In a small town like New Sweden, it has become as common for young people to leave as it is for them to grow up immersed in their traditional Swedish heritage.
Lukas Lagasse, 24, has not only bucked that trend but also has become an integral part of his community, all while still finishing college.
Ever since New Sweden closed the town’s only school in 2017, those of older generations have invested more time into maintaining Swedish cultural traditions, like music and language lessons and the annual Midsommar, which welcomes summer and the growing season. That has been a challenge for the town of 577 people, as more young people leave to attend college or find work outside Aroostook County.
After attending college and working in the Bangor area, Lagasse recently returned to The County more determined to embrace his roots. He is the youngest president of the New Sweden Historical Society and manager of Caribou’s only store dedicated to Swedish and other Scandinavian cultures.
Through his work, Lagasse, who lives in Caribou, is determined to not let the heritage of his and other local families fade into the past.
“They say people die twice. The first time, they die physically. Then they die again when nobody remembers them,” Lagasse said. “My family always had an oral tradition [for remembering the past]. My [Swedish maternal] grandmother could point to an object and tell me how it was connected to somebody.”
Lagasse’s Swedish ancestors on his mother’s side arrived in Aroostook in 1871 as part of the first wave of immigrants from Sweden.
The town of New Sweden formed after William Thomas, a war counsel to Sweden during the Civil War, brought 51 immigrants to replace Aroostook farmers who had migrated. Though more than half those settlers, not yet used to northern Maine winters, died that first year, the town persevered thanks to cultural pride and work ethic.
While Lagasse has also learned of his French heritage, stemming from his father’s side of the family, New Sweden’s place in Aroostook history meant that Lagasse was often more exposed to Swedish cultural traditions.
As he grew up, Lagasse came to know other community members who trace their families’ ancestry to New Sweden’s founders, including Brenda Jepson, a member of the town’s historical society and Midsommar committee.
Jepson first got to know Lagasse when he was one of the Little Folk Dancers, a group of children who sing Swedish songs while dancing at Midsommar and other events. Over the years, Jepson has watched Lagasse become the Little Folk Dancers’ teacher and the youngest historical society member.
The society chose Lagasse as its newest president because of his commitment to teaching youth about their Swedish culture and for wanting to find new ways to showcase the region’s heritage, Jepson said.
“It is rare for someone as young as Lukas to become so steeped in Swedish history and heritage,” Jepson said. “We’ve seen our finest young people go out into the world to find themselves, but Lukas knows that there is a fascinating world right where he came from.”
Lagasse’s quest to find himself has also brought him to neighboring Caribou, a city with many Swedish cultural ties looking to embrace more young entrepreneurs.
In September, Lagasse became manager of Monica’s Scandinavian Imports, one of Caribou’s oldest businesses.
The store’s history goes back to 1964 when Monica Soderberg, an immigrant from Stockholm, Sweden, began selling traditional Swedish items from her home. Now located on Sweden Street, the store has expanded to include merchandise from Norway, Denmark and Finland and Aroostook-themed art, books and gifts.
Lagasse grew up shopping at Monica’s with his mother and began working at the store a few years ago while home from college. As the new manager, he plans to incorporate more traditional Swedish products, such as dala horses, straw ornaments, clothing and 1890s-style candle holders.
“I enjoy this job [at Monica’s] more than any other I’ve had,” Lagasse said. “I get to meet people from across The County and hear their stories.”
With a soon-to-be-finished degree in history and political science from the University of Maine, Lagasse admits that he could have easily found work elsewhere, like many of his childhood friends. During college he worked in Caribou and Bangor offices for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and lived for a year in Sweden, working for an agency that connected immigrants with their Swedish roots.
But for Lagasse, home is exactly the place to put down future roots even as he honors his family’s past.
“There are a lot of opportunities here, but you have to seek them out,” Lagasse said. “I could’ve gone elsewhere, but it’s like they say, ‘Away is good, but home is best.'”