Historic Bishop Hill
Looks to the Future
Restoring a Swedish town without embalming it
October 13, 1978
Yes, I wrung a second piece out of my visit in 1978 to Bishop Hill in Henry County. (The other one is here.) For the AAA's magazine I gave them an AAA piece; this one is my piece. Of the several restored villages I visited in Illinois in those days, New Salem was the deadest and Nauvoo the creepiest, but Bishop Hill the most alive, less an historic site than a village that happened to occupy an historic site.
"Looks like our tourist friends have been at it again." Ron Nelson bends over and picks up an empty Budweiser can lying beside the sidewalk in Bishop Hill in Henry County, about twenty-five miles northeast of Galesburg, Bishop Hill today is a village of 200, but 120 years or so ago it was the economic hub of western Illinois, home to 800 surpassingly industrious Swedes who had come there originally to flee religious persecutions in the old country. Nelson has been working in Bishop Hill for the state Department of Conservation since 1965. But his tenure as a resident goes back to his birth some forty years ago, so it's hard to tell whether his reflexive housekeeping is the product of professionalism or plain old civic pride. It may have been both; in Bishop Hill, history and citizenship fuse in unexpected ways.
Nelson strolls on toward his office in the old colony church. This building, a barn-like frame and brick structure that was the first permanent building put up in Bishop Hill, was given to the state in 1946 on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the village. Except for its impressive (if short-lived) successes, the story of Bishop Hill has much in common with those forty or so religious communal experiments tried in Illinois' past. A man named Erik Jansson accused the state church in Sweden of abandoning the true word of the Bible; he and his followers were persecuted; in 1846, they sold all they owned and fled to America; they suffered at first, and many died, but sustained by faith they worked hard and prospered; their leader died; they squabbled among themselves; the colony split up; the brief flowering of prosperity wilted and Bishop Hill sank into obscurity.
Well, not entirely. Most of the present residents of the town descended from the original band of colonists, and so were more attentive to their heritage than others might have been, because there was so much of themselves in it. As noted, the state took over the colony church in 1946, which anchored the village against the tides of decline, and today there are thirteen colony buildings restored or being restored, a flourishing craft industry, a peppy tourist trade and a sense that, for the first time in years, the future of Bishop Hill is ahead of it rather than behind it.
When Nelson came back to Bishop Hill after college, the town was on its last legs. Though a perfect site for an early 19th century village—it had fresh water, plenty of timber for fuel, clay for brickmaking, and fertile soil nearby—its credentials as a 20th century one were suspect. It has no railroad, no industry, no wealth of commercially exploitable natural resources. All it had, in fact, was its history, its sole marketable commodity. In 1962, its residents, understanding perhaps that it was their last chance to rescue their village from the shadows to which Americans relegate towns for which they no longer have any use, organized the Bishop Hill Heritage Association, a combination chamber of commerce, historical society, and social club.
The restoration of Bishop Hill by the BHHA has been (and is) a town project. Of the thirteen colony buildings extant, the state owns only two, four belong to the BHHA, and seven are in private hands, rented as shops or used as homes. This combination of public and private enterprise makes Bishop Hill different from other restored villages such as New Salem or Nauvoo.
Nelson works behind a desk in a room the size of an office but the demeanor, if a room can be said to have a demeanor, of a broom closet. "We have to make a few architectural compromises," he explains, referring to the buildings in private hands. "But we passed a historic zoning ordinance in 1968. Since then we've made giant strides in getting back to the colony's appearance and controlling the most garish kinds of commercial development. Most of the intrusions we have now were here before 1968."
Commercialism is essential in a village which lives off its tourists as Bishop Hill does, and commercialism raises tricky questions of control, balance, degrees, limits. The alternatives—the most extreme of which would entail the state buying all the historic structures and running them—would purchase authenticity at the price of Bishop Hill's economic health. And Nelson and his colleagues in Springfield agree with the township that Bishop Hill should stay what Nelson calls "a living place."
The issues of historic site preservation come to a focus at Bishop Hill. Commercialism poses some threat to the integrity of a site, and (in the minds of some) to its spiritual integrity as well. But tourists have needs for food, rest, parking, relaxation and shopping that must be served, and it is uncertain whether Nelson's Department of Conservation or the town's own Heritage Association can afford to long ignore the public in the name of public service.
One suspects in talking with him that part of Ron Nelson would like to stop cars at the village limits, take out the stop signs, and wrap the village in a cocoon. But that's been done, at New Salem, and as a the result, he admits, the place is lifeless and sterile. "The only way to give Bishop Hill the appearance of the colony would be to hire 800 Swedes to come and live here again," which would pose certain obvious difficulties of budget and logistics. Besides, too much of what passes for restoration in this country now would be better called embalming, and Nelson wouldn't like to see his site populated by ghosts, authentic as they may be.
Bishop Hill occupies an anomalous position in Illinois. Relatively few Illinoisans know of it; in 1977, traffic through the colony church totaled some 60,000 persons, slightly more than a tenth the number that toured Lincoln's home in Springfield the same year. In Sweden, however, Bishop Hill is a familiar name. The colony was a potent factor in the emigration of thousands of Swedes to this country. In 1969, Dr. Olof Isakkson, curator of Stockholm's Museum of National Antiquities, published a book about Bishop Hill which increased its fame; it is called, Bishop Hill: A Utopia on the Prairie (and Svensk Koloni Pa Prairen; it was published in both Swedish and English, the two versions being run in parallel columns).
To commemorate the 125th anniversary of the colonists' bitter arrival (they had to live in caves dug into a ravine, and that winter ninety-six died) Dr. Isakkson assembled an exhibit of Bishop Hill textiles, furniture and paintings to honor the occasion which was seen by thousands at his museum in Stockholm. Isakkson also lobbied for money to help the BHHA restore its properties; one of those who responded was none other than Sweden's King Gustav VI Adolph.
The connections between the Swedish historical and arts establishment and tiny Bishop Hill survived the anniversary. One of the treasures of Bishop Hill are some one hundred paintings by Olof Krans. The canvases (painted after the colony's dissolution in 1861) chronicle the life in the colony. After a century, many of the paintings, which for the moment hang in two rooms of the restored colony church, needed (in the words of a guide) to have their faces washed. All half-million dollars' worth of them were packed up and sent to Sweden's National Gallery.
Nelson estimates that as many as two thousand Swedes visit Bishop Hill yearly. In its heyday Bishop Hill threw off seeds of Swedish culture like a dandelion. They sprouted in places like Galva, Galesburg, Ottawa, and Rock Island. Travel agents in the old country have learned that group tours that take in all the sights in the Midwest Swedish country sell very well.
Old buildings are history incarnate, and most field historians spend as much time on a ladder as in a study. The roof in the colony church, for example, had taken an entirely too forgiving attitude toward rain in recent years, and as a result Nelson must find room in his budget for a replastering of the ceiling. And the opening of the state-owned Bjorklund Hotel, which used to be an overnight stop on the stagecoach line between Rock Island and Peoria, is delayed until severe settling in one corner is fixed.
Of course, many buildings disappeared before the recent restoration movement. The steam mill on nearby Edwards River (which some diligent archivist calculated was built from 100,000 bricks) is gone, as is the Big Brick, a mammoth ninety-six-room, four-story dorm and communal dining hall that burned in 1928. The BHHA rescued the Steeple Building, three-stories capped by a steeple and clock that's run since it was installed in 1859; it has seen use as a school, a bank, and an apartment house, and now houses rooms full of diverting miscellany belonging to the Henry County Historical Society. The colony store has been reopened as a store after an intervening career as a post office, and meeting hall. The blacksmith shop also belongs to the association, as does the old colony hospital, which was remodeled for use as housing with the help of a community development block grant from HUD.
The buildings pay part of their way. The colony store, for example, sells tourists everything from prints of Krans canvases and LP recordings of Scandanavian-American folk songs to wooden toy trucks and "Swedish Power" lapel buttons; proceeds help pay for BHHA projects. The blacksmith shop houses work space for potters, broom makers, jewelers, and the like. The craft revival at Bishop Hill is a blend of commerce and commemoration; craft demonstrations are part of Bishop Hill's annual celebrations like Jordbruksdagarna, or Agricultural Days, but the results, such as scarves woven by hand on old village looms, are eminently marketable.
Jordbruksdagarna is one of the Department of Conservation's "Illinois Heritage Days." The Janssonites farmed on the scale of today's mechanized agriculture but they did it with horses and hand tools. At its peak, the colonists farmed 15,000 acres in the area and kept some 600 dairy cows.)
It is in the colony church, though, that one comes face to face with the old Bishop Hill. The church reflects much about the lifestyle of the colonists. The basement and first floor consisted of twenty identical rooms with plank floors, adobe walls, and small brick fireplaces. Families lived here, one family per room; the colony's regimen was harsh, and with the members eating communally, spending some three hours daily in religious services and most of the rest of the waking hours working, the rooms were used for little more than sleeping. The rooms are used now as exhibit space, where colony curiosities are displayed.
The second floor was given over to the sanctuary. A thousand people could worship here at once, sitting on fifteen rows of solid walnut pews. The room is lighted by chandeliers of wood and iron; these are copies from the single survivor that colonists fashioned after brass models they had known in Sweden.
When the colony broke up in 1861—they fell victim to the usual suspicions and doctrinal splits—individual families were given ownership of rooms in the communal building as their share of the property division, making the church, as a Bishop Hill guide put it, "one of the original condominiums."
Until the Bjorklund Hotel is opened, the colony church remains the only colony building restored to more or less its original appearance (if not its original function) and open to the touring public. It is in the spare halls of this building that the visitor is reminded of what historical restorations are for, that one forgets for a moment the clattering debate about parking lots and commercialism. The attentive visitor can read a building like the old colony church like a book (in fact, historical restorations are history books for people who don't read history). But the book only raises questions. Like what sustained these strange people, who journeyed so far and at such a cost to undertake lives of such bleak toil? What did America mean to these exiles? What promises did it hold? The artifacts on display—the lanterns and carding tools and skillets and plows—only confuse the issue. How could such ordinary people do such extraordinary things one asks, confronting one of the root questions of history. There are no answers at Bishop Hill naturally. Its value is that it forces the sympathetic visitor to ask so many questions. ●