Olof A. Berntson was born in Bohusland, Sweden, in 1868
and immigrated to the United States when he was 19 years
old, settling in Lowell. He joined the city’s growing
Swedish community, many of whose members were employed
in the smaller woolen mills along the Concord River, in
the cartridge factory, or in small artisanal shops near
the Lowell Bleachery.
Initially Berntson worked a
wage-earning job as a box maker and attended the
Lowell Commercial College in the evenings. While
attending the college, Berntson boarded on B Street in
the Highlands neighborhood. He may have worked at
James A. Thompson’s box-making shop on Chambers
Street, one of eight box manufacturers in Lowell.
Between 1889 and 1896 he boarded at three different
houses on B Street.
Naturalized in 1893, he graduated from the Lowell
Commercial College in the following year and in the
fall of 1896 he opened a small shop, selling books and
stationary. In addition, Berntson served as a ticket
agent for a steamship company and started a newspaper
called “Scandinavia.” His shop, located at 780 Gorham
Street, was also his residence. The lot backed onto
part of the Lowell Bleachery, was a block away from
the Lowell Waste Company, and practically across the
street from a fire station – not a prime property.
This two-story, wood-frame building, erected after the turn of the
20th century, has a projecting bay, an off-center entrance capped by
a pedimented gable roof, which is supported by ornamented wood
brackets. A brick veneer and slender rectangular window on the
first floor were probably installed in the late 1950s.
Living with him and three other families in this relatively large
building was Anders Berntson, possibly a brother but almost
certainly a relative, who worked as an iron moulder. Two years
later, Olof changed his business into a grocery. Listed at 788
Gorham Street, the grocery was in a wood-frame building near the
corner of Livingston Street. He rented this property and continued
to live there with Anders Berntson until 1899.
Ida K. Peterson, 1921
In September 1896, Olof married Ida (Peterson), who had
immigrated to the United States in 1891. By 1904 their
children included Robert W., born in 1897, Agnes Elvira
in 1899, Esther A. in 1902, Edith Marie in 1903, and
Mildred O. in 1904. In 190 Berntson moved his business
and residence to 125 Andrews Street, near Moore Street.
This was largely a residential street and an Irishman
named Lynch owned the small one-story frame building in
which he was located. The Berntson family had just grown
to five in 1903 so his growing family may have prompted
this move. He remained at Andrews Street for two years
before purchasing a property close by on Moore Street;
the family was now at six.
This two-story frame building
would serve as his store and residence for many years.
It was probably still in breathing distance of the
Lowell Bleachery but the neighborhood was strongly
Swedish, with the First Swedish Methodist Episcopal
Church on the corner and the Swedish Evangelical
Lutheran church a few steps around that corner. The
residential part of the building was numbered 123 Moore
Street, while the store’s address was 121 Moore.
Olof A. Berntson, 1933
on retiring from the
post office after
In 1909 Berntson obtained a coveted job as clerk in the city’s post
office, where he worked for 24 years. With the help of his wife,
however, he maintained the grocery business on Moore Street. After
finishing high school in 1916, Robert, their son, started clerking
at the store. He continued even a little after he also obtained a
clerkship at the post office. Of course, he was probably helping at
the store well before then, as his younger sisters, but the City
Directory lists only “adults”.
In addition to his postal work and
the family grocery, Olof Berntson maintained close ties with his
native land. It appears that at least three members of his family
made trips to Sweden by 1921.
Agnes Berntson, 1920
This is Olof’s translation of a letter
to Agnes from her grandmother urging the
21-year old to visit. It would be surprising if Olof didn’t
Berntson wrote about the Swedish community in Lowell. He
served over 50 years as a contributor to the Swedish newspaper Svea
and produced a history of Lowell’s Swedes. In the 1890s, soon after
a brass band composed of Swedish men was organized in the city, he
played tuba. Berntson, who had become a citizen of the United States
when he was a young man, taught English to immigrants in
Americanization classes in the city in the late 1910s and early
1920s. He also taught Swedes in evening classes, which were
originally established at the Butler School in the 1880s. After he
left the post office in 1933, Berntson resumed the grocery business
full time. He continued to reside on Moore Street, operating the
grocery until he retired at age 78 in 1946. He remained there one
more year, until 1947. He may have gone to live with son Robert, who
had married Elsa C. Anderson in 1931 and who owned a house on
Pentucket Avenue, or he may have gone into nursing care then. He was
a patient in 1949 at Delaney Private Hospital (Nursing Home) on
Varnum Avenue, not far from Lowell General Hospital, when he died.
He was survived by his son Robert W. Berntson, and four daughters,
each of whom had married a Swedish émigré.
title="Copy of newspaper article describing picture of three postal employees
retiring. It states "Bob, the Voice of the Postoffice... 45 years service."">
Robert served as a clerk at the post office for a total of
forty-five years, retiring in 1966. (The picture at right is from a
newspaper article about his retirement party.) His obituary
states: “A well known trumpet player, he played in many dance bands
in the 1920s and 30s… he was the oldest member of the Lowell
Musicians Union #83, which he belong to for more than 70 years.
During World War I, he served in the US Naval Reserve…” He was an
officer of the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church but, showing an
ecumenical spirit, also played trumpet at the St. John’s Episcopal
Church Easter service one year. Every parent will understand his
wife’s Elsa’s dedication as an active volunteer to the PTA.
Adolph A. Gauthier, of French-Canadian descent, operated a variety
store at 121 Moore Street after Berntson’s departure and lived there
as well. In 1951 Frederick F. Downs took over the Gauthier’s store,
renaming it Downs’ Variety Store. He lived on Cosgrove Street, while
Gauthier continued to reside at 123 Moore Street. Downs continued to
run the store until the early 1960s. By 1964 the building was solely
into a residence, which it is today.
A version of this story is available with