Proud. I can’t even say how proud I am for last night. For I finally was able to repay my mentor, Bjorn Kjellstrom, for all he taught me. The planets finally were aligned and everything came together. The American Swedish Historical Museum opened their spring and summer exhibition “Outdoor Adventures: Navigating the Nordic Way,” that had at its core the life and achievements of Bjorn who died in 1995. Compass designer, cross-country ski champion, international business leader but always, a tireless supporter of a sport akin to Scandinavia, orienteering.
He even coined that word, for the mass-consuming American audience he said once. They needed one word to describe it. While the growth of orienteering is still crawling along, the basics that Bjorn laid down are still relevant and non-perishable. Look at his “bible” of land navigation, “Be Expert With Map and Compass.” Published in 1955 the new third edition is by his daughter, Carina Elgin, and still teaches the basics like it did for me as a young Boy Scout in the 60’s. It was Bjorn’s connection with the Scouts in the 50’s (through fellow Scandinavian, “Green Bar” Bill Hillcourt) that truly moved his Silva Compass Company into the powerhouse that it is today.
But it all came down to playing the game of orienteering with the three of them. Bjorn and his brother, Alvar, and engineer, Gunnar Tillander, all put their heads together and patented the first and now famous “Silva” style compass: liquid-filled, protractor-based and acrylic clear so one could read the map underneath while taking a bearing. We take it all for granted now but before 1933 it was all unheard of. In fact, they navigated with a bulky box compass (with bobbing, undamped north needle). Then their first invention was a clear plastic 360° protractor. But that was just an intermediate step. With the development of acrylic (Lucite and Plexiglass) and its mass distribution, they had the final piece of the puzzle. Other orienteers in Sweden had to have the new invention and they discovered lightning in their bottle.
Bjorn and I met the old fashioned way: In 1988 I found his phone number (and address) in the phone book (remember them?)
He invited me over and we became fast friends as we both shared the same missionary zeal for orienteering. He proceeded to help and point me in the right direction as I moved from the music business into the orienteering teaching business. When Bjorn passed away, his wife, Kathi, had a sad estate sale at their Pound Ridge property and off to the side was a basket of sad, forlorn prototypes that Bjorn and the boys designed before they hit on their winning style. “Take them. They (the Bedford estate buyers) don’t appreciate them. He’d want you to have them.” I scooped them up and kept them safe these 24 years later.
In 2017 I took the collection to the Antique Roadshow production in Newport, RI. It was a great experience and more than several experts came over to marvel at them (but they weren’t TV worthy). My next call was to the American Swedish Historical Museum and I pitched them the idea of an exhibit based around Bjorn. To say they were sold is an understatement. Curator Trevor Brandt truly jumped in with both feet and merged Bjorn’s achievements into the time line that includes the Viking’s world view.
To top it off, Carina Elgin donated items from the family heirlooms and her (his) book is now on the shelves of the gift shop. I pointed Trevor towards the Delaware Valley Orienteering Association and their club dynamo, Sandy Fillabrown, helped coordinate a true orienteering map of the FDR Park in which the museum is located.
If you visit, make plans to not only enjoy the exhibit but also to try your hand at a true orienteering course. The front desk will oblige you with a compass and a map with the course (fixed trivia locations where you answer questions). On World Orienteering Day (May 15, 2019) there will be official courses for easy, medium and hard level participants.
- American Swedish Historical Museum
- 1900 Pattison Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19145
- Closed Mondays