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McHistory: 'King of Swedes' kept Bloomington streets clean

Grocery store owner A.G. Erickson, known as the King of Swedes was also a longtime public official and Mayor in Bloomington at the turn of the 20th century.
McLean County Museum of History
McLean County Museum of History
Grocery store owner A.G. Erickson, known as the "King of Swedes," also was a longtime public official and mayor in Bloomington at the turn of the 20th century.

Wherever humans gather, there is garbage. And getting rid of it is a challenge. The start of trash removal in Bloomington dates to the start of the 20th century and to a man known in his day as the "King of Swedes."

Alexander Gustave Erickson’s family came to Bloomington in 1872 with other Swedish families, unwittingly as strike breakers for the Stevenson family who owned a coal mine. Erickson started mining at age 13, but rose to become an alderman, mayor, and then city commissioner.

Erickson is the latest subject of the WGLT series McHistory.

“Alexander Erickson, also known as A.G. Erickson, had a grocery store starting in 1895 that became a cultural center of the Swedish neighborhood known as Stevensonville, hence the nickname, ‘King of Swedes,’“ said Bill Kemp, librarian at the McLean County Museum of History. “There were kind of attractive, small-working cottages, one story. Many of those still survive today in the neighborhood.”

They were recruited by James Stevenson, one of three brothers who owned the controlling interest in the McLean County Coal Company. The other brothers were William Stevenson and Adlai Stephenson I, who became vice president during Grover Cleveland’s second presidential term. He was the grandfather of Adlai Stevenson II, who ran for president in 1952.

“The Swedes would later say they would not have come here to Bloomington if they had known they had been brought on that pretense,” said Kemp.

Erickson said later in life that there were no child labor nor school laws then, so it was the custom for the oldest boy in the family to begin working early to help his father earn a living for the family.

“So he descended the dark, damp, dangerous coal mine at a very young age. He would work there for eight years before becoming a grocery store clerk,” said Kemp.

“One of the biggest issues in the early 20th century for American municipalities was garbage. Municipal waste in many ways was much different than it is today. You have garden and yard waste and organic matter like food waste, you had tin and metal mostly tin cans. And then you had manure, mostly horse manure,” said Kemp.

The city brush wagons cannot get through the narrow alleyways and all the brush should be placed at the curb or lawn and the street department notified,” according to city announcements and notices of the day. Bill and Barney our horses have gained the 400 class, not just what you may think. The old garbage horses have hauled over 400 loads of garbage to the old dump. They started in on the northeast section of the city. If the Northeast section has as much refuse to carry away as the other sections of the city have had, Bill and Barney will be in the 500 club before they're through.”

“Cities did a mostly inefficient, poorly organized and run system and that was the case in Bloomington,” said Kemp.

I have some rules for the disposal of waste. Number one don't put brush in alley. It's not the province of the garbage department to haul away brush and never has been.

Second, don't put building materials of any kind in streets or alleys. The city does not now, never has, and never will, haul away waste building materials. Such things should be hauled away immediately at the owner's expense.

“During the commission form of government era in Bloomington, which ran from 1915 to 1923, where you had five commissioners instead of alderpersons running the city of Bloomington, Erickson served as the head of public health and safety,” said Kemp.

Third, don't throw loose manure onto streets or alleys. Manure should be put into the tight receptacles and all the way once a week at the owner's expense according to the city's ordinance.

“He had to manage and run the fire department. He was in charge of food and sanitary inspection. He was in charge of garbage removal and public health and communicable diseases. So, that was a handful,” said Kemp.

“Erickson investigated what is the best system to use to efficiently, scientifically address solid waste removal. They went to Peoria and Peoria used the hog method of solid waste disposal. It is what it sounds like. They would have a large drove of hogs consume all edible, that is for hogs edible, and then they would be able to sell those fattened hogs or sell the butchered meat for profit and then use that profit then to support their solid waste program,” said Kemp.

Fourth:  Don't throw tin cans or other refuse promiscuously in alleys or streets. This practice will not be tolerated in the future. Such materials should be placed in boxes and the garbage collectors will haul them away at their regular trips.

“Erickson, thankfully perhaps, did not adopt that system. Instead, he took what was known as the trailer system. These were horse-pulled trailers that you would fill trash up with and meet at a centralized location, and then take those trailers to a landfill or dump,” said Kemp.

Then the problem that will confront the cleanest city in the state of Illinois, if not in the whole world, will be how to keep it clean.

“Under Erickson's watch as commissioner of public health, the city of Bloomington had its first relatively efficient well-run system to remove garbage both from businesses and households,” said Kemp.

Fifth: Don't put your ashes in the middle of the alley. Ashes should be piled up on either side of the street close to the lot line. According to the ordinance now on the city statute books. Properly piled, the garbage collectors will take away all ashes on their regular trips.

“Under his watch as commissioner, the city fire department completely motorized, that is moved away from horse-drawn equipment,” said Kemp.

Sixth: Don't put garbage in open containers or throw it onto streets or alleys. According to the ordinance, garbage must be placed in tight containers and severe penalties are provided for violating of this provision of the city laws.

“And he saw to the eventual ban on wooden shingle roofs. That was the single cause of fires in Bloomington. In a time where we had steam locomotives belching ash, soot, and embers, and you had chimneys everywhere, wood shingle roofs would often catch on fire,” said Kemp.

If people will cooperate with the department, the city will do its best to make and keep Bloomington clean and healthy.

“By 1919, Erickson was calling for a sanitarium or hospital for those afflicted with drug addiction issues. And in this way, he was really forward thinking, well ahead of his time. Jails, he said, county poor farms, insane asylums, and similar institutions are not the proper place for this kind of treatment,” said Kemp.

City officials can do nothing without wholehearted support from the majority of the public.

“Erickson's greatest challenge was the great influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919. And it is A.G. Erickson who announces the closure of movie houses, and the closure of churches, and then of schools," said Kemp.

During the pandemic, Bloomington Country Club had to be closed and converted into a hospital. The Scott Vrooman mansion on East Taylor Street also became a hospital. Today it is a bed and breakfast.

“The city death rate doubled. Erickson himself and several family members got sick,” said Kemp.

Violators of the city ordinances will be warned and instructed as to what course to pursue, and prosecution will follow if these warnings and instructions are disregarded.

Erickson became an alderman to look out for the political interests of his constituents in the west side ward. He served three terms and then finished the term of Mayor James S. Neville in 1906, when Neville died in office, and then was elected mayor on his own.

After his public career, A.G. Erickson returned to his grocery store and served on the Bloomington school board in the 1930s and 1940s. He passed away in 1950 at the age of 87.

The grocery store business was remarkable for much of the 19th and well into the 20th century when Erickson ran his store. There were more than 100 corner grocery stores in Bloomington-Normal alone. The Erickson grocery was initially in the 1300 block of West Olive Street, the commercial district of the Stevensonville neighborhood.

Around 1917, he moved his store across the street to 1311 and remained there for decades. It became the center for Local Swedes to gather to gossip, and to talk about current events. The Swedish Republican Club also was active during this period and met there.

Today, the Erickson grocery store building on West Olive Street houses Dreams are Possible, which helps women gain basic skills to enter the workforce or pursue training in skilled trades.

The McHistory series is a partnership between the McLean County Museum of History and WGLT, bringing you the voices and words of people in central Illinois long ago.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.