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A Little Swedish Utopia on the Illinois Prairie

The warm yeasty smell of Swedish rye bread fills the bakery where Tom Campbell and his crew are baking bread, Swedish Tea Rings and rhubarb pies. Down the street Lou Hanson is throwing clay to make colorful mugs and dishes at the Hantverk Galleri, and kids are playing ball in the town park. An energetic group of volunteers dressed as Pippi Longstocking, bright orange pigtails and all, greets visiting school children learning about the beloved Astrid Lindgren character and Swedish history. Entering Bishop Hill, Ill. seems like driving back to another, more idyllic, time.

“It’s like Brigadoon,” says Deni Menken, one of the Pippis who recently moved to Bishop Hill, “like the village in the musical that appears one day every 100 years.” Yet, charming Bishop Hill, a National Historic Landmark about 150 miles southwest of Chicago, has been solidly here since Swedish settlers founded this utopian community in 1846.

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Swedish baked goods are on display in the Bishop Hill Bakery.

A Swedish Promised Land
Those intrepid Swedes, like so many immigrants who settled this country, came for religious freedom. After being jailed for his beliefs, the group’s charismatic leader, Eric Janson, predicted a fiery doom for Sweden and fled to America with 1000 of his followers. After sailing the Atlantic, they made their way west through the Erie Canal, crossed the Great Lakes, and walked the final 150 miles from Chicago.

Eventually, Janson and his followers erected twenty communal buildings, amassed 15,000 acres of farmland, and made Bishop Hill an important industrial and farming center for the entire area. Founded on the principles of shared property, hard work, and simple living, the colony thrived and traded heavily with the surrounding communities. Despite Janson’s murder in 1850, they prospered until the Civil War drained away both men and commerce. The community was eventually dissolved, the land divided among its inhabitants and, like Brigadoon, Bishop Hill essentially went to sleep for a hundred years. Its buildings and population gradually declined until the 1960’s when, with help from the State of Illinois, the Swedish royal family and many others, preservationists formed the Bishop Hill Heritage Association to restore and preserve the colony.

Town Tour

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Swedish simplicity in architecture–Bishop Hill.

Bishop Hill architecture is a study in Scandinavian simplicity—solid and serious like its builders—and a refreshing change from the elaborate Victorian construction so prominent in communities of the era. Start your tour with the Steeple Building which houses the Bishop Hill Heritage museum featuring exhibits, archives, furniture and tools from the colony. Visit the Colony Church, the village’s first building, lovingly restored with its original walnut pews and a divider down the middle to separate the sexes.

Stop for treats at the Colony Store, a general store in operation since the colony’s inception, and at Annie’s Primitives which offers a bit of heaven for lovers of primitive antiques and folk art. For an amazing trove of folk art, don’t miss the Bishop Hill Museum, home to the world’s largest collection of paintings by the famed folk artist Olaf Krans that document life in the colony as he saw it growing up there. Even if you’re only a bit Swedish, stop by the VASA National Archives Museum for immigration and genealogy research to discover your own heritage.

Let Your Swede Flag Fly

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An elaborate needlework project.
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Women of the Bishop Hill area gather for a rug-hooking workshop and plenty of camaraderie.

Whether or not you’re Swedish, Bishop Hill’s appeal lies not as much with the historic buildings as with the people who live there today. Unlike most historic villages where the “residents” are employees who dress in period costume and leave town at day’s end, Bishop Hill folk really live here and many are descendants of the original colonists. They stroll to the geranium-filled post office to collect their mail, work in the shops and on local farms, and gather for rug-hooking workshops. They enthusiastically volunteer for the many projects that keep Bishop Hill’s buildings maintained, its history vital and alive and that foster their own sense of community. For visitors, that translates to a surprisingly light-hearted “valkommen” given the stern faces of their relatives in the museum photos.

They’re an artsy bunch, too, who turn out an amazing array of art, handcrafts, music and musical instruments. Be sure to stop in at Prairie Arts Center where weavers, potters and broom makers demonstrate their crafts.

Bishop Hill especially comes alive from the early spring Valborg Bonfire to “burn away the old and welcome the new” to the sparkling Lucia Nights at Christmas. In between, the colony hosts antiques and quilt shows, a dulcimer and roots music fest, and Agriculture Days in September.

Getting There
Bishop Hill is about 400 miles from the Twin Cities via I-35 and I-80, about an hour southeast of the Quad Cities, and makes a great stop on your way to Chicago.

Checking In
Bishop Hill offers two lodging options. The Gallery Inn is in the old Colony Administration Building overlooking the park.
109 W. Main Street (309) 926-3080 http://www.bishiophillgalleryinn.com
The Twinflower Inn, is the Colony Hospital.
110 Olsen St., 309-696-0833
http://www.twinflowerinn.com

Nearby Kewanee also offers a range of modern motels; or, a little further away, book a room and a gourmet meal at the fantastic Chestnut Street Inn, 301 East Chestnut Street, Sheffield, 800-537-1304, http://www.chestnut-inn.com

Dining Out
Hours vary at Bishop Hill restaurants, but the food is delicious and homemade, no lutefisk

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Read up on utopian communities in the U.S. with books such as Chris Jennings’s “Paradise Now.”

in sight.

The Bishop Hill Bakery & Eatery is open Wednesday through Sunday with a full array of baked goods and treats, soups, sandwiches and daily specials.

The Filling Station Restaurant serves breakfast Saturdays & Sundays, including their special Swedish Pancakes with lingonberries, lunch daily and dinner only on Friday nights with a different special each week.

P.L. Johnson’s Dining Room serves lunch every day and dinner on Saturdays from May to August.

For More Information

Bishop Hill Heritage Association http://www.bishophill.com

309-927-3899

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