Martin remembered, being given a bag of candy on the train from St. Peter to Owatonna. He ate so much that he became sick," according to Howard.

Willis and Jennie Ford brought Martin to his new home at their Red Rock Melon Farm.

"The orphanage report said he was a little bit stubborn," Michael said. "Anyone who played cribbage with him knows that."

Martin was expelled from grammar school in Red Rock but attended school in St. Paul and graduated from Mechanic Arts High School. He became a teacher and enlisted in the army during World War I.

While teaching in Glenwood, Minn., he met and married Sarah.

After a honeymoon, they returned to find Willis had died.

Martin assumed management of the farm and continued raising berries, melons and sweet corn.

Sarah set up a stand to market the produce to the public in front of their home at the end of what is now the east frontage road along Highway 61.

"She was the first of a long line of Swanlund women involved in the business," Michael said.

The stand and the house were razed during Highway 61 interchange construction.

Martin and Sarah had four sons, Howard, Robert and twins, George and Earl. Only George did not stay in market farming. He earned an engineering degree from the University of Minnesota.

The perils of market farming were many including drought and early freezes that killed berry flowers. It's also a labor-intensive type of farming. During World War II, Martin's sons were in military service. Without help, the berry fields were planted with rye.

When the sons returned from military service, the berry and melon business started again.

In 1989, the U-Pick strawberry field part of the business ended.

In 1982, when Martin was 90, he "got off the tractor" and left the active part of the business.

"He said later that if he had known he was going to live so long, he would have stayed on the tractor longer to help his boys," according to Howard's narrative.

Martin died four months before his 102nd birthday in 1994. His wife, Sarah, died in 1953.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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