Since a very young age I have heard stories of Emma. Virtually all of them ending by someone saying “she was 100 years ahead of her time”. I wish I could have known her, but she passed away when 14 years before I was born and when my mother was only 3 years old, so the only firsthand stories came from my grandparent’s generation and the one above them.

Emma Charlotta (Johansson) Spikh was born on September the 19th, 1865 in Sweden as the third child of a couple of Statare.

Essentially they were migrant worker on contract by the year, but on the estate of Hålltorp, in the village of Lindärva the Statare were more or less permanent residents. At least in my family who were three generations there.

Only ten days prior to Emma’s birth the middle brother, who was only two and a half year old at the time, died. I can only imagine that her birth was rather at a terrible time for her parents. However, in that time and their lifestyle perhaps it was more to be taken in stride than we think today.

At her birth Emma’s left arm broke. It was never set (proper medical care for Statare was not all that easy to come by) and she grew up with a baby’s arm attached to her shoulder. It never grew.
When she was around two years old her father died, leaving her poor mother to care for her two surviving children. Emma’s older brother Lars Johan had an accident when he was nine years old (he was born in 1859 and thus six years older than Emma) where he lost his mitten in the grist mill and trying to retrieve it he got his hand caught in the mill stones. His left arm had to be amputated just below his elbow.

So now their mother was left with two handicapped children in a class of people that had no value if they could not properly be productive on the estate they worked for. However, both of these siblings survived to pass the age of 80 and left a legacy for us who come after in the stories told of them by their decedents. Lars Johan was my great great grandfather (mother’s mother’s maternal grandfather) and had nine children and a slew of grandchildren. All of them story tellers (lucky for us).


In 1842 the new school reform went into effect in Sweden. It dictated that all children had the duty to attend six years of school. This meant that the literacy rate in Sweden rose rather quickly in all societal classes, even the very poor, and social reform started to sprout with this new law of education.

However, in the lower levels of society it wasn’t enforced when it came to a young, handicapped girl…who would never amount to anything anyway…God knows she would never marry etc etc etc.  The best things for her was to stay with her mother, learn the skills of a farm working woman, and care for her mother in her old age (which she actually did).

The one thing I noticed myself when it came to the Spikh family as I was growing up was their obvious intelligence and drive to live their lives as well as they could. They all came from poverty and they all, given the chance, brought themselves out of that situation. And Emma was no exception, not on the intelligence side anyway. And her nieces and nephews, whom I have met many of, adored her and looked up to her. I think she had a great influence on their lives.

When it came time for Emma to start school nobody pushed her. However, she wanted to go to school just like her brother did, but was not sent like he was. But she had initiative and drive of her own and went down to the school and made a deal with the local school master. She would clean his school if he would teach her, which he agreed with. Thus she pretty much got privately tutored after the other children had gone home for the day. He taught her how to read and then left her lessons and homework on the blackboard for the next day.
This turned Emma into and avid reader and she read everything she could get her hands on… which unfortunately was not much in her day.


So once Emma grew up she engaged herself in local politics. In the late 1800’s social reform was starting to take place. The workers organized and the Social Democratic Party was born. Sweden was rather late in entering the industrial revolution, but by the late 1800’s they were fully immersed in it, which led the rural farm workers ample chances to become urban industrial workers. Working conditions were poorer there than in the countryside though and social reform became inevitable in most part of the western world at the time. Emma was engaged in the Social Democratic Party. We also need to understand that women didn’t even get the vote in Sweden until 1921 at which point Emma would be 56 years old. So I think it rather strong of a lower class, officially uneducated, handicapped Statare girl to engage politically in an age when she could gain no political position of trust or power. But she did. And she was instrumental in a local lobby group that pleaded with the municipal rulers to get a library in her rural area. They were successful and the first library in the nearby station village of Vinninga was opened. Unfortunately I don’t have the date for this, but regardless it gave Emma what she wanted and needed… a chance to read more books.

With the Cow in Gothenburg

She as particularly interested in new technology… and I somehow think that in our modern day and age she might have become an engineer or something like it. In her 30’s technology allowed for making moving pictures. She got very interested in this technology and read what she could about it. However, at the time there were no movie theatres in Sweden as yet and when the first ones opened it was in the cities of Stockholm and Gothenburg… the latter being 130 km away from where Emma lived and an impossibility to get to for her without money.

An incident in Emma’s life that was talked about a lot… and one of the first stories I heard about her… was the story with the cow.

In a field on the estate, close to the house where the Spikh family lived, there was a rather large pond. The estate owner’s son had fallen in it and Emma jumped in to save him from drowning. Naturally his father was rather thankful for her good deed and as a token of thanks he gave her a heifer (a young cow). Well, Emma would have little use for a cow of her own, but she knew what to do with it. Once the heifer was grown and ready to be bread she bridled it and walked alongside her cow to the city of Gothenburg. Yes, she walked the 130 km’s to the city with a cow. Just outside the city she sold her cow to a farmer, and for the money she earned by doing this she was able to rent a room for a week in Gothenburg and go to the movie theatre every night. Once her week was up she walked home again. She would have been around 40 years of age at the time.
She was a formidable woman (quite obviously), a woman that worked hard her whole life and took care of her family, many of whom moved away to one city or another… most of them to Gothenburg. She died in February 1948 while visiting with one of them in that city. She was in her 83rd year.


I often went to the cemetery with my grandmother caring for Emma’s grave and I remember once, sitting in the kitchen at my grandparents’ farm, telling my grandmother that I thought it was a shame that Emma hadn’t had a family of her own. From all the stories I thought she would have been a great mother. My grandmother turned to me and said “Oh, but she had… she had two children”. I was quite surprised by this, mainly because I had never heard of her children before. So I said to my grandmother “Oh, I had never heard that Emma was married?”. Her answer, with a wry smile, was “You don’t have to be married to have children now, do you?”. Knowing the woman through stories it didn’t greatly surprise me that she had been a single and unwed mother along with all the other stuff this woman had going for her.

My grandmother told me that Emma had a boy first. He had cerebral palsy (CP) and died when he was around 20 years old (with CP you didn’t make it much further than that at the time). She also had a girl, who only lived to be 8 years old when she died of pneumonia. Unfortunately I don’t have the names of these children, nor any knowledge of whom their father (fathers?) was, but I will one day do some research to see if I can find out more.


So Emma has been a part of my life without us ever having met. She became a sort of female guide in my own life even though we had never met. But there came a moment in my own life where we actually connected, through someone quite disconnected from my family or the life in the village where Emma and I were both born.

In 1985, as I was preparing to leave for Canada and needed all my emigration documents in order, I was requested to do a medical examination by an Embassy authorized Doctor. The nearest one to me was in Gothenburg. As I walked into his practice I was quite surprised to be met by this very old man who must have been near 80 years old. He took my passport and looked at it and said “You were born in Lindärva I see”. Since Lindärva is a little farming village in the middle of nowhere that hardly even the locals know about I thought he just said it as a statement, but I was wrong. When I asked if he knew of this village he said “Yes, my mother was born there in 1892”. Interesting I thought, she was born the same year as my great grandmother and the two might have gone to school together even. He also said he had visited with his grandfather on Lindärva Gård (a place I knew very well and was only two farms down from my own) as a young child. However, his grandfather had died when he was very young so he didn’t remember much of him. But he continued to tell me that during the Second World War he was stationed as a physician at a nearby airbase. When he had a day off he decided to go visit his grandfather’s grave in Lindärva, but as he got to the cemetery there he didn’t know which grave it was and had to ask an old woman who was walking by along the stone wall for help. She showed him the grave he was looking for and a whole lot of other things apparently.

As he was telling me the story I thought to myself… there were only two possible women this could have been who lived in the vicarage next to the church. One was my great grandmother Theresa and the other one was Emma, who also lived there in her old age. Curious to know I asked him if he remembered what the woman had looked like. He said he didn’t… it was over 40 years since he had been there and he had never been back since. But then he thought for a short while and then said “I do remember her shawl, which she wore diagonally over her left shoulder and tied to her right side”. He had thought it was odd since women didn’t wear their shawls that way normally. To me it was clear who the woman was…EMMA…she always wore her shawl diagonally, she covered her left (non-working) arm and could only tie it with her right on the side. I took this as a good sign of my upcoming journey… as a sign of Emma’s approval… her way of contacting me directly (as it were). Well, regardless of what it was I was very pleased to have my very own story in connection with Emma even though we had not even lived in the same lifetime.

So there you have it… my story of Emma. Undoubtedly there is much more stories that I have never been told, many more anecdotes, much more of her wisdom that I will never know. I just find it comforting that this lower working class woman, 70 years after her death, can still be so vibrant and alive.

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