There were Swedes where I grew up, plenty of them.
Each fall the Immanuel Lutheran Church threw a smorgasbord that drew hundreds of Swedes and non-Swedes into the church basement. So many came that we submitted ourselves to the exotic practice of taking a number and waiting upstairs on the hard pews. I remember those long minutes, sitting between some Olsons and Hansons, and fixing my mind on the only thing I’d come for: a thin slice of tender Swedish lefsa bread, generously buttered and rolled tight with brown sugar into a soft cylinder of Nordic indulgence. And my first debilitating crush was on a sturdy blond whose last name was Johnson and whose flirting tactics set the town standard.
The “Empty Stocking” radio broadcast each Christmas Eve from the school gym featured an elderly woman named Johnson (no relation to the flirt) playing “Silent Night” on a vibrating saw blade. And there was the occasional classmate who showed up in school in Swedish costume and lit white candles in front of the class.
Despite these scattered invitations, I was never swept up into the gestalt of the Scandinavian immigrant experience. I knew where the library’s copy of O.E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth sat, but I never checked it out. Catholic friends let me in on the secrets of confession, holy water, and the various point systems of redemption. But I never picked up on the Swedish-Lutheran equivalents of such mysteries–Santa Lucia nights, lingonberries, and coffee parties.
I’m not sure when it first struck me that my ignorance of Swedes, for a son of the midwest, was a dereliction comparable to someone raised in Lafayette, Louisiana, never having danced the Cajun two-step and not knowing etouffe from jambalaya. It might have been the time at Ann Sather’s when the waitress refused to bring my strudel until I’d finished my salad. I was 30, at least, but I ate the salad.
Her firm, motherly command hit home unexpectedly. For a second, I pictured myself sitting down at a long table with a crew of red-faced Swedish farm boys just in from a morning of hay baling, clearing their throats awkwardly as a small army of firm, motherly women brought in trays of biscuits, corn, and lingonberries. I had a sudden suspicion I’d missed out on something.
I suppose it was that suspicion that sent me out into the 100-degree August swelter to confront the Swedish beachhead in the midwest, the Illinois hamlet of Bishop Hill.
There’s little on Route 34 to prepare you for the gentle surprise of Bishop Hill hiding in the western Illinois cornfields. The towns along the way look a little tired, as if they’d taken to shaving only every few days. The scenery is classic central Illinois, which is to say something less than classic.
By the time we hit the largely Swedish community of Galva, a few miles east of Bishop Hill, we were ready for coffee and some of the town’s famed rusks. A rusk is to a true Swedish coffee drinker what a cigarette is to a barfly, an indispensable tool without which the liquid is meaningless. We’d read that Jacobson’s Bakery, in Galva, had been producing state-of-the-art versions of this hard, crisp bread for over half a century, so we pulled over to look.
Plainly, Jacobson’s has put its resources into rusk making and not into the hands of some smooth-talking Galesburg ad executive. It took a while to find the store; it was behind a pile of boxes filled with rusks ready for shipment to homesick Swedes across the country. We rang the bell at the front desk. After a few moments, an elderly woman emerged from the hot blast of the kitchen. We had a choice: plain or cinnamon. I asked her about the brown, stained bags sitting on the counter. “They’re seconds, but they’re good.” We bought one, for 99 cents, and headed out for coffee. She was right.
We didn’t have time for much else in Galva, except to note a few items of local history. Galva turns out to have been the home of several notable people, among them Clarence Mulford, the creator of Hopalong Cassidy. Biting into a rusk as we drove out of town, I remembered that Hoppy always did have a pretty wholesome way about him for a gunslinger, as though his idea of putting the hammer on some cattle rustlers would be to force them back to the table with a wave of his pearl-handled Colt and insist they stay for an extra cup of coffee and another cinnamon bun.
Just west of Galva, on Route 34, a plain brown sign marks the turnoff to Bishop Hill. Right after the turn, the prairie begins to roll and dip, and the corn rolls with it like a green blanket thrown over a lumpy bed. The road bends to the left a little, and a small village appears, announced by an arch of trees lining a quiet main street.
The first impression is one of cleanness, like a whiff of fresh linen. On either side of the street the houses and shops are so neat and swept, you get the feeling the inhabitants are equally ready for coffee guests or Judgment Day. Driving into the center of town–which doesn’t take long–you reach the main square, where the surviving specimens of Bishop Hill architecture stand, faded but dignified. A glance at the larger ones–the Steeple Building, the Colony Store, the Colony Church, and a few residences and shops–tells you that their builders had something more in mind than a prosperous main street and two buggies in every shed when they made camp here in 1846. This was going to be a community, something whole and self-contained.
Bishop Hill Colony was one of a handful of 19th-century midwestern experiments in utopianism. The people who fled here from Sweden, a band of several hundred religious dissidents under the charismatic guidance of Erik Jansson, ached for the freedom to be Lutherans in their own way and aimed to establish a communal society to boot. They failed, of course, but they left behind a remarkable architectural skeleton. Today, Bishop Hill has the pristine look of a town that has lain under a drop cloth for the last 100 years and has just come to light.
Like all good tourists, we postponed the history lesson, however, and started with lunch. We pulled over to the side of the road (there are no curbs, much less meters) and got out. Somewhere in a nearby shop, a record player was sending out a well-worn version of “The Mockingbird Song,” and that’s about as crassly commercial as the place got that day.
We crossed the street and entered the Red Oak, where we had reservations for lunch (or “lunchenbord,” to be technical). As we took our table in the trellised courtyard out back and admired the blue “calico” dishes, we recalled reading about dining in the Colony days–long tables in communal dining halls, ample servings of hardtack, and ampler table prayers. Those first settlers, we realized, had lived and died without ever being asked if they wanted fresh ground pepper on their turnips. Our spread at the Red Oak would have scandalized them.
If the ambience was a little Laura Ashley, the service was firm and motherly and the food just on the polite side of hearty. From the selection of Scandinavian open-faced sandwiches I ordered a “Biff”–rare roast beef slices topped with “agurkasalat” (Swedish cucumber salad) and homemade mustard sauce. My seven-year-old daughter, who’d only consented to make this Swedish journey when told she’d be sleeping in a real farmhouse, pronounced her peanut butter and jelly sandwich “luscious”–an adjective she usually reserves for things like pink and green breakfast cereals. In a rare departure from protocol, she ate the crusts of her homemade bread. She almost swooned when dessert arrived–a plate-sized Tollhouse cookie, fresh and warm, with a ball of ice cream melting in its center.
My natural resistance to historical walking tours and gift shops approaches the virulence of an allergic reaction, so it was only after three cups of coffee that I threw down my fringed napkin and led us out of the Red Oak. My daughter asked how soon we’d be at the farmhouse, and for the first time all day I wanted to say, “Right away, honey.” But I didn’t break out in hives that afternoon.
Bishop Hill, we found, isn’t Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village or any of the generic quaint villages that lie in ambush for your Gold Card just off the interstates. There are no costumed college students churning butter or pretending to be on their way to the blacksmith’s shop. The gift and craft shops that have sprouted with the Bishop Hill restoration movement are modest and appear to have toed the line drawn by a zoning ordinance drafted not long after Lincoln was shot. Anyone hanging an electric sign to promote a sale of Swedish Christmas ornaments would probably be pelted to death with rusks in the town park. And we did find some items that incited us to whip our credit cards into service, like the book of proverbs that contained the following summation of Swedish wisdom: “A bad haircut is two people’s shame.”
Our first assault on Bishop Hill’s grand relics was made on the Steeple Building, a three-story centerpiece in Greek Revival mode anchoring the town’s picket-fenced square and commanding what there is of the Bishop Hill skyline. The accepted legend is that the clock faces on the tower have no minute hands because the original settlers were too busy baking bricks or pounding flax to trouble themselves with anything so corrupt as a 2:15 appointment. A more practical explanation is that no one wanted to go to the trouble of deicing the frozen clock hands every time they stuck together in winter.
Certainly the colonists and their immediate descendants weren’t ones to throw money at buildings unnecessarily. When the town hired Olof Krans (later to become the famed Bishop Hill folk artist) to paint the clock tower of the Steeple Building in 1888, they nailed him down to a firm budget of $42, plus free lodging down the street in the Bjorklund Hotel. Krans overshot the contract by only $3–in constant dollars no more than the price of a Pentagon paper clip–but it took a council resolution to authorize the cost overrun, with the proviso that the job be finished with dispatch.
Since its construction in 1853-54, the Steeple Building has served as everything from an office building to a residence to a meeting hall for Swedish fraternal lodges. Today it houses a museum for the Bishop Hill Heritage Society, the group that triggered the restoration movement in the 1960s and oversees continuing preservation efforts. We went in to look at the exhibits and catch a 25-minute slide show. As we meandered through the cool rooms and touched the artifacts, we were reminded that restored utopian villages, like Civil War battlefields, earned their serenity at a price.
Bishop Hill was a dream hatched in the messianic brain of Erik Jansson, a radical dissident from the official Lutheranism of mid-19th-century Sweden. At age 26, Jansson underwent a revelation that propelled him from obscurity (he’d been, among other things, a traveling grain dealer) to the forefront of an underground movement of lay Bible readers. Before long, Jansson–who’d probably be played by Willem Dafoe today if anybody could sell a major studio on a Lutheran epic set in the midwest–had acquired a reputation as a riveting sermonizer. His mouth, as someone put it, was his sword.
Jansson developed a cult following in Sweden, many no doubt attracted by his doctrine that faith cleanses everything and forgiveness follows within seconds. (It may have been this aspect of the creed, coupled with the number of women followers who left their husbands to emigrate, that prompted Stuart Engstrand to pen the only pulp Bishop Hill novel in existence, They Sought for Paradise–“Was It a Religion or a Love Cult?”) The Swedish magnates of the Lutheran church, however, were not forgiving when Jansson and his band took to burning official church texts in public. Jansson was persecuted, jailed, and hounded until he fled the country disguised as a woman. Not one himself to bestow immediate forgiveness, he wrote in a farewell letter to a friend that he prayed “a sterner punishment than Sodom & Gomorrah quickly shall descend upon the inhabitants of Sweden.”
Before his exile, Jansson had sold the faithful on a scheme to leave Sweden and found a utopia in the American west. Such was his sway, he is supposed to have convinced them that they would be able to speak English instinctively upon docking in New York.
They didn’t pick up the tongue that quickly, but they caught other things. By the time the emigrants had weathered the Atlantic, the Erie Canal, and the Great Lakes, many had died. A Chicagoan who spotted them camped in the city noted that the quiet band of Swedes “walked erect and firm, looking always hopeful and contented, though very serious.” They would have more to be serious about after the deaths during their first winter in Bishop Hill, which they passed in wood-lined dugouts cut into a ravine in an area now occupied by the town’s baseball diamond.
The Janssonists’ first letters back home describing what a blast it was to be in the promised land were probably written with numbed fingers on dirt floors. Even the rewards, such as they were, were not the ones the frontier movement usually anticipated. Property was to be held in common. Families would live in small units in communal structures. Unmarried colonists would dwell in sex-segregated dorms. Church services would be held daily. Community meetings would dwell on such showstoppers as the merits of celibacy.
But they were builders. The huts and tent church were soon replaced by the structures still standing today. Business even thrived for a while. Linen, flax, and broom corn poured out of the Colony, and they produced millions of bricks in their own backyard to fuel their obsession with building. One wonders how far they would have gotten if it hadn’t been for cholera, financial mismanagement, and Jansson’s death.
The beginning of the end for Jansson, and the Colony, came in late 1848 with the arrival of a stranger named John Root. Root, a Swedish emigrant himself but no Bible beater, took a fancy to Jansson’s cousin Charlotte. Jansson let them marry only on the condition that if Root ever left the Colony, his wife and children would stay. Root moved on, but returned when he learned that Charlotte had made a father of him.
In the tug-of-war over Charlotte that followed, Root and his friends threatened to torch the Colony. In the spring of 1850, Jansson fled with Charlotte and her son to Saint Louis, where he tried to seek legal protection from Root. When Jansson returned to preach in the Colony Church on May 12, he warned the flock that he might be moving on to the heavenly promised land ahead of them.
Jansson’s timing was right. The next day, Root shot him to death on the courthouse steps in neighboring Cambridge. True to form, Jansson died with an epithet on his lips–something to the effect that, for Root’s purposes, a sow would do as well as a wife.
The colonists waited three days while he lay in state for Jansson’s body to rise up, as they expected it would. It didn’t, and they buried him at the rise of a hill on the east edge of town.
After Jansson’s death, the Colony was placed in the hands of a bearded junta of trustees. They ultimately proved to be no better managers than Jansson, and though the community still had utopian ambitions, its days were numbered.
In 1861, the Colony was formally dissolved, and an intricate property distribution followed. An ugly lawsuit ran throughout the 1860s, but by that time Bishop Hill the Colony was gone, except for the handsome buildings, the memories of the settlers, and a lot of legal fees.
Although scattered daguerreotypes survive, Bishop Hill had no constant chronicler of the Colony during its 15-year history. The most inspired record of the Colony at its height was painted by Olof Krans from memory. After spending his childhood there, he returned to it on the oil canvases he painted toward the end of the century.
We left the Steeple Building and drove to the new museum at the south edge of town, where Krans’s works are handsomely displayed in what townspeople repeatedly remind you is a “climate-controlled environment.”
Krans, whose self-portrait depicts him as a shortish, thin-haired man with the prim beard of a village music teacher, lived in Bishop Hill until the Civil War broke out. He enlisted with other young men from Bishop Hill to form an all-Swedish unit in the Union army–a development that, if known, must have given the Confederacy pause. If Krans’s brush painted true, there was reason to fear. His self-portrait as a young enlisted man makes him look something like a fiercely ornate saltshaker.
After the war, Krans eventually settled in Galva and began to paint houses and signs. His earliest dated painting is from 1875. But it wasn’t until the 1890s, when Bishop Hill’s collective beard was getting long and its memory short, that Krans turned his talents to the Colony’s past. The result was a striking collection of so-called naive but nonetheless powerful paintings that capture the synchronized beauty of the Colony’s communal heyday.
Not surprisingly, Krans’s portraits of Colony life depict backbreaking labor, much of it performed by women. In “Soon It Will Be Here,” men and women pitch yellow hay onto a high-piled wagon being drawn by enormous oxen. Above, an approaching thunderstorm blackens half of the blue sky, giving the whole scene a schizophrenic splendor. In “Corn Planting,” bonneted women array themselves at the edge of a field in a line that stretches into the distance like a military drill formation. Their chiseled faces glare at the furrows with uniform determination. In another painting, a group of women huddle closely around a tall, blatantly phallic pile driver on a bridge over the Edwards River–perhaps a Krans editorial on the colony’s preoccupation with celibacy.
Krans wasn’t blind to the lighter side of his roots. “Butcher Boys on a Bender” depicts what, in Bishop Hill at least, passed for a lost weekend. “Butcher boys” was the affectionate shorthand for the Colony’s meat men. In the painting, five stiff-backed, middle-aged men in heavy overcoats sail over a snow-packed field on a sled drawn by what appear to be two steroid-doped oxen. One of the men is almost grinning. A bender, I was told, was not a type of wooden sled but, in fact, a bender–a lark, a spree.
The portraits Krans did of the original settlers, however, are another matter. Painted largely from daguerreotypes, they make it clear that Doctor Spock would never have sold well here. A composite of all of these high cheekbones, sunken eyes, strong jaws, and thin lips would make any half-susceptible adolescent sit bolt upright in bed at 3 AM reciting the Book of Job in Swedish.
A simple harmony comes through the Krans paintings, despite the stiff symmetries and stunted perspectives. They suggest the clean light of restored Shaker rooms, or a strain from Copland. In Bishop Hill, for a short time more than a century ago, something considerably more ambitious than the American dream tried to take root. It was doomed, of course, but for a while it flowered. In 1984, at the height of the Reagan 80s, the entire Colony site–a fragile mausoleum of communalism–was designated a national landmark.
We ended the day, like decent colonists, at the Colony Church. Some of the longest sermons east of the Mississippi have rattled the roof of this white frame structure, built in 1848-49 to replace a tent church that burned. The ground floor originally served as a communal residence for families. Some of the spare quarters are restored today and testify to the wholesome lack of comforts the settlers endured.
In the sanctuary upstairs, the colonists filed in every weekday morning and evening for services, the men to the right and the women to the left. A wooden rail ran from front to back down the center block of pews to ward off the seductions of a stray elbow here and there. Body contact was no doubt a real threat in the winter because the sanctuary was unheated. On Sundays, church convened three times, probably to make up for the slack weekday schedule.
Today, the church is the pride of the restoration effort. In the late afternoon light, its white interior almost scrubs you clean.
Bishop Hill proper isn’t long on overnight accommodations, at least at the moment. On the southeast edge of town, however, sits a restored 19th-century farmhouse operated as a guest house by Steve and Linda Holden. The Holdens, who live elsewhere in town, own one of the original Colony buildings, where they run a pottery studio and gift shop.
The view from the Holdens’ farmhouse on a late summer afternoon goes a long way toward explaining why Jansson was inspired to say “Har ar platsen!” (“Here is the place!”). To the south and north, the hills roll and tuck into one another like those abrupt swells of heartland in a Grant Wood painting. To the east, the old Colony grain elevator receives the sunset like a wooden cathedral. To the west lies the town, the water tower rising above the trees in the haze. The only sounds are a mourning dove somewhere nearby, a distant tractor, and the beat of grasshoppers against the fence.
I poured a bourbon and sat down to contemplate Janssonism and a change in life-style.
The Holdens had answered our question about Bishop Hill nightlife quickly and simply: visit the cemetery. We made the two-minute walk from the farmhouse in the dusk. Cedars lined the driveway, and a flood of bats greeted us. Many of the white gravestones have been washed smooth by the years. Some retain a faint “Husband” or “Wife” or “Grandpa.” Others tersely document the one- or two-year life spans of Colony children. A few are chatty, in a Swedish sort of way: “I was ready and at peace. Be ye also.” Toward the back, a modest pillar marks the grave of Erik Jansson. Not far away are some Roots.
The legible stones show so many Johnsons, Hansons, and Olsons that we wondered whether a variance would have been necessary to deposit a stray German or Italian who was unlucky enough to expire inside the town limits. Even then, a strange corpse would probably spend eternity feeling like a party crasher. The whole Colony seems to be gathered here, as determined to take this spot of the earth as the day they arrived.
We walked back to the farmhouse in the dark. The night was clear and moonless. Inside, the Holdens’ replica Edison radio was ready with a cassette of a 1948 production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I took my citified daughter outside to show her the midwestern sky I’d grown up with. We picked our way down the south slope of the backyard, just beyond the empty henhouse, to where it was good and dark. After a few minutes our eyes had adjusted, and the sky seemed more like the heavens. A meteor ripped overhead. After that, the blackness glowed with the Milky Way.
It was enough to make a Swede out of you.
For more information, see the Vistors’ Guide in this issue.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.