116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
BISHOP HILL, Ill. — The Swedish immigrant village of Bishop Hill looks much like it did in the late 1800s.
About 125 residents are preserving the past for the present, welcoming visitors to step over their thresholds and into their heritage.
Seven museums showcase the town’s roots and artistry. Restaurants serve up Swedish dishes. The 1855 Colony Hospital has blossomed anew as the Twinflower Inn bed-and-breakfast. Artisans ply their trades as in days of yore, creating pottery, brooms and more. Colorful dala horses and other Swedish folk art are waiting to find new homes in visitors’ homes.
And festivals galore beckon guests to spend a day or more exploring the communal way of life forged on the western Illinois prairie.
Todd DeDecker, administrator of the Bishop Hill Heritage Association, describes the settlement as “Illinois’ version of Amana.” The entire town was named a National Historic Landmark in 1984, and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency owns and tends to the Colony Church, Bjorklund Hotel, Bishop Hill Museum and Village Park.
What: Historic Swedish settlement of Bishop Hill, Ill.
Where: 2 hours southeast of Cedar Rapids and 95 minutes southeast of Iowa City, via I-80 east, then I-74 south, then county roads into Bishop Hill (use your favorite map app to guide you)
Details: For festivals, sites to see, history, dining and shopping, go to visitbishophill.com/
In 1846, a large group of Swedes pooled their resources and followed religious leader Erik Jansson to America, seeking a new utopia free from the confines of the state church in their homeland. Some sources say it was 1,000 Swedes, others say it was 400 initially, which soon grew to 1,000.
After sailing to New York, then making their way to Chicago, they walked 160 miles to a prairie patch a scout had purchased for them in the middle of nowhere.
They arrived in the fall and began digging shelters in the side of a ravine, in a sort of half cave, half timber configuration. It wasn’t enough. With inadequate shelter, a shortage of food and the harsh winter elements, cholera took hold, claiming 96 souls.
But more Swedish immigrants soon followed, and in 1847, the hardy colonists began building permanent structures, including large dormitories for housing, a bakery and brewery.
The first, of course, was a church. With housing at a premium, the basement and first floor each had 10 rooms that served as living quarters, and the huge sanctuary spanned the second floor. The entire building is now a museum, but the Julotta (early Christmas morning service) still is celebrated at 6 a.m. Dec. 25.
Jansson — whose name is sometimes spelled Erik Janson or Eric Janson — was born in 1808 in Biskopskulla, Sweden, which loosely translates to Bishop Hill. He suffered life-threatening injuries in a wagon accident in 1816, and in 1830, received a “miraculous” healing from a debilitating illness. He began preaching that simplicity was the way to salvation, through making personal connections to God through the Bible, not through the state church of Sweden.
He orchestrated a communal way of life for his followers. Bishop Hill flourished under this system for 15 years, with craftsmen toiling in town to produce everything the colonists needed. Women and children made the red bricks still visible around town, and other residents worked up 12,000 acres of farmland.
Colonists made and sold fine linen, furniture, wagons, brooms and farm products, and according to the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, from 1848 to 1861, Bishop Hill was “the major center of commerce between Rock Island and Peoria.”
In 1850, Jansson was slain in the Henry County Courthouse during an argument with his cousin’s husband. But the path he created for his followers remained in place, managed by a board of directors until 1861, when the Civil War and charges of financial mismanagement led to the dissolution of the colony’s communal system. Property was painstakingly divided among the resident men, women and children, and life went on.
Bishop Hill became a hub for thousands of Swedish immigrants settling in the Midwest. The colony continues to draw Swedish visitors, including one woman who considers it her second home and travels there every year, according to the docent at the Colony Church.
Past into present
All this history lies two hours southeast of Cedar Rapids and 95 minutes southeast of Iowa City. It’s easy to spend an entire day in this historic hamlet, where residents use many of the same handmade products their ancestors used, from pottery to corn brooms; decorate with dala horses and gnomes; bake rye bread; and use lingonberries the way others use strawberries or cranberries.
The village is an easy walk-around, along streets named Lindstrom, Bergland, Bjorklund, Kronberg, Olson, Johnson, Erikson, Jacobson, Swanson, Heeden, Christina and Helena.
My brothers and I are half-Swedish, thanks to late 19th-century immigrant ancestors on both sides of our family tree, and Bishop Hill was a favorite day trip for our mother and her friends from our southeast Iowa hometown.
Since my youngest brother and I arrived there at noon on a recent Sunday, we headed straight for the bright yellow Swedish restaurant, P.L. Johnson’s, 110 W. Bjorklund St.
Among the offerings on the Sunday menu were Swedish meatballs and cabbage rolls, which we grew up eating. So of course, we ordered those, and shared. I highly recommend the lingonberry lemonade for a light, bright refreshment. And my brother enjoyed his first taste of lingonberries — like cranberries’ sweeter cousins — served with the meatballs. In a nod to the matriarchs before us, mixed vegetables, an orange fluff salad and rye bread rounded out our meals.
The front of the restaurant looks a bit like a general store, with crafts, kitchen goods, antiques, quilts, jewelry, jam and other goodies to whet your wallet’s appetite. Details: pljohnsonsrestaurant.com/#
The restaurant looks out over the spacious Village Park, built on the land of those early dugouts. Today, the lovely green space offers picnic tables, monuments, a gazebo and lots of space for kids to run off some energy.
POTTERY: Just steps away is J. Goard Pottery, in a cozy little cottage where visitors can stop in to shop, and if they’re lucky, see Jeff Goard working at his wheel. We watched him throw his standard large bowl, while he regaled us and other visitors with bits of history and explanations of his actions.
As a visual learner himself, Goard said he especially enjoys speaking with children, to teach them and pique their interest in his craft.
He came to town buy a piece of pottery, and was invited to demonstrate on event days. “And eventually I just never left,” said Goard, who lives in nearby Toulon, Ill., a short jaunt southeast of Bishop Hill.
COLONY CHURCH: Around the corner on Bishop Hill Street and Maiden Lane, lies the two-story Colony Church, built in 1848. It has been turned into a museum, where docent Marti Nelson Ray, 80, a direct descendant of the original settlers, can tell you everything you need to know about the colony. She works there six months each year, and recalls playing with Olof Krans paintings stored there in her youth. (Today, the Bishop Hill Museum exhibits a selection of the folk artist’s works depicting life in the colony where he lived from age 12 in 1850 to 1861.)
Displays throughout the church’s first floor rooms tell of early life in the colony, and give glimpses into the living quarters, building construction methods and crafts like weaving that helped sustain the settlers’ lifestyle. The sanctuary upstairs also is open to the public, with sunlight illuminating the pale blue walls, dark wooden pews and bouncing off the posts and chandeliers.
STEEPLE BUILDING: Originally planned as a hotel for the burgeoning visitor numbers, this structure, built in 1854, instead became a school and possibly a home for some students. Today, it dominates the corner of Main and Bishop Hill streets, across from the Village Park, and houses the Bishop Hill Heritage Association’s museum and archives. Be sure to ask to see the short film explaining the village’s heritage.
COLONY STORE: Diagonally across the street from the Steeple Building is the two-story Colony Store, built in 1853. Today, it’s owned by the heritage association, and proceeds help finance the group’s restoration efforts. Visitors will see a wonderland of gifts, dala horses, Christmas gnomes, canned goods, rye bread, Swedish candies and other delights to remember your trip back in time.
Before the COVID shutdown, visitors came from all 50 states and 22 countries.
This summer, the village is opening back up, with a lively slate of activities, including the Midsommar Music Festival on June 25; the Hummingbird Festival on Aug. 13 and 14; the Bishop Hill Chautauqua on Aug. 27 and 28; Julmarknad (Christmas Market) from Nov. 25 to 27 and Dec. 3 and 4; Lucia Nights Festival of Lights on Dec. 9 and 10; Julotta on Dec. 25; and a New Year’s Day Smorgasbord at The Filling Station on Jan. 1, with lutefisk, potato sausage and more on the menu.
The biggest festival, however, is Jordbruksdagarna (Agriculture Days) on Sept. 24 and 25, featuring “traditional 19th-century demonstrations, harvest activities, music, dancing, farm produce and Colony Stew made by the Bishop Hill Old Settlers Association.” Details: visitbishophill.com/bishophilleventcalendar.html
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