A small town preserves its roots and prospers
The festival was in full swing when I drove into the tiny village with Swedish-American roots in western Illinois. Traditionally dressed dancers were performing a Swedish folk dance in the shadow of an ornate gazebo as visitors meandered along flower-laden streets walking in and out of the village’s historic buildings and gift shops.
This is Bishop Hill, a small village west of Kewanee, Ill. The village has just 128 citizens according to the 2010 census, but they have managed to both preserve its history and use it to create a tourism business for the area. Bishop Hill is a National Historic Landmark listed in the National Register of Historic Places and an Illinois State Historic Site set aside to remember the 19th century Scandinavian immigrants.
Touring the Village
The Janssonist, led by charismatic religious leader Erik Jansson, were the first noteworthy group of men and women to move to the United States from Sweden. Letters to friends and family told of America’s heartland and the excellent farming opportunities spurring immigration of Swedes for several decades.
As much as Bishop Hill is about the Janssonists, more importantly it is about Swedish-Americans making a new life in Illinois and the Midwest.
Today guests can visit museums, shop for Swedish gifts and imports, and dine on traditional Scandinavian meals. Several buildings date back to 1846 when the colony was founded, but the Bishop Hill of today has redefined itself beyond its origins by creating a destination visited by thousands every year.
The two-story frame Colony Church was built in 1848. When there was a housing shortage, the basement and first floor were used to house 20 families in 100 square foot single-room apartments. The second floor contains the Janssonists’ sanctuary, complete with original handmade walnut pews. Nearby is the three-story Colony Hotel, built in 1852. It served commercial travelers and was a popular stop between Rock Island and Peoria, Ill. Today the hotel is a museum with displays pointing more to Swedish-American heritage than the commune of the mid-1800s.
The Boys Dormitory is a small two-story frame structure believed to have provided housing for boys making the transition to working adulthood. There’s also the Colony Barn that was relocated to the site of the original Hotel stable.
Several gift shops and art galleries are located in the heart of town including The Colony Store where you find everything from dalahästarna (carved and painted dala horses) to ekstroms blabarssoppa (blueberry fruit soup).
Restaurants, including the Colony Inn, PL Johnson’s Dining Room & Gift Shop, The Bishop Hill Bakery & Eatery and The Filling Station, serve up Scandinavian and American specialties.
Overnight accommodations are available at The Gallery Inn, located on the second floor of the Colony Administration Building, built in 1856 by the Swedish colonists to house offices and apartments for the Bishop Hill Colony Trustees.
If you go:
Historic buildings are open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. between March and October. From November to February, the buildings are open Wednesday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is no admission charge.
For more information check the website www.bishophill.com.
Bishop Hill’s Beginnings
In Sweden, Erik Jansson preached to his followers the abominations of the Lutheran Church and that the faithful were without sin. As Jansson’s ideas became more radical, he began to lose support from many of his sympathizers and was forced to leave.
Bishop Hill was communal in nature, as dictated by Jansson. Everything was owned by everyone and no one had more possessions than another. At one time, the colony owned more than 12,000 acres of farmland. Their best known crops were flax for linen and broom corn.
According to Jansson, Bishop Hill would become the “New Jerusalem” where he and his heirs would reign until the end of time. More than 1,000 colonists relocated from Sweden to their new home. Jansson thought of himself as a God-sent prophet, the restorer of the true doctrine, the greatest light since the time of the Apostles and the Vicar of Christ on earth.
He once wrote, “I am come in Christ’s place to bring grace. Whoever despises me despises God.” He taught that a true Christian has no sin and no shortcomings, or at least cannot be guilty of the same sin twice.
When Jansson was murdered over a family conflict, colonists expected Jansson to rise on the third day because he had presented himself as a messianic leader who was bringing God’s kingdom. He was laid in state for three days and then, failing to fulfill the colonists’ expectations, was buried.
The colonists decided to dissolve the corporation in 1861. Four years later former trustee Olof Johnson assessed each former member ten dollars for each acre the member had been allotted. In 1868 an additional eleven dollars per acre was assessed. The colonists investigated the books and found a discrepancy of $42,759 between two sets of books. It is estimated that Olof Johnson and the other trustees owed the colony a total of $109,619. The ensuing court battle lasted until 1879, spanning 12 years.
After the final division, many of the Jansonnists left Bishop Hill. Raised Lutherans, then becoming Jansonnists, many sought new religious homes.
Even with its somewhat unorthodox beginning, visitors will find in Bishop Hill a place to remember the hearty souls who carved a place for themselves in the American heartland and helped start the Swedish emigration in earnest.