NEW SWEDEN (AP) – Singing in Swedish as they performed folk dances around a maypole adorned with wildflowers and greenery, children in colorful costumes helped lift the spirits of a community still grappling with pain.

The 20-foot-tall maypole – or Majstang, as the locals sometimes call it – is the centerpiece of the Maine Historic Swedish Colony’s annual Midsommar Celebration, a festival that marks the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

The festivities, which include arts displays, tours of old houses, a bonfire and a traditional Swedish smorgasbord, come at a time of grief for a close-knit community that traces its heritage to the 1870 arrival of 51 Swedish settlers in the woods of Aroostook County.

It has been nearly two months since 16 members of the Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church were poisoned by arsenic-laced coffee that they drank at a church social hour. One parishioner, Walter Reid Morrill, 78, died; others spent up to 34 days in the hospital.

Five days later, church member Daniel Bondeson shot himself to death in his farmhouse and soon after was implicated in the crime. Investigators later said Bondeson did not act alone, a conclusion that left townspeople wondering if a killer was living in their midst.

Although the team of homicide detectives left the area weeks ago, the case remains very much alive.

Planners of the celebration had scheduled a moment of silence at the closing ceremony Sunday afternoon in memory of Morrill and Bondeson, as well as for those who were sickened by the poison and would have to be monitored closely in the months to come.

But Dan Olson of the New Sweden Historical Society said planners scrapped that idea the night before, choosing instead to put the focus on messages to the community from well-wishers.

“The greetings are so uplifting that we would rather read them and let those convey the message,” he said.

The case of the arsenic poisonings has been described in news reports as “Murder She Wrote” meets “Lake Wobegone.” Garrison Keillor, whose public radio program “A Prairie Home Companion” pokes gentle fun at Lutherans in the mythical Minnesota community, was among those who sent greetings that were relayed to the crowd.

Keillor noted that “the air of festivity and lightness” is missing at this year’s Midsommar celebration, but it will surely be restored with time. “And when festivity and lightness do return to your hearts, it will be even lighter, as a result of all that’s happened.”

He cautioned church members against dwelling too much on whether anything they had done might have contributed to the tragedy.

“Of course, as good Lutherans do, you are examining your consciences with a steel brush, and I beg you not to rub too hard and hurt yourselves,” the message read.

There was little talk about the arsenic poisonings at the celebration, not even from those whose lives were most affected.

Ralph Ostlund, who drank the tainted coffee, lost more than 20 pounds during his hospital stay. He had been living with his daughter in Bangor following his discharge but was able to return to New Sweden the day before the festival.

“I’m feeling pretty good, but my legs still bother me,” said Ostlund, who just turned 80.

Morrill’s wife Ellie attended the festival and made ice cream for sale at the stand. “My husband and I always did that,” she remembered.

Visitors joined community members in gathering wildflowers from roadsides and fields to decorate the maypole. There were plenty of lupines and buttercups, but daisies were in short supply this year. The boughs were predominantly tamarack.

After a dozen people struggled to set the heavy spruce pole into the ground next to the New Sweden Historical Society Museum, the Rev. Shelly Timber of the Evangelical Covenant Church took on the role of pied piper, playing the flute as 16 young children sang and danced around the maypole.

The festival, which New Sweden’s forebears started 132 years ago, has changed little over the years.

“This whole Midsommar is like a time warp, a Victorian time warp,” said Brenda Jepson, who has made documentary films about the Swedish Colony. “This died out in Scandinavia 100 years ago, but we’re preserving the tradition.”

Food is a big part of the weekend. The men of the Gustaf Adolph church put on their annual Fiskare Frukost, or fishermen’s breakfast, Saturday, drawing a crowd that was said to be twice as big as last year’s. Stands served all-American staples like hot dogs and homemade ice cream during the day, while the Saturday night smorgasbord offered dozens of items including fruit soup, beef tongue, various salmon dishes, meatballs, herbed sausage, pickled herring, lingonberries, blueberry relish and a specialty item of potatoes with cream sauce and anchovies, called Jansson’s Temptation.

Pained by the tragedy and worried about the long-term health of the poisoned worshippers, some in the community may have been in no mood for celebration, Jepson said, and there were even rumors floating around the region that the celebration would be canceled.

“We were thinking murder, not Midsommar. It was not in the forefront of our minds,” she said.

But amid the general feeling that the festival must go on, the community scrambled to overcome a late start. Rehearsals for the young dancers, for example, got under way weeks behind schedule but everyone managed to catch up.

The preparations for Midsommar have been therapeutic, enabling residents to focus on something other than their grief.

“We needed this to cheer us up,” said Olson, maintaining that no one ever considered canceling the celebration.

“It’s given us a little bit of normalcy and a chance to fall back on our traditions,” Jepson agreed. “It’s very comforting to fall back on our traditions at a time like this. It’s given us a chance to really heal, in as much as we’re able to, with the knowledge that we still don’t have a conclusion.

Some visitors traveled to the festival to demonstrate solidarity with a community that has gone through so much and is still licking its wounds.

“I felt it was appropriate to show the flag,” said Henry Thomas of Freeport, the grandson of William Widgery Thomas Jr., the Civil War-era diplomat who served in Sweden and came up with the idea of bringing Swedish immigrants to settle in the woods of northern Maine.

As he urged the community to renew its bonds with Sweden, Thomas laid out a vision of an enterprise center that could draw Swedish companies to invest in the region. He also said New Sweden should promote cultural exchange programs with the old country.

In addition to Keillor’s message, the crowd heard greetings relayed from Swedish Ambassador Jan Eliasson, Gov. John Baldacci, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Navy Adm. Gregory Johnson, the son of a potato farmer in neighboring Westmanland who went on to become commander of U.S. naval forces in the Mediterranean.

Johnson said in his message that he had been following news accounts of the arsenic poisonings and was struck by “the lack of vindictiveness, animosity and recrimination” within the community.

“In many other places there would be lawyers and lawsuits and charges and countercharges,” he continued, concluding that the Swedish Colony’s “warm, nurturing, embracing sense of community” will enable everyone to get through the ordeal.

AP-ES-06-22-03 1311EDT



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