After the Northern Pacific Railroad completed its line through Washington State’s Yakima Valley in the early 1880s, land speculators and the railroad itself began to aggressively advertise for new settlers. Posters and promotions were made in northern Europe as well as in eastern parts of the United States. This resulted in the arrival of many immigrants who not only spoke English as their second language but also brought customs, religious practices, and holiday traditions to the valley from their native countries. The French and Dutch formed a large part of the new settlement in the Moxee area, Finnish families transformed the sagebrush lands of Cowiche and Tieton into productive farms, and sections of the Wiley City area attracted so many Swedes that even today there is a sloped orchard area known as Swede (or Snoose) Hill. Likewise, the Selah Valley was also populated by Swedish farmers who saw an opportunity to make a good living growing fruit.
Among the first Selah Swedes were Olaf Larson, Sven August Matson, and Hjalmar Sundquist. Larson was a Tacoma building contractor who arrived in 1907, originally to simply make investments in the new community. He bought ten acres of land and platted the original town of Selah before soon returning to Tacoma and his career in construction. However, in 1920, Olaf’s son, Henry B. Larson, came to Selah, planted an orchard, and built a fruit packing warehouse. His sons, Ross and Vern, and, subsequently, their children, managed and expanded Larson Orchards, which remains a successful business in Selah.
Matson was born in Sweden into a fairly prosperous farming family of seven children. However, when Sven was only 12 years old, his father died, and the family struggled to make a living. Several of Sven’s sisters immigrated to America, and in 1883, Sven followed them and went to Chicago, where he worked in a brother-in-law’s grocery store. He later ran a grocery store and then a greenhouse for flower cultivation with other family members.
In 1906, Sven moved with his wife and eight children to another center of Swedish-American life, Minneapolis, to become the manager of the Veckoblad Publishing Company—a position he held for the next 14 years. This company published a weekly Swedish language newspaper, the Veckoblet, edited by the Reverend Hjalmar Sundquist, which promoted the work of the Swedish Mission Covenant Church.
The next year, Sven traveled through the American West on behalf of the Swedish Mission Covenant Church. On his itinerary was a stop at Selah, Washington, where a few of his church friends had bought land for orchards. Sven was impressed with the Selah area, and, in the spring of 1908, he returned with his brother-in-law Theodor (Ted) Kron, and Rev. Sundquist to purchase some land. Sven and Ted bought 85 acres in the nearby Pleasant Hill region and divided it into several parcels for family members who lived in Minneapolis. Sundquist bought ten acres from another party and soon became the interim pastor of Selah Covenant Church. Sundquist and his son, Ralph, subsequently developed Sundquist Fruit & Cold Storage Company, which today is still in business under the management of the fifth generation of the Sundquist family.
Sven planted trees on his share of the land but returned to Minneapolis to work at the publishing company. His sister Elvira, her husband, Carl A. Danielson, and Sven’s 17-year-old son Roger moved to Selah to take care of Sven’s 20 acres of orchard as well as the ten acres the Danielsons had purchased.
In 1919, Sven, his wife, and their son Roy, who had served in the army in World War I, went to Selah to help Roger with the harvest. The following spring, Sven left his publishing company and, with his wife, four daughters, and youngest son Clarence (known as C.O.), moved to Selah. Sven encouraged his three sons to work together and share the profits. Thus was born the Matson Fruit Company, which is still being run by the fourth and fifth generations.