Under R. Ekblom the Uppsala Slavist published three classic books. In the titles, Going Third Class, Return, and When the Train Slides, he writes about his roving train expeditions during the first half of the last century. However, this cosmopolitan never felt as happy as when he travelled third class through the land of his ancestors, leisurely meandering between the lakes in the south, through the woods, and out on the plain to the north. Soon, the view became wider. Bluish fog rested over the lush fields. Through the haze, beyond the fields, you could see the contour of the gendarme blue forest, while the small, red-painted cottages were carmine.
John Gustav Johansson was born into this, the fairest of landscapes, in 1893. He grew up in one of the little cottages with his parents and sister.
Gustav was going to be a carpenter. At the age of sixteen, he walked into the hardware store Eskilstuna-Boden in Lidköping and bought his first tools – a hammer, back saw, calliper, spirit level, bevel and augers. He made a rubank himself, as did he a jack plane, cornice planes, and a small finishing plane with a round sole.
In those days, carpenters put pride in making their own planes, preferably in hardwood, but often in beech tree. The sole of the plane was covered in hard-wearing oak. The front handle was made in streaked birch, if it was impossible to get real curly-grained wood. The steel was purchased in the hardware store or forged by a blacksmith.
Gustav began working at building sites. There, he learned everything about solidity, construction and dimensioning of wooden boards, planks and beams. He practiced reading blueprints and calculating supply of materials. And firstly and lastly, he learned how to handle a hammer and nails.
In 1918, Gustav worked on the construction of the state warehouse in Vara. Every morning he cycled the 12 miles across the plain, with his mother Anna Kajsa’s lunchbox strapped to the back of his bike, probably a brown Unica box from Mariestad. The bicycle, a Polstjernan from Wiklund’s Factory, with the manufacturing number 36171, was his father’s. In 1904 it was bought for 151 kronor. For an extra 20 öre a spare valve rubber was included. Gustav kept a cashbook from an early age. In 1912 he attended a course in book-keeping, and completed it with the highest mark.
The construction work was seasonal; weather and wind decided the terms. When he wasn’t busy building houses, Gustav cycled and helped people in the village with grafting and cropping. He was a qualified tree surgeon – arborist one might say today. The local fruit-grower society in the villages of Jung and Saleby organised courses. In the garden at Åsbogatan grows a rowan with peculiar fruit, Esperens, a juicy pear. Gustav took the graft from his parent’s garden in Jung. Every year it blossoms and bears fruit, a greeting from the past.
Gustav liked trees. On the plain, they grew sparsely, trees waiting faithfully in the next bend. In this old landscape of culture you find trees that are national celebrities. On his journey in 1746, botanist Carl von Linné found an unusual oak tree. ‘A different variety, which has never been taken into account by Swedish botanists,’ he wrote in his book Wästgötaresa. And not far from Kvänum stands Sweden’s oldest ash, an ancient tree with roots in the 14th century.
They say trees continue to live in the wood. Gustav was aware of this. He knew most things about forestry, timber, and wooden planks, about sawing and drying, about leaf, spruce and pine. The pine back home wasn’t good enough; you had to go north to find the densely grown kind.
Eventually, he moved on to furniture making. Claes Fredén in Kvänum taught him the trade, from simple kitchen chairs to mirror bureaus with little caskets and washstands on lathed legs, the whole furniture repertoire.
Kvänum was such a newly formed town that most people remembered when it didn’t exist; a small and lively place with industry and trade, along the narrow track between Gothenburg and Skara, and from 1913 a municipality. The railway was the artery and the station was the heart of the small society. Passengers were served, telegrams were sent, semaphores were operated and carriages were ranged. It screeched and squeaked, steam was hissing, whistles were blowing, and goods were loaded. Today, the railway track has been dismantled. Only empty platforms are left, like ancient sarcophagus in the tall grass.
Silos and old granaries are reminders of the industry that for centuries dominated the area. In Gustav’s day, there were big farms and small homesteads, rich agrarians and poor artisans who, after land reforms, had opportunities to add to their earnings on outfields with meagre soil. Apple trees, lilacs, snowberry bushes and weathered house foundations tell the story of their strenuous lives. Gustav’s father was one of them.
But now the times were new and busy, it was the hay day of construction. From nowhere, Kvänum came into existence on the plain. Textile and brick industries were established. After a recession during the First World War, economic growth began. In Kvänum, the pioneering spirit was at its peak.
Gustav’s house on Åsbogatan was finalised in 1923. On the bottom floor, he started Gustav Johansson’s Joinery. The family lived on top. A staircase in the corner of the workshop led up to the family home. At first, it was only Gustav and Anna. Then came the children, Inger, Rune, Ulla, and lastly Lena. Rune was born in 1925. He remembers the scent of wood and the smell of linseed oil, how he would hide in the curly shavings, and that he once fell over and got a scar.
The wooden house, in Falu Red with a mansard roof, is still standing. Gustav’s workbench is there with the tools, as if he has just left to get some air. The equipment is intact. An entire history has been stowed away in the old workshop. A little, lost heap of hand screws have gathered in a corner.
Here, Gustav crafted reeling frames, sewing boxes, and chairs, but also window sashes from heartwood, doors and stair–components and customised carpentries for houses being built. To construct and build a staircase was an art form. In order to take height of the ceiling into account, incline, rotation, landing, levels and stair riser had to be calculated. The task needed a real craftsman.
The workbench stood by the window. The carpenter depended on daylight. Additional lighting was sparse – a few naked bulbs in sockets. Gustav was one of the first in Kvänum to install electricity. The family was also the only one to have a phone line in the neighbourhood. ‘12’ was the number and the children often had to run over with messages to the neighbours without phones.
As a carpenter and entrepreneur, Gustav had to be prepared for all sorts of things. Heavy local demand partly decided his everyday routine – a honey super for a beehive, a baluster for a railing, a stick for a thresher sieve. The thin wooden laths had to be straight, tough and elastic. When they broke during the harvest, the carpenter had an urgent order.
Few carpenters go through life unmarked, and Gustav was no exception. Bending a stick to test the elasticity, it broke and ripped open his right palm. The doctor stitched his hand together, and he didn’t suffer any complications. Rune, who was just a boy back then, had to help Gustav with the gear stick in the car during his convalescence.
Gustav purchased a band- and ripping saw, a planer and jointer, a drill and a milling machine. The equipment was operated with an electric engine and line shaft. Material came in via a trap door in the gable wall. Wooden boards were kept on consoles along one of the long walls, and in hydrofoils, which were hanging from the ceiling. The space was used in an optimal manner. The fireplace was lit with wooden waste and chips. A long flue tube spread the heat throughout the workshop. Sawdust was gathered in banks on the floor – there was no suction device. Once every so often, the sawdust was swept up and collected in bags, which were then sold as insulation for walls and joists.
At times there were a few employees. Towards the end of the 1920s, they began manufacturing looms. The poor relief in Malmö would pay 50 kronor per device, and a small export operation began. The building kits were made up of frame, sleys of lay, shuttles, shuttle boxes, pickers, reeds, warp beams, back beams, breast beams, cloth beams, heddles and harnesses. Rune remembers how he, as a young boy, would go with his father to Falköping. There, they would load the goods for shipping by train to Holland and Germany.
From time to time, Gustav would get a brilliant idea, a whim that had to be tried and tested. An example was the combined bedside and reading table, a collapsible creation with a base, stand, and an adjustable table top. Long before the days of IKEA, flat packs were delivered via the railway.
The business was run by the same principle as mixed cultivation. Bench joinery was alternated with building trade joinery. Gustav and his employees cycled to the building sites. It could be cold, wet, windy and far to go. Gustav’s wife Anna was in charge of the food for all – fried eggs on crisp bread, bacon and beans in a canister, and coffee in a sock-covered bottle. By this time, the whole family had moved into their new home on Storgatan 31, and the employees were living on top of the workshop. In 1935, Gustav put his bicycle away in favour of his first car, a Ford Model A from 1928 with the registration plate R 4160.
Gate-legged tables and school benches for home use were in great demand in the years leading up to the Second World War. During the war, the business was in abeyance. Gustav went to construction sites in the area with gas generators in tow. In the workshop, there wasn’t even a job for Rune, now approaching adulthood, or for the future son-in-law, Göran.
During the mid-1940s, things started looking up. The looms were on the way out. When Gustav took the final order, the stockroom was empty. He solved this by selling his wife’s loom, and never got round to replacing it. Anna, who was busy with other things, did not mind.