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The Early Days Of Andersonville's Swedish Bakery

By Josh McGhee | February 21, 2017 8:55am | Updated on February 28, 2017 8:39am
 Frieda Johnson and Elna Carlson at the Swedish Bakery in 1952.
Frieda Johnson and Elna Carlson at the Swedish Bakery in 1952.
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Courtesy of Sharon Carlson

ANDERSONVILLE — When the Swedish Bakery closes on Feb. 28, it'll leave a hole not only in the hearts of long-time fans, but also in the community's heritage.

The bakery at 5348 N. Clark St. has been in the neighborhood for more than 88 years, and today is unofficially known as the last Swedish bakery in Chicago.

But there was a time when there were five Swedish bakeries within a few blocks of each other, said Sarah Carlson, whose parents owned the Swedish Bakery back in the 1950s.

"It's sort of sad in a way," she said. "The Rock Island from Augustana College [used to advertise] a trip to Andersonville; they had all these [landmarks] listed and not many of them are left except the Swedish American Museum."

Her parents, Ernst and Elna, immigrated from Sweden in the 1920s and ran a bakery at 4947 N. Damen Ave., which they sold in the 1950s to Swedish immigrants that had moved to the U.S. more recently, so they were considered "more Swedish than my dad," something that thrilled their customer base and confused her family. 

Carlson remembered her mother's surprise at that: "Can you believe they're saying a 'real Swede' bought the bakery?"

In 1952, after spending a few months in Sweden, her parents bought the Swedish Bakery from her great aunt and uncle — Swedish bakeries had become the Carlson family business.

The Clark Street bakery, then called Ernst Carlson's Bakery, was one of about six in the area including Signe Carlson's, Mon's (which became Mom's), Lindahl's, Nelson's and Neuman's, she said.

During that bakery boom, the string of Andersonville sweets shops were competitive, but they were also a community, she said.

"They would decide when they were going to close" for weeks during the summer so the families could vacation and the bakeries wouldn't be closed at the same time, she said. The owners formed a Swedish Bakers Association that would throw big picnics together.

Sharon was about twelve when her parents purchased the Andersonville bakery. At the time, "sweet rolls were 7 cents each, most loaves of bread were 17 or 18 cents, pies were 70 cents for small or 90 cents for large," she said.

Her dad was the primary baker, putting in most of the work, with some part-time bakers. He woke up early and came home late, she said.

"It was hard work. My dad would leave at 4 or 5 in the morning and he'd take a nap on a wooden bench in the basement. He'd leave around 7," she said, adding she wasn't a fan of the late dinners. 

"Whenever I get married we're going to eat before 8," she remembers promising herself as a child.

Her mother would decorate most of the cakes and managed the front of the store along with a small team of saleswomen, she said.

By the time she was 13, Sarah Carlson was working in sales at the bakery. She still remembers getting the call from her mother when one of the sales women didn't show up for work and she needed to jump in to help. Eventually she was working there after school, on Saturdays and until 7 p.m. each Christmas Eve.

Now, bakeries close and stop baking earlier. But back then they worked nearly around the clock.

And even when they weren't at the bakery, they were still on the job. She remembers evenings spent delivering the bakery's surplus to the monastery at St. Gregory Church.

Her father didn't have a delivery service so when she got her license that became her new job.

And that got tricky when it came to more extravagant cakes, she said.

"We delivered a wedding cake and I had to get in the truck and guard the wedding cake. [Dad] brought frosting with to finish it" there, she said. Those challenging moments have become some of her favorite memories.

Her father sold the bakery to Gosta Bjuhr around 1965 when he retired, she said. The Stanton family, the current owners, has run the business since 1979, when they purchased it from Bjuhr.

"Over the years, it was encouraging to see the Swedish bakery not only survive but really thrive during the large-store, one-stop-shopping era. Running a bakery is a great deal of work, and the Stantons have provided Swedish bakery goods and other special treats for many years  to the Andersonville community and beyond," she said.

"They have a wonderful reputation and have certainly earned an enjoyable and fulfilling retirement after all these years."