SWEDESBURG — A 14-foot-tall reddish-orange, blue and white horse stands outside the Swedish Heritage Museum in Swedesburg, as if guarding not only the museum but also the community’s Swedish culture and tradition.
Swedesburg, south of Iowa City, has a population of 90. It was founded in the 1860s by Swedish immigrants, and at the museum, just off Highway 218 south of Iowa City. The Dala horse welcomes visitors, and Swedish legend has it that “the first Dala horse was created in the 13th century by a bored, hungry soldier,” according to a museum brochure.
“With little to do in the private home where he was quartered, the soldier carved a small wooden horse for one of the family’s children,” the brochure states. “In exchange, he was given a bowl of hot soup. Other soldiers heard about the good fortune of this enterprising fellow and (the horses) became treasured toys for village children.”
The name Dala comes from Dalarna province in central Sweden.
The Dala horse is one of many photo opportunities at the museum, which opened in 1991. In one of three other buildings on the property, visitors can see the Samuel L. White general store, a re-creation of an 1875 country store that once stood in Swedesburg.
A third building is a stuga, a small cottage.
“It’s painted with red paint that we brought from Sweden, and it’s a byproduct of the copper mine, and we brought it home and mixed it up and we painted it like so many little houses in Sweden look,” said Norma Lindeen, the museum’s gift shop manager.
Inside, visitors can see a display about early Swedish immigrants, including a list of food Swedish immigrants brought during their arduous journey to the United States such as bread, grain, butter, cheese and potatoes. Visitors also can learn about a Lutheran pastor who came to the area and built the Swedish settlement, and about early farming practices.
For those interested in tracing their roots, library volunteers can assist visitors in searching through genealogy records.
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Swedesburg recognizes its Swedish routes in other ways, too. Each year, the town hosts an annual Midsummer Fest and observes Lucia Day — St. Lucy’s Day — in December.
The museum attracts about 4,000 visitors annually, and during the past 25 years, more than 1,075 people from Sweden have visited. Visitors from Sweden can mark their hometown on a map on display at the museum.
Museum volunteers take pride in sharing their history with others.
“We grew up with it and we think it’s important to preserve,” Lindeen said.