BY KATE WEXELL (staff writer)
We have all driven down the highway and encountered a peculiar place that was like its own magical corner of the world. Whether that place is a diner with the best fried chicken, or whether it is a trail covered with fairy doors; everybody has that place that draws them home. These are the places that call you, beckon you with peace and solitude. These are places that if you blink, you could miss them.
For me, that place has always laid about half an hour from any interstate as you pass through the rural roads in Northern Illinois. After passing corn fields and cattle farms, you encounter a sign saying, “Welcome to Historic Bishop Hill”. With a population of only one hundred fifty, the townspeople inhabit a quaint Midwestern town, nicknamed a “utopia on the prairie.”
The town originated with a man named Erik Jansson. He was born in the early 1800s in the Biskopskulla parish in Sweden. After living a devout adolescence, he suffered rheumatisms in his early 20s and turned completely to God, developing beliefs that conflicted with the state Church. By the 1840s, he was preaching across the Vastmanland province, believing that he was a prophet from God and claiming that he would create a New Jerusalem.
Eventually, he denounced the teachings of Martin Luther, and publicly burned his works. After this demonstration, he was arrested several times, but was released after his followers appealed to the Swedish king. Unfortunately, he and his followers engaged in several violent confrontations in 1845, which led to them being put in a prison in the town of Gavle to await a court date in the town of Delsbo. After Jansson was warned that a fellow prisoner would be paid for killing him, he disguised himself as a woman to escape prison and skied across the mountains into Norway.
In 1846, Jansson condemned Sweden to eternal damnation and sailed from Norway to the United States with about 1,400 followers. Many people died on the voyage from cholera, and several people drowned. By the time they reached Northern Illinois, near the Mississippi River, only 400 followers remained. The survivors formed the Bishop Hill Colony, named after Jansson’s birthplace.
The colony operated as a Communist cult for several years until Jansson was murdered, with men and women being separated, daily worship being conducted at Jansson’s command, and guards being posted when colonists attempted to escape. Even after his death, Bishop Hill functioned as an agrarian colony for ten more years by growing their own corn and learning English to convert neighbors in nearby towns.
Despite its rough origins and eventual disbanding, the village is still the host of almost twenty original colony buildings and sites, most of which have been transformed into museums displaying colony life. Along with that, it remains the site of several different restaurants, antique shops, and artisan gift shops featuring Swedish culture and cuisine. Throughout the year, Bishop Hill hosts a multitude of festivals, including Santa Lucia nights in December, Jordbruksdagarna (harvest festival) in the autumn, and several antique car shows and folk festivals to commemorate Bishop Hill’s unique history.
In Bishop Hill, the people make an effort to retain their culture. Every restaurant features Swedish meatballs and different foods being made with lingonberries, which are a bitter berry similar to a blueberry or huckleberry. The Colony Store within the town is a highlight for passersby, containing traditional dala horses, which are carved and hand-painted wooden horses from the province of Dalarna in Sweden. They also sell yule goats, which are straw goats native to the city of Gavle, where Jansson sat in prison. Every winter, the town is lit up with candles in the windows and gnomes are placed in the trees due to old Swedish folklore.
But despite being an Illinois State Historic Site, the town lacks the steady stream of incoming tourists to fuel its energy. Though locals in the area appreciate its charm and regularly attend restaurants in town, Bishop Hill isn’t listed as a tourist destination on any major travel website, and knowledge of it is incredibly obscure. This leads to an aging community with a declining population being unable to keep their shops in business. In the years that I have been coming to Bishop Hill to visit family members, I have watched businesses shift around and be weeded out by supply and demand.
You have to have passion to be a shopkeeper in Bishop Hill. Their Entwined Boutique, connected to Krans Kafe, are both geared towards a younger audience, and they regularly update their social media in an attempt to draw in customers. But other places, such as the Creative Commons, an art gallery in the old blacksmith shop, have owners such as Brian “Fox” Ellis, who regularly does storytelling performances in the gazebo featured at the center of the park.
Last year, while walking through the museum inside the old Colony Church, I began speaking to the tour guide inside. She is a Bishop Hill native, who grew up in Bishop Hill with my grandparents and remains here in Bishop Hill. The first thing that she explained is, “This is my home. This is my heritage.” She proceeded to offer me a wealth of information about the town as she guided me through the exhibits. She was the only one working there, and I was the only tourist inside. The curious thing is that the Colony Church is one of the few buildings that is state-owned, and by the end of the tour, the woman explained to me that another state-owned museum, the Colony Hotel, is unable to operate because the town cannot afford to hire any more employees.
Near the beginning of quarantine in 2020, the state of Illinois had a video conference, and near the end of the conference, representatives from different townships were able to ask questions and express their concerns. Most were towns in larger areas describing how many millions of dollars they were going to be losing due to the stay-at-home orders. Then, my grandmother, the representative from Bishop Hill, piped up to say, “We can’t lose much, because we don’t have much. The budget of our entire town is only $45,000 per year, but we certainly can’t lose what little we have.”
Many of the areas in Bishop Hill that are maintained by the state of Illinois, including the old Colony Church, the park, and the Bishop Hill cemetery, are in poor condition. It is common sense that people are drawn in by an aesthetic appeal, but the state of Illinois refuses to maintain their properties in the village, despite their prominent locations. Although construction and development progressed during quarantine, including the construction of a new water tower and roadwork, I am always appalled to witness the poor condition that several buildings are in. Around the park, there are brick sidewalks, in which three of those sidewalks have been shifted like you are playing Tetris, making it difficult for the elderly to walk down the sidewalks and for handicapped people to use. A white fence stretches around the perimeter as well, and it is in shambles, with peeling paint and many fence posts completely broken off.
Within the park, there is a gazebo, which is one of my favorite places to sit and reflect, but many parts of the gazebo are in disrepair. Along with that, the playground within the park is old and rusting, and the water fountains are perpetually out of order. Currently, my grandmother is fixing up an old building near the ball diamond in order for it to be converted to a hall for rent, but next to it there is an outhouse that is unusable and in shambles. She has reported to me that when the ball diamond is rented to local teams, the young children have to go through the Bishop Hill tavern in order to reach the restrooms. Additionally, the ball diamond has no regular staff for maintenance, meaning that locals must volunteer their time to keep the diamond weeded and in proper condition.
Leading up to the Colony Church, there is a sidewalk that has been halfway repaired, but since it is made of wood, most of the sidewalks creak beneath you and are falling apart. When you reach the church itself, its base coat color is white, but it is currently striped brown and white due to the paint flaking off.
But most appalling of all, the Bishop Hill Cemetery is poorly maintained. Walking through the cemetery two years ago near Thanksgiving, a tree fell on the headstones and left for several days before it was removed. This cemetery is home to graves of the original colonists, dating back to the early 1800s, but now headstones are overgrown with weeds, split open, knocked over, or illegible. It is incredibly disrespectful to those passed and are now resting in the cemetery.
The dilemma that Bishop Hill, and similar rural communities like it in Illinois, are that their population isn’t large enough to allocate enough money for improvements. This doesn’t lead to a promotion of growth or tourism to make it the bustling attraction that it could be. Given the different educational programs that the historic site offers to schoolchildren every year, this and other historic sites in Illinois should be placed as a greater priority than they are today. But in the meantime, all that we can do is make an effort to keep Bishop Hill in our thoughts and try to support it before the community dies out completely. After all, what we need now more than ever is to preserve our history rather than try to destroy it.
Photographs by Author (Kate Wexell)