The Great Brännvin Row. Before Fylgia (5).

Apr, 2019

Before Fylgia, there was another story, told by the villagers themselves. Many of my readers have asked about it, and so I decided to post it here. This is the fifth installment. Not yet fiction, it occupies a realm of its own.

     In the fall of 1894, Gottfried Bergenheim, who once grew grapes in California, signed a contract with Carl Börjesson to run the Kungsäter store and inn. The initial payment was 750 crowns; 300 crowns due at the end of each year, with an additional 100 crowns should Bergenheim, like the previous innkeeper, sell brännvin.

     Under Bergenheim’s management, the inn flourished. Travelers, mostly salesmen, arrived dusty and tired after long hours next to the coachmen on unforgiving wooden seats. Bergenheim himself met them at the front steps.  Short and dapper, in his early thirties, he pulled his handkerchief out of his breast pocket and gave their boots and clothes a few swipes, more well-intended than effective.

     Commerce at the store next door was brisk. Aromas of cinnamon, cardamom, and roasted coffee blended with smells of rubber, leather, and tar. Loaves of bread, rings of sausages, wooden clogs, skates, and carbide lamps hung from the ceiling. Bergenheim’s voice could be heard everywhere, as he ordered his assistants up and down the stairs to the cellar to restock supplies. For children hiding behind their mothers’ skirts, he rolled up sugar-candy in paper cones. He told the men to help themselves to snuff out of a large box on the counter, next to the scales, rolls of string, and a shining cash register. 

     But all was not well. Bergenheim surprised almost everyone when he did not apply for a license to sell brännvin. Lowering the cost of the lease did not seem to be his motive. Selling brännvin had always been lucrative business and well worth the investment. Rather, he wanted to reduce parish drunkenness, which clearly began at the inn. Others shared his concern. On a few occasions, the men at the county council had voted on whether or not the previous innkeeper should be allowed to keep his license. The votes were taken according to fyrk, which gave well-to-do men more votes than others. It was no secret that the vote count could be nudged one way or the other to bring about the desired result.

     Carl Börjesson, never one to shy away from a good fight, tried to persuade Bergenheim to change his mind. The county benefited from taxes levied on the local sale of brännvin — had in fact come to depend on them. Also, not selling brännvin at the inn was thought to encourage private distilling, prohibited by law since 1860. Already there was no lack of illicit brännvin makers in the area. The most famous was probably the woman who ran a small “establishment” out of her cottage by one of the lakes, fondly referred to as Hotel du Nord. Drinking was not the only sin committed there — supposedly there was hardly a man in the parish who had not gone to see her.  

     What followed was a complicated series of events, described in court papers now held by archives in Gothenburg. At first, Börjesson and his followers tried to nail Bergenheim the legal way. Although Bergenheim needed a license to serve brännvin, it was his duty as an innkeeper to provide travelers with beer. He was also expected to serve beer to locals, but only with meals, a luxury most of them could not afford.

     Though common enough, these stipulations had always allowed for a great deal of interpretation. Now, all of a sudden, the county council, led by Börjesson, showed an unexpected regard for the law. In 1896, Bergenheim found himself summoned to the district court. Börjesson, for one, testified that Bergenheim had indeed been selling beer to locals, but not just with meals.

      Others came forward with the same observation. Bergenheim had been selling beer to anyone who asked for it, indoors as well as outdoors, particularly at the fairs, held outside the inn on the last Thursday of each month. The church organist, walking past the inn on his way home after a funeral, had heard “clamor and curses, in connection with fights.” Another witness, inside the inn, had seen Bergenheim himself lying among a mass of empty beer bottles, after he was knocked down by his inebriated customers.

     The case continued through the summer session of 1898. Bergenheim declared that he might indeed have sold beer to locals even without meals. If so, it was only because he was new to the area and mistook them for travelers. The county constable, who had reprimanded Bergenheim in the past, testified that Bergenheim was no longer serving beer outdoors at the fairs. On the whole, said the constable, it seemed like much ado about nothing. Matters were no worse in Kungsäter than anywhere else. Even the assistant vicar testified to this effect, though, ideally, he would like to see all alcohol, including beer, banned at the inn. 

     In the end Bergenheim was fined 90 crowns, distributed among the prosecutor, the plaintiffs, and the parish poor-relief. From then on he ran his business by the book. He also stood by his old principle: brännvin was not to be served at Kungsäter inn.

     A few years later Börjesson apparently took matters into his own hands. Rumor has it that he hired a couple of ruffians, treated them to ample amounts of alcohol, and sent them off to persuade Bergenheim to reconsider his decision not to serve brännvin at the inn. Official records do indeed mention several episodes that support this scenario. 

     At one time a kerosene drum was stolen from the courtyard outside the inn. Later follows mention of kicked-in doors and other vandalism. Around Easter 1904 someone attacked Harry Jönsson, Bergenheim’s store manager. The assailant used a knife and “a so-called boxing glove,” which seems to refer to an ordinary boxing glove with iron knuckles concealed beneath the padding. Blood flowed; Jönsson had to see a doctor and stay in bed for several days. The enormous county constable arrived at the scene, pushing down the springs on his side of the carriage, the coachman, almost airborne, hanging on to his end of the seat. Interrogations never led beyond the two ruffians, neither one willing to confess.

     To be sure, there was more at stake than a license to sell brännvin. Gottfried Bergenheim was an outsider, with ambitions to introduce new ideas and change the village way of life. Any concession on Carl Börjesson’s part might have been seen as a sign of weakness and thus endanger his position as the village leader. This he could not afford.

     Bergenheim, however, stood his ground. For as long as he lived, brännvin would continue to be banned at Kungsäter Inn.






by Birgitta Hjalmarson

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