There is something quite delightful about small town USA. Homespun shops, beautiful gardens, rich history and interesting architecture. Bishop Hill is no exception. This little town sits between Moline and Galesburg, IL and you have to be purposeful to visit the historic site as it’s not on any of the main highway routes. It’s worth the effort to make a detour however.
We were invited by the Bishop Hill Arts Council to perform at their Midsommer Music Festival, a summer solstice celebration filled with music, dance and the traditional decorating of the Maypole.
We rolled into Bishop Hill the night before our performance and thanks to the Heritage Association we parked our bus next to the Livery Stable. We were tired from a days travel and hungry, and on recommendation we went to the Filling Station for dinner. Linda, the owner, struck up a conversation with us and invited us to dine on the house. The meal was hardy and Linda was a fantastic host, funny and down to earth.
On our walk back to the Livery Stable we took a side trail to the grave yard. We noted many of the grave stones dating back to the early 1800’s, probably of settlers that were actually born in Sweden. There were buzzards flying over head as the sun was setting on the horizon and air was still.
After a good night sleep we awoke to the brilliant sounds of the Blackhawk pipe and drum band wafting throughout the air. The beginning our exploration of what has been frequently been called “Utopia on the Prairie” was off to a good start. Our first stop, the Bishop Hill Bakery and Eatery where we found the most amazing old world cinnamon roll you can imagine. After breakfast we explored many of the historical buildings including the Blacksmith Shop, home to the Prairie Arts Center and VagnHall Galleri. We met Jeffrey Goard, the potter, we met a broom crafter, and a luthier named Gary Carey, who makes beautiful mountain dulcimers and other lovely instruments. We also met a fella who was showcasing photography from his time as a field worker (missionary) in South America. It was inspiring to hear his story of travel and service to the widow, orphan and poor.
Next we visited the Steeple Building, where we learned about the Swedish heritage and history of those that settled in this area. We learned that this little town of 125 was established in 1846 as a commune by 75 Swedish settlers led by religious radical, Eric Janson. Nearly a quarter of the Colonists died that first winter and about four years later Janson was murdered by a member for not allowing a marriage to take place. Despite other set backs, they colony persevered and grew to about 600 members until dissolving in 1861. A hundred years later, in 1961, the Bishop Hill Heritage association organized and the town was designated a National Historic Landmark and is on the National register of Historic Places. We also visited the Bishop Hill Museum to take in one of the most renowned folk artists, Olof Krans. His paintings provided a fascinating glimpse into the story of the first Old Settlers Reunion in 1896.
In the afternoon, we performed for delightful crowd despite the heat of 89 degrees. Our performance was followed by the crowning of the Midsommer Queen and the decorating of the Maypole. A gent in his 80’s played rollicking traditional tunes on his accordion while we marched the Maypole to the old School House. Craig was invited to be one of the Maypole carriers. Three blocks later the Maypole arrived at its destination where it was erected and the dance ensued. There were a few folks dressed in Scandinavian garb who lead the processions around the pole. After about an hour of dance the leaders lead a snake line of participants into the School house for a light supper. Later in the evening we attended our first barn dance, held in the old school-house. Many there were learning for the first time and the band/callers were very gracious in teaching us all. The night was filled with laughter and joy. It was what one might call, ‘good, clean fun.’ The night concluded with a stroll by moonlight back to the bus and a final farewell to this darling community. Until we meet again.