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Preserving Swedish Heritage at Bishop Hill

Bishop Hill is off the beaten path, nestled among the farm fields of western Illinois. That hasn't stopped the small community from working to preserve its Swedish heritage and maintain its status as a tourist destination for day trippers.

Bishop Hill was founded in 1846 by a group of Swedish immigrants who had followed their leader Eric Jansson to the wilderness of western Illinois in search of religious freedom and opportunity. At its height the town’s population grew to be nearly 1,000 people. The community was dissolved in 1861 following Jansson’s death and a series of bad investments by community leaders.

Todd DeDecker with the Bishop Hill Heritage Association  has an office inside the Steeple building near the center of town. DeDecker said about 90% of the Steeple building is original, with the exception of the asphalt shingles on the roof and the electricity.

Credit Tri States Public Radio
The Steeple building on the corner of Main St. and Bishop Hill St. Originally intended to serve as a hotel and administrative building, the Steeple Building is now a museum.

“I come in here and I’m walking the same floors that people did 150 years ago,” DeDecker said. “I go up to the second floor and we have this exhibit with tools. These are the tools they used to make these buildings or the furniture scattered around the museum. It fills me with awe that I’m experiencing and touching stuff that was built by people so long ago and is still with us today."

There are seven museums in Bishop Hill, which is more museums per capita than any other town in Illinois.

Credit Tri States Public Radio
Swedish Meatballs from PL Johnson's

The Bishop Hill map marks 47 noteworthy placesto visit in town, all within a mile. DeDecker said there are 18 pre-civil war colony buildings still in use and in their original locations at Bishop Hill. Some are residential homes for the around 120 people who still live on site. But many of the other historic buildings that are owned by the locals have been renovated and repurposed into little shops and eateries featuring local favorites including homemade Swedish rye bread and Swedish meatballs.

The newest business in Bishop Hill, the Creative Commons, is an artist cooperative, classroom space, and concert hall. Many of the artisans selling hand-made goods at Bishop Hill still practice the same skills the pioneers did such as broom making, pottery, wood carving, and rug making.

Credit Tri States Public Radio
Kathy Johnson of Cambridge is weaving a rug using a loom from 1920-1930's. She's been weaving for a dozen years and has worked at Bishop Hill for more than 30 years. A typical rug takes her about three hours to weave.

Bishop Hill is about 25 miles northeast of Galesburg. The community markets itself as a tourist attraction bringing in 80,000-100,000 visitors from around the world annually.

“There are a lot of great festivals around here and they’re all special and unique in their own way. Our uniqueness is our history. Because we not only value our Swedish roots, but our rural roots. So you’re not just stepping back into Swedish traditions. You’re also getting a taste of what life was like in the 1800’s," said DeDecker.

The Festival of Lights is a popular December event offering visitors a glimpse into what a Swedish Christmas looked like in the 19th century. There are candles in every window throughout the village and wreaths on many doors. In honor of Swedish tradition, many children around town dress up as Lucia Girls and Star Boys.

Credit Tri States Public Radio
Greta, 8, welcomes shoppers to her grandparent’s boutique. She is dressed up as a Lucia Girl complete with white dress, red sash, and candle lit crown on her head.

According to Swedish mythology, Saint Lucia gave food to the hungry during a time of famine. Her celebration eventually became known as the festival of lights. But, it is not just the Swedish festivals bringing in visitors.

The Bishop Hill Museum, on the south side of town, is home to the largest collection of works by Olof Krans, a famous Swedish-American folk artist.

Bryan Engelbrect, assistant site superintendent for Bishop Hill, said Olaf Krans emigrated to America at the age of 12 and grew up in Bishop Hill. Krans later moved to Galva and became a house painter. But he never forgot Bishop Hill and he painted different scenes featuring community life from memory. He also completed a number of portraits of colonists who had been photographed.

Engelbrect says Krans’ works provide a glimpse of what life was like at Bishop Hill.

“This is actually considered the best visual documents of the different utopian communities that existed in American history. And so thanks to Olaf Krans work, we know pretty much exactly what the town looked like back in this time period, we know what many of the residents looked like and we have a great insight into the general day to day life of the colony,” Engelbrect said.

One of Kran’s largest works, "Bishop Hill in 1855", is an oil painting depicting theater curtains being pulled back to unveil a view of town. Many of the prominent buildings included in the portrait still stand in Bishop Hill today.

Bishop Hill has been designated a National Historic Landmark and a State Historic Site. DeDecker said Bishop Hill is still renowned in the home country of Sweden and students learn about it in school.

“People from Sweden, when they vacation in the Midwest, they tell us this is one of the must see spots. They have to Andersonville in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Bishop Hill," DeDecker said.

DeDecker said that nearly a quarter of Sweden’s population emigrated in the 19th century and many of them came to the United States, “and one of the reasons was because of the success of Bishop Hill. They heard about this large group of swedes that came here and experience some success and they thought, well, if they can do it, we can do it,” DeDecker said.

DeDecker said local organizations have ramped up restoration efforts in recent years to ensure that Bishop Hill’s legacy continues on well into the future.

Emily Boyer is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.