Beginning from the Beginning: Swedish Heritage in Illinois

Krista Westerlund is our spiritual + historical correspondent. This missive is from her travels to the midwest —and back in time— to trace her Swedish family’s journey in America.

Little Sweden

Little Sweden in America. All images via KW.

I have been really, really remiss about writing about my travel experiences lately. I have traveled a lot and thought about writing about it, but the pen has not gone to paper or rather the finger has not gone to key. I’ve been to a lot of different kinds of places and also, I have spent my fair share of time in my sleepy little patch of routine daily life dreaming about places farther afield and the world beyond my window.

A while ago, I talked about how travel is not a competition. Well, for me, it still isn’t. There are plenty of other people out there who travel far more frequently than I do and who can tick off far more boxes on their bucket lists. Yes, there are places that I’d like to see and certain goals when it comes to travel that I would like to accomplish, but ultimately I don’t travel that way. I am fairly ordinary and on an ordinary budget in life. What I have, and I wouldn’t presume to say that I have far more of it than others – but I do definitely have it, is curiosity.  I want to see and do and taste whatever is set in front of me. If I haven’t gone somewhere before, I probably will just for the sake of seeing it even if it is a place that I’d never really thought about before or had a good opinion of. I’m always willing to have my opinion changed by evidence whether good or bad. Presented with an opportunity to gather evidence about some random corner of the world? I’ll take it. I rarely turn down an invitation to go somewhere if I can.

As a result, I have done some traveling to the big deal sites and cities, but far more often I have gone to some quirky and unusual places. I have often enjoyed them and each random corner that I have explored has given me a better idea of this world that we walk around on. I won’t say that I have a better idea than other people do or that my experiences are somehow superior to anyone else’s, but I have led a pretty cool life so far all things considered. When life has handed me lemons, I definitely have been drinking the lemonade. Life is what you make of it.
For now, I want to return to the blog by also returning to my own personal roots. I have real love for the many varied cultures and peoples of the world. I love making all kinds of friends and seeing different wrinkles of this planet while expanding my perspective on the world. Recently though, after lots of wandering, I went back to a place which is significant for my family. I visited my grandmother and extended family. Also I went on a tour of a small dot on the global map which is part of my own personal family history.
I went to an area in the western part of Illinois which is full of Swedish heritage. My father’s family was part of the broader Swedish immigration to the Midwest in the mid-19th C. Many people are quite aware of the Scandinavian influence in places like Minnesota but perhaps they don’t know how far throughout the region it is spread. I don’t think that many people have much reason to think about the part of Illinois that I visited recently for a family event. It’s not really known as any kind of tourist destination. There is some riverboat gambling for people from the surrounding areas. There is also some agricultural manufacturing as it is the HQ for John Deere. The area known as the Quad Cities (comprising Davenport, Iowa, Bettendorf, Iowa, Rock Island, Illinois and Moline/East Moline, Illinois) is nonetheless not one that turns up in most peoples’ thoughts unless you happen to have a reason to go there. It is kind of a drying up, rusting but heavily agricultural part of America. Chicago is in the same state as the Illinois cities but it is a world away.
 Riverboat
I used to visit my grandparents who live just outside the Quad Cities in Henry County, Illinois, in the summertime out there as a child where they lived on a farm. It was a really fun place to visit as kid. There were cornfields to play hide-and-seek in, apple trees to climb and pick, livestock to play with, and fireflies that would sparkle across the fields and wide lawns like the lights of an insect city. My awareness of that region of the world was very much influenced by my childish eyes. Coming back over the years, the buildings there have gotten smaller, the place quieter and more remote, the fading small towns more glaring in their absence of young people. Despite a desire to see my family as I got older I was not exactly in a rush to go there.
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This most recent visit was, however, really fascinating. For the first time, I saw the area through the eyes of an adult tourist. Suddenly the historical and cultural sites that I had always taken for granted seemed a lot more interesting. I realized that the place that I had always known features some really interesting things to do that have a broader appeal. The most striking example of this is a town called Bishop Hill, Illinois. A former Swedish colony, it was founded in 1846 by an early group of Swedish immigrants who were seeking religious and economic freedom in the New World by following a “charismatic spiritual leader” named Erik Jansson. My great-grandmother’s family was among them. The colony lasted for about 15 years while people lived communally and sold brooms to the outside world for their livelihood in an early Swedish colony. Bishop Hill is a tiny place, and the shops can sometimes be open erratically. The town has been preserved and features a range of unique Swedish-American shops, restaurants, gardens, parks, and architecture. It is both a “Little Sweden” and a slice of Americana. American flags and Swedish flags intermingle.
Touring this town does not take very long, it is not a big place, but it is very charming. I really like The Colony Store which is an old pioneer-style general store but is filled with Swedish/Scandinavian handicrafts, homemade fudge, rare coffees and candies, authentic imported Swedish groceries, books and souvenirs. I was very happy to learn that they retail some of their items online. That is probably the most tangible way to enjoy the culture of Bishop Hill. The store is run as a nonprofit, the proceeds of which go towards the preservation of Swedish-American heritage. There are other shops in town including art studios where you can buy limited edition contemporary art, in the process supporting small-scale artists. There are a number of other small-scale shops that may interest people, some of which retail on sites like Etsy. You can find more information about them in the online shopping directory. Touring the little town and the unique shops there really inspired me to blog about the place because in a sense I think that it is the kind of place that is made for the blogosphere. By that I mean that Bishop Hill is a unique but also rather remote place, kind of a hidden local secret. But also, it is really the kind of place that would appeal to lots of people from outside the area; anyone with an interest in culture, history, quirky yet high-quality shopping and dining is going to be charmed by a visit to Bishop Hill whether in person or on the web (although actual information about Bishop Hill).
Bishop HIll farm to table
A particular surprise was the The Bishop Hill Bakery and Eatery where I had lunch. It is the kind of place that would definitely appeal to the wider world. As I walked around it I thought to myself, “God, this place is made for Pinterest.” You order lunch in a bakery room which features pastries, cookies, homemade breads and other locally produced foods. Sandwiches are made from a choice of healthy freshly-baked breads and the prices are very reasonable. Women serve you in traditional pioneer dress, carrying milk pails, washing tubs, and and traditional tools. I had a lingonberry lemonade that was served in a mason jar. I also had the daily special which was Swedish meatballs, a healthy salad in a fresh, tangy vinaigrette and a slice of Swedish rye bread. The view from the window is of beautiful wildflower gardens.
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Though I have never had the need to stay there, I think that the town features lovely bed and breakfasts. The green park in the town square is also very relaxing and reminds me a bit of the open green spaces that I have seen in my visits to Swedish towns.
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The Swedish culture that you encounter here is perhaps not quite like what you would see on the streets of Stockholm today. It is a window into an archaic Swedish culture which is still very much connected to Sweden much in the way that a grandmother is related to a grandchild. It is a window into a rugged pioneer past for Swedish-Americans who struggled to establish themselves in America, to build their own portion of prosperity. In that way, it is very much a window into the lives and origins of Americans generally. The story in that town is culturally Swedish, but it could just as easily be the story of any other brave group of people whether in the past, present or future who are making the difficult journey to become American.
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There’s a little town nearby called Andover, Illinois which is where some of my other immigrant ancestors arrived from Sweden. The town’s big claim to fame is that it is the site of the beautiful Jenny Lind Chapel which is a small, elegant church. It is a simple white room with a balcony, a basement museum and an old tall pulpit. Old Swedish bibles and an old organ sit in the corners of the sparsely furnished room. A notable thing about that church is its lack of a steeple. There is a story behind the church’s unusual simplicity. It was built as a gift for poor Swedish immigrants in 1854 as the result of a large donation from 19th Century Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. A celebrity in her day, the immigrants were so thankful to her that they named the church in her honor and the church does now feature a collection of portraits of her and information about her. Tragedy struck the little community however and so many immigrants died of a cholera epidemic that much of the money was spent to bury the dying pioneers. As a result, much of the money and wood to build the church went towards coffins so the immigrants economized by keeping the chapel small and simple with a very large cemetery. I think that the idea of a place like that speaks for itself.
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As I mentioned, the church in this case is Swedish, but the memorial that it represents is really a testament to every brave person of any origin who dared to dream their way to America. It was an especially powerful image to see at a time when America is facing all kinds of crises of conscience and identity. In our modern world of economic struggles, political in-fighting, 24 hour news cycles, and disheartening statistics, it is easy to forget about the struggles of the people who founded this country and who died for it whether on a battlefield, in transit, in a sickbed, or in some other form of suffering. It is easy to feel pessimistic about our country these days, but traveling back to that forgotten region, I was reminded of the promise of America: the perseverance, ingenuity, and reliability that have kept this society going throughout all kinds of hardships and that are asked of us yet again today.
Useful Links:
http://www.bishophill.com/cal.php – A calendar of events at Bishop Hill.
http://bishophillheritage.org/store/ – The Colony Store which does retail certain items online, also available for specific requests.
http://www.bishophill.com/shops.php – A directory of various local shops in Bishop Hill and their websites.
http://www.bishophillbakery.com/ – The Bishop Hill Bakery and Eatery, a homespun pioneer dining cafe.
http://helios.augustana.edu/jlc/index.html – Information about Jenny Lind Chapel in Andover, Illinois.
http://augustana-lutheran.org/jenny_lind_chapel.htm – More information about Jenny Lind and Jenny Lind Chapel.
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