Sweden on the Prairie
Bishop Hill, back from the dead
Another of the travel pieces I did about Illinois places for the American Auto Club’s member magazines. Interesting place, nice people; I use the miniature clay jug I bought there as a toothpick holder to this day. As did the piece about Nauvoo, the assignment gave me a chance to see and learn about corners of Illinois I did not know, knowledge I stowed away to use in my history of the area 35 years later.
I also wrote up Bishop Hill for Illinois Times; you can read it here.
Bishop Hill may be unique among modern American restorations: It is being substantially restored by descendants of the very people—the nineteenth-century Jansonites—who made it famous. [This was a misstatement; nearby Nauvoo is another such restoration. JKJr] Roughly two thirds of the present-day residents of the western Illinois village spring from the fifteen hundred Swedish immigrants who founded the colony on the basis of communal living and Christian piety.
That simple historical fact has given Bishop Hill a vibrancy, a blending of historic and contemporary, not found in many restorations. Indeed, Bishop Hill's restorers proudly call it a living community or living museum, in which civic organizations and individual residents share ownership of the old buildings and responsibility for maintaining them.
The same combination of forces has managed both to attract tourism and to control it. Some sixty thousand people tour Bishop Hill each year; an estimated two thousand of them come all the way from Sweden, where the village holds a special place as the only Swedish communal society built in the United States.
Bishop Hill stands on the Illinois prairie, one hundred forty-five miles west of Chicago. Thirteen buildings from the original Jansonite colony remain. They include the church and hospital as well as the Steeple Building, the most arresting of the surviving structures, with its handsome Palladian facades and octagonal clock tower. All thirteen either have been restored or are now undergoing full restoration. They form the nucleus of a thriving little community that has made an almost seamless blend of two cultures and one and one-third centuries.
Bishop Hill's beginnings were far from seamless. The colony was established in 1846 by an expatriate Swedish farmer, at odds with his mother church, and fifteen hundred of his Swedish followers. His name was Erik Janson, and they became the Jansonites. Like most such experiments, the Jansonite colony failed; but the town of Bishop Hill did not, and its shops, schools, and houses served succeeding generations for another century.
During that period, however, the village's decaying stock of original buildings was depleted by fire and old age. So in 1962 the townspeople organized to rescue and restore the structures that remained. In the process, they have helped restore Bishop Hill.
Forty-three-year-old Ronald Nelson, a stocky, pipe-smoking man who favors sweat shirts and blue jeans, is the doyen of Bishop Hill restorationists. A descendant of the Jansonite colonists, Nelson was apprenticed as a carpenter, then schooled as a historian. He has made a career of reading history in wood and brick—what a visiting journalist once described as "getting a feel for a building, noticing what it holds half-hidden in its nooks and crannies." Nelson went to work for the State of Illinois as a carpenter in 1965; he is now the government Historian for Historic Sites in the northern third of the state.
"Of the thirteen colony buildings still standing in Bishop Hill," he explains, "the state owns two—the colony church and the Bjorklund Hotel. The Bishop Hill Heritage Association owns five others, including the Steeple Building down the street. The Old Settlers Association has the colony schoolhouse. The rest are in private hands."
Bishop Hill, Nelson says, has developed in somewhat different fashion from the typical American preservation project. "The state and the Heritage Association agree that the village ought to be maintained as a living museum. That means allowing privately owned historic buildings to remain private so long as they are properly maintained." Nelson himself purchased an 1855 farmhouse located at Red Oak, one of the colony's half a dozen agricultural outposts, and had it moved into the village, where he restored it as a home for his family.
Bishop Hill, Nelson readily concedes, is dependent on tourism. "But as long as the commercialism isn't garish, we're satisfied. Actually, we've had to make very few architectural compromises. The town adopted a historic-zoning ordinance as a first step back in 1968, and most of the intrusions were here before then. We've made giant strides in getting back to the colony's appearance."
Many of those strides have been taken by the Bishop Hill Heritage Association, which Nelson—in his civic as distinct from professional role—helped to found. "The Heritage," as it is sometimes known locally, is run by a twelve-member board; half of its members are village residents, and they direct the organization's numerous restoration, artistic, promotional, and fund-raising activities. Money comes from foundation and government grants, sales at the local gift shop, special events such as the annual Swedish-style Christmas market (the Julmarknad), donations from the Friends of Bishop Hill (the Heritage's general-membership arm), and contributions of time and material from the townspeople.
The Heritage grew out of a 1961 community reaction to the razing of the bakery and brewery building. The loss reduced the inventory of major colony structures (which once numbered twenty) to eleven. In addition to the church, those were the general store, which had been the post office for nearly a century; the Bjorklund Hotel; the Steeple Building, constructed as a hotel but used for apartments and commercial space; the hospital, a melancholy reminder of the days when Asiatic cholera attacked the colony; a carpenter shop; a blacksmith shop, whose roomy interior once accommodated a seven-man forge and later a Methodist church; the administration building; the schoolhouse, in use until 1952; and a dormitory originally constructed to house farm workers and dairymaids, which, like so many other colony buildings, was later converted to a private residence.
Between 1962 and 1969, the Heritage bought five of those historic structures, most of them in bad health. The general store was typical. The walls at one corner had simply collapsed into a jumble of brick. (A fortunate failure for the Heritage, because the price of the property collapsed too.)
The Bishop Hill fathers settled on a strategy of adaptive reuse: They wanted, and needed, not a mummified museum but a living one. The store was rebuilt with an authentic Greek Revival front and reopened as a gift shop, which sells tourists everything from Scandinavian rusks and breads ("A Swedish rye that you should try") to handmade goods imported from the Swedish provinces. The hospital was refurbished as rental housing with the help of a $56,000 community-development block grant from the federal Housing and Urban Development agency. The blacksmith shop has become headquarters for Bishop Hill's growing population of resident craftsmen; it too has had federal largesse—$22,000 in matching funds from the National Park Service.
The architectural gem of the Heritage collection is the Steeple Building, three stories of brick and stucco with Palladian facades that set it strikingly apart from the simpler Federal and Greek Revival designs found elsewhere in the colony. The building takes its name from the clock tower that graces the roof; although none of the clock's four faces has a minute hand, the mechanism has rung out the hours continuously since 1859. The structure was completed in 1854 and has served as a bank, a school, a telephone exchange, and an apartment house. The Steeple Building was the first purchase of the Heritage Association, and it now houses the Heritage offices (including the Bishop Hill Research Collection, a library of nineteenth-century Swedish-American immigration) and the delightful miscellany of the Henry County Historical Society.
Anna Murray works in corner rooms on the ground floor of the Steeple Building. She is the executive director of the Heritage, a post she assumed after moving to the nearby town of Galva with her cabinetmaker husband. Although the organization has achieved numerous successes in its eighteen years, Mrs. Murray feels that its work has just begun. She ticks off a long list of projects: "We bought a farmhouse called Krusbo, where cheese was made for the colony. We moved it into town to prevent decay or destruction, but it's in pretty sad shape. We want to finish the exterior of the blacksmith shop—one wall is about to fall down—so we can expand our craft program. There has been some thought given to establishing a cottage industry in weaving. We recently planted a nineteenth-century herb garden and completed a twenty-eight-minute interpretive film about Bishop Hill, which can be shown to tourists as well as schoolchildren and others. We have a great many colony artifacts in storage, and we need to do more work on the Steeple Building before they can be exhibited there."
While the Steeple Building dominates the village square, the Bjorklund Hotel also ranks as one of its distinguishing structures. The Bjorklund, named after the man who operated it, is three stories tall and topped by a two-tiered lantern-like tower. In stagecoach days, it served as the overnight stop on the main line between Rock Island and Peoria. In 1968 the Bjorklund was bought by the state, which then embarked on a $300,000 project to restore the place and turn it into a museum.
The man in charge of the Bjorklund work was Ed Hepner, a bearded blond giant who apprenticed as a cabinetmaker after graduating from college with a degree in American history. "Most of what we had to do here was structural restoration," Hepner explained shortly before the museum opening in the fall of 1979. "The building had settled a great deal. That's a problem we've often had here in the colony. When foundations were laid, the colonists just tamped down the clay and laid their brick right on top. Eventually the foundations gave way. We had to take down most of the hotel's west wall, rebuild it brick by brick, and replaster it."
Thus far the Bjorklund project has restored the kitchen, bar, a number of parlor rooms downstairs, and one guest room upstairs. Hepner and Ron Nelson combined forces to furnish those areas in as authentic a manner as possible. Nelson compiled an exhaustive list of the hotel's original furnishings and fixtures, and Hepner spent long hours locating as many of them as he could. Hepner has found and repaired chairs, dining tables, prayer tables, and the like.
The majority of those pieces were constructed of maple, cherry, or walnut, as solid in workmanship as they were simple in design; those made of less elegant wood were.often painted with an artificial grain—an art that still lives in the person of Bishop Hill's Asa Spets, a retired painter in his eighties.
What could not be found was made by local craftspeople. Potters Steve and Linda Holden, for example, have been creating replicas of the stoneware used by the Bjorklund's nineteenth-century diners. Silverware is being replicated by Leanne Nelson, who works next to the Holdens in the village craft shop. Lehlan Murray, Anna's husband, is making maple rope beds for the guest room. Even the sign-hanging fixtures were fashioned in a local shop—in this case by blacksmith Stewart "Stewie" Fahnstrom; like Asa Spets, Fahnstrom is in his ninth decade of life and is as much a landmark at Bishop Hill as the hotel that now bears his handiwork.
Antiques and reproductions alike will help fill the hotel's spacious third-floor ballroom. For the colony—in whose church musical instruments were banned because its founder believed them to be inhabited by the Devil—the ballroom was an uncharacteristically worldly amenity. It featured a stage and a ladies' parlor decorated with gold-tinted wallpaper costing $9 a roll. The walls of the hallway outside the ballroom are littered with graffiti, some dating back more than a hundred years.
Although not the most glamorous building in Bishop Hill, the Jansonite church remains its centerpiece. It was, after all, the first permanent building erected by the colonists and the first to be restored by their descendants. More than any other structure, the church was, as one historian phrases it, "the embodiment of immigrant ideals"; it reflects the mixture of devotion and practicality that characterizes everything the colonists built.
When fire destroyed Bishop Hill's original tent church in 1848, the colonists built a new, permanent structure. It was a curiously American hybrid with a Federal-style basement and gambrel roof. The basement and ground floor were given over to apartments—single rooms perhaps a hundred feet square, arrayed ten per floor on either side of wide corridors that ran the length of the building. Into those rooms whole families (some with six or seven members) were crowded. Upstairs, a sparingly furnished sanctuary virtually filled the second floor. Pews—enough to seat a thousand people—were handmade of walnut. As always among Jansonites, the worshippers were carefully segregated by sex, the men on the right and the women on the left.
Bishop Hill donated the church to the state in 1946 to commemorate the centennial of the colony's founding, and since then the building has been restored to its 1848 appearance. A balcony overlooking the sanctuary was reopened after being boarded up for years; downstairs, various changes made over the years, including new interior stairways and new doors, were meticulously demodernized. The ground-floor apartments now contain exhibits of life in early Bishop Hill. One room is furnished in an 1850 style, while another across the corridor looks the way it would have in 1860, graphically showing the changes in lifestyle wrought by a decade of prosperity. Other rooms display examples of colony crafts, as well as furniture, domestic appliances such as spinning wheels and linen mangles (machines for ironing), paintings, maps, and photographs.
The walls of one of the church apartments display snapshots of the children of modern Bishop Hill, some of whom are the sixth generation of their families to grow up there. A caption declares: "The combination of a living community and an active recognition of Bishop Hill's historical importance make it unique among restoration projects."
Bishop Hill restoration is not self-supporting, and in recent years it has gained financial assistance from benefactors on both sides of the Atlantic. The book Bishop Hill: A Utopia on the Prairie, by Dr. Olov Isaksson, director of Stockholm's Museum of National Antiquities, reawakened Swedish interest during the late 1960's and early 1970's. Among the restoration's prominent patrons were His Majesty Gustavus VI and his grandson and successor, King Karl XVI. Together they contributed several thousand dollars from the royal fund for Swedish culture to aid the work of the Heritage Association.
Still, the Heritage leans heavily on the two-hundred-odd residents of Bishop Hill, who have donated thousands of dollars worth of artifacts, labor, research, and even property. Numerous residents—as well as some people who live in neighboring towns—serve without pay as secretaries, guides, craft demonstrators, and clerks. Listening to Anna Murray describe the work of the volunteers, one is reminded of what a visitor to the colony wrote in 1847: "Each of these people works for the good of all the rest, as well as for his own good." ■