Bishop Hill, Illinois today is a tiny community. The last census counted 120 residents, but it has 6 museums (or is it 8?). In 1846 a large group of Swedes settled there and founded a colony. They were followers of Eric Jansson, a charismatic leader who had a different slant on Swedish Lutheranism — an interpretation the official church didn’t take kindly to. So he and his followers emigrated to the US in search of the freedom to pursue their particular form of religion.
They booked passage on a small steamship and sailed across the North Atlantic, up the St Lawrence River and through the Great Lakes to Chicago. From there they walked 150 miles across the prairie, to establish the Bishop Hill Colony.
In the mid-19th century, a number of utopian societies were formed in the US. The Janssonists were part of that trend. The community thrived, at least until Jansson was killed. It continued for another decade or so until it fell victim to mismanagement. (A member of the board made a couple of unapproved investments that went sour.)
We visited this place because one set of Andrea’s great-great-grandparents were members of the community and were married there. Their son, one of Andrea’s great-grandfathers, married a woman there who had emigrated from Sweden. Bishop Hill still has many of the original buildings and hosts activities for descendants and others interested in the Swedish migration.
The town is in farm country. We came through a number of small farm towns to get to this one. At the museum on the edge of town we watched a movie about the colony and saw paintings depicting life there. (One of the colonists became a painter later in life.) The colonists ate communally and lived simply, their days filled with long hours of work, bible reading, and two church services (three on Sundays). It is hard to imagine what life would have been like. And it is hard for us to imagine how so many fell under the spell of Jansson.
Outside the museum is a small plot of native prairie. Many plants were as tall as Andrea. We tried to imagine walking through it and then using only horse- and man-powered tools to clear fields for planting.
At the church, we got a tour given by a small, lively, white-haired woman who’d lived in Bishop Hill all of her life. The church was built to seat 1,000 people, with women on the left side and men on the right. The two lower floors of the building were of small rooms where the families lived — one family per room.
On a Wednesday evening, there was only one place open that served food — a bar. It was built by the colony but had been modified through the years. Now it is just a simple country bar, with a pool table, Bud Lite on draft, and 8 or so men lined up at the bar, talking over their day.
We stayed at a small inn in town. It was built by the colony in 1856 to be a residence but had served as an administration building instead. It was solidly-built and has been carefully restored. Our room and the living room were comfortable while still being 160 years old. At least we had wifi and air conditioning. (It was a humid 92º when we checked in.) There were thunderstorms overnight, but we slept soundly, the thunder muffled by the walls five bricks thick. (The bricks were made by the colony.)
In the morning, we drove into Galva (population 2,500) to have breakfast in the big city, then back to Bishop Hill. (There is no hill. The town was named for Jansson’s birthplace in Sweden.)
We walked and drove around the town. Some of the buildings are open only on weekends and some are not open at all. To wait for a few things to open, we got coffee and wonderful pastries in the colony bakery. (They, too, have wifi, so I could like them on Facebook.)
In some ways the town is a museum. In others it is a modern, tiny, farm town that thrives on the tourists that come throughout the year. The woman at the store said that so far this year she had logged visitors from 46 states and a number of other countries, particularly Sweden.
In the heritage center, Andrea asked about her great-great-grandfather and was handed a thick folder of pictures and letters, some relevant and some of too-distant cousins. We were also shown a diagram of the cemetery and so were able to find the graves.
This little place and its cadre of volunteers opened a small window for us on a different time and a different life. What was it like to sell everything you have and leave the only land you know? To travel to a place you know almost nothing about? To arrive with your fellows and have to start from scratch, creating housing, clearing land and planting food? To make a new life and a new way of living? It is remarkable. There were many who did it; there are many who are still trying to do it around the world. Thanks to this tiny town and the people who care for it, we have a little better feel for what it takes.
We met several people who’d lived in Bishop Hill all of their lives. That kind of life — living in only one place — is also very hard for me to imagine. Meeting them also cracked open a small window on a very different kind of life and a different way of being.