Blooming Where You’re Planted, Part 1

Even the most seasoned meteorologists missed it. A dry winter was predicted at the end of 2011, which was the driest year on record in Texas. Instead, surprise winter rains have brought some long-absent green back to Brentwood and Crestview.

It’s still early, but spring’s on its way, and we’re turning more of our attention to our local greenscape. Community events by Friends of Brentwood Park, Sunshine Community Gardens, and Urban Patchwork Neighborhood Farms are coming up soon, too. All are worthwhile projects that need our support—even more so with the drought continuing and certain to have a long-term impact on Central Texas.

In the late 1940s, Austin was in the throes of another years-long drought. Gladstone Swenson purchased one of the extra-deep lots on the north side of Ruth Avenue in Brentwood and built one of the first houses in the area. Having grown up working on the family farm near Kimbro, Texas, he wanted plenty of room around his new home, at 1406 Ruth, to do some planting.

Gladstone, his wife Erna (Banner), and their daughter Kay moved into the house in 1950. Over the years, he worked the rugged soil and grew a large vegetable garden; peach, pear, plum, and pecan trees; and dahlias, Easter lilies, gladiolas, and bluebonnets. (The photo of Kay and her mother, right, inspired a mosaic on the Wall of Welcome.) Today, new owners have enhanced the large lot with their own thriving gardens.

During the 50+ years they lived on Ruth, the Swensons were members of Faith Lutheran Church, just across the street, and Gladstone was a popular mailman in the neighborhood. Erna’s mother had been born in Germany, and Erna’s and Gladstone’s paternal grandparents—the Almquists and the Swensons—all had been born in Sweden. Gladstone passed away in February 2001 and Erna in June 2007.

In the video clip below, Kay talks about some of the vegetables her father grew and how the family worked together to preserve the harvest. More clips of Kay appear in our film A Community Mosaic. We interviewed Kay on January 19, 2008. A DVD of her videotaped interview is at the Austin History Center.

In February 2018, Kay’s granddaughter Kristin Mitchener shared with me her memories of the Swensons, her great-grandparents, and their home on Ruth Avenue, where she spent time growing up. She called Erna Mam-ma and Gladstone Pap-pa.

I knew since I was a little girl that I wanted to get married at Faith Lutheran Church, which I grew up going to with Mam-ma and Pap-pa. On Friday, November 13, 2015, I got married at Faith Lutheran. The room I sat in with Mam-ma and family before Pap-pa’s funeral and years later sat with family before Mam-ma’s funeral is the same room where I got ready before walking down the aisle.

A turquoise ring Mam-ma gave me when I was younger was attached to my bouquet, and the photographer took a picture of our wedding rings next to Pap-pa’s dedication brick outside of the church. After the wedding, the owners of Mam-ma’s and Pap-pa’s house graciously let the photographer take pictures of me wearing my white wedding dress and standing on the front porch.

Growing up, there were things we just did when we were at Mam-ma’s and Pap-pa’s house. We picked up pecans from the backyard and pulled vegetables from the garden. Every day I ate at least one of Pap-pa’s homemade pickles. Every Sunday we would walk across the street to attend church at Faith Lutheran, where everybody knew everybody. This was life with my great-grandparents on Ruth Avenue.

I remember Pap-pa telling me he worked as a letter carrier after the war. I didn’t think much of it as a kid, so when I read [on Voices of the Violet Crown] that “Gladstone was a popular mailman in the neighborhood,” I felt so proud to be his great-granddaughter. After watching Grandma Kay’s [oral history] interview, I realized everything that was so common to me was an extension of this incredible life they built, a life that was built and shared among their neighbors. They had over half a century’s worth of stories, but one generation just isn’t enough time to tell those stories.

Special thanks to Kristin for permission to reprint her memories here.

Stay tuned! In our next blog post we’ll share more stories of neighbors “blooming where they’re planted.”

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