let us now praise small historic sites: Bishop Hill, Illinois

outbuildings and garden (near West Main Street)

Some travel destinations are really messed up by tourism.  Recently a funeral was held for Venice, and not due to the city’s imminent drowning (click here for the NYTimes article).  Instead, the cause of the city’s demise was identified as death by tourism.  The native population of Venice has dwindled markedly in recent decades while tourists—to whom the content of the city’s monuments, shops and cultural events are more and more directed—are more and more overrunning the city.  Venice has not achieved that delicate balance between attractions for out-of-towners and sustenance for natives, which need to be carefully blended, rather than segregated, to ensure the health of a place.


the Colony Church (1848)

Located far from established commercial and tourist magnets, Bishop Hill, Illinois has been isolated since its founding in the 1840s.  That seclusion was first the product of its founders’ desire to establish a religious/agricultural utopia; it was later “enhanced” by being bypassed by such developments as rail and highways that were built in other regions of the Prairie State.  Although the lack of such developments have meant certain and real challenges for the residents of the town, it also has contributed to the preservation of the town’s physical character, as well as its continued tradition of the cultural identity as a place set apart.  For these reasons, Bishop Hill is a wonderful place to travel.


the Colony Church

Bishop Hill was founded by a charismatic, religious zealot named Erik Jansson who emigrated in 1846 after rejecting Sweden’s state-run Lutheranism.  In Illinois, the Janssonites dug in (literally) for their first brutal winter; soon thereafter they began to flourish.  Within three years they abandoned dugout shelters for frame houses, and soon built flour and saw mills and a fine large church; a school, hotel and other public buildings would follow within a decade, all set among hundreds of acres of farmland that revealed the success of their utopian experiment.  Participating in a highly structured communal organization that included a carefully orchestrated division of labor, the colonists developed significant craft skills and an economy of export goods. In addition, through its early years, the village established itself as ground zero for Swedish immigration to Illinois, leading the many waves of Scandinavian immigrants throughout the Midwest.


the Colony Church

All was well until the shockingly violent death of Jansson, who was shot dead by his cousin’s husband during the recess from a criminal trial at which the husband was the defendant.  So deep was the colony’s belief in Jansson’s spiritual leadership that he laid in state for three days, but unlike their Savior, this Prophet did not rise again.  This drama unfolded in 1850, less than four years after the colony’s founding.  In Jansson’s place a group of trustees was appointed to run the thriving colony until it fell victim to the Panic of 1857 (like so much of the rest of the country).  Financial crisis and apparent mishandling of the colony’s finances lead to its dissolution in 1861, some fifteen years after the first colonists broke ground.


the Colony Church

From its peak of over 1,000 (at a time that Chicago’s population numbered just under 30,000), Bishop Hill has dwindled to fewer than 150 residents.  The silver lining behind any town’s lack of growth and development (especially through the 1950s and ‘60s) has meant the survival of dozens of its original buildings.  Many, like the Colony Church, are well-preserved and maintain their original furniture, lighting fixtures, paint finishes and other fittings.


the Colony Church


the Steeple Building (1854)

Not all of Bishop Hill’s buildings have been preserved quite so well as the church due to the financial challenges that any historic community faces—especially small ones far away from other tourist centers.  But in an odd way, that lack of preservation is a kind of asset.  Old buildings, scrubbed within an inch of their lives to remove all time-worn patina become curious, unnatural things that seem to exist outside of the actual passing of time.  A little dirt, a little wear, is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it gives evidence to the continued use of buildings.


the Steeple Building

Then again, severe lack of maintenance is not just visually troublesome but can also be a real threat to a building’s longevity.  Some of the buildings in Bishop Hill are in desperate need of stabilization—the Steeple Building is prominent among them.  The buildings of Bishop Hill that are in need of attention are not languishing due to neglect.  Residents are fiercely devoted to their little town, and most of the building stock shows that serious, ongoing attention has been paid to caring for the historic buildings, many of which are preserved and interpreted according to their specific original functions.  Like the church, much of the Colony Hotel is arranged to reveal the standards of comfort and charm to which visitors to the colony would be treated during their visit in the mid-nineteenth century.

In addition to these buildings which provide a kind of living, walk-through museum environment, the Colony Church and the Steeple Building  house museum exhibits dedicated to the craft of the Swedish immigrants who made the original colony such a success.  Artifacts of all sorts—bricks signed by the people who molded them, furniture and in situ doors that reveal the Swedish skill of trompe-l’œil work, ceramics and quilts—are nicely arranged and explained in thematic exhibits.  When I was there in October the overcast sky and nineteenth-century window glass worked together to ensure a beautifully-lit display of tools and crafts.






spinning wheel



bricks (made at the Colony and often signed by their makers)




window, drapes, pitcher, linen: Vermeer would have liked Bishop Hill

While the buildings and artifacts provide an obvious draw for people interested Swedish culture and/or Illinois history (perhaps especially—although I don’t think exclusively—Illinoisans), one of the reasons that Bishop Hill is such an interesting site is the strong communal or civic quality that survives here.  Partly this is owed to the sum of the parts: Bishop Hill is not a place to go see individual masterpieces, or isolated, prestigious civic structures.  From the craft displays to the dozens of outbuildings (both agricultural and industrial) that survive, Bishop Hill allows a more complete view of the full nineteenth-century landscape than is available in most similar historic sites.  Jansson may have been the guiding force behind the Colony, but its relics are memorials to the hundreds of colonists who called the village home.



Bishop Hill preserves a fine collection of nineteenth-century building stock that reveals a really interesting blend of their builders’ immigrant details (brick and wood work, especially) met with the classicizing influence of the Midwest at mid-century (Doric pilasters and rendering on the Steeple Building).  Many of the “background buildings,” especially houses, still serve their original functions.  Ongoing restoration efforts provide their own opportunity for seeing the process of preservation in buildings like the barns to the left.




carpenters' building

Other structures have been turned to good adaptive reuse—mostly into shops, restaurants and galleries.  Their continued use ensures their maintenance.  Many of the nineteenth-century service buildings have been well adapted to new uses, like the Carpenters’ Building.  Its lower level is a shop with space for artisans to work and sell their fiber and ceramic wares; the upper level has been stripped of its nineteenth-century fabric and serves as a clean contemporary gallery. A different character is achieved at the Poppy Barn, with a dim and rough-hewn interior stuffed with products made by a family of basket weavers and iron workers.


Poppy Barn (now a shop)


the dairy

Other buildings, like the brick Dairy, have been stabilized, but await new tenants and new uses to breathe life into them.

The several galleries and shops that feature the work of local artists support the town’s past identity and future potential as a center of craft production in the region (the town’s role as host for an Annual Midwest Folk Festival should help here too).  Likewise, Bishop Hill also maintains traditions of immigrant cooking, from specific Swedish recipes (frikadeller, the eponymous meatball, no shortage of lingonberry-themed pastries) to general approach of using fresh and local ingredients in hearty midwestern fare.  Food traditions tend to be the last practice that immigrants give up when assimilating, and the world is a better place for the preservation of Swedish dishes in Bishop Hill.


meatballs, sausage, beets, cabbage, brown bread and noodles (P.L. Johnson's)


frikadeller, dill sauce and sour cream, cucumbers and more beets (the Red Oak)

(However, vegans and low-carb fanatics be warned: Bishop Hill may be your Strait of Messina, with only the stray slice of cucumber or beet saving you from a culinary Scylla and Charybdis.)

It would not be difficult for Bishop Hill to become a caricature of itself: frozen meatballs, Swedish chef puppets.  Thankfully, a visit to Bishop Hill is not like passing through a time warp or into a Disneyfied Scandi-land.  Costumed interpreters may show you how to bake rye bread or put a faux finish on a piece of wood, but there is no artifice among the people beyond the bonnets and breeches.  This is one of the great strengths of Bishop Hill: the locals are crazy about the village, its heritage, their current lives there, and their optimism for its future health.  During my recent weekend in Bishop Hill I heard time and again from residents that they would never live anywhere else.  This dedication is clear in the care for the buildings and landscape, the volunteerism at the very nice small museums sprinkled throughout the historic structures, the character of locally-sourced art and craft in the galleries, and certainly the quality of the dining (two days of Bishop Hill cooking forced me take back every mean thing I have ever said about Scandinavian cuisine and even made me believe there might indeed be a place in the world for fruit pies).  Bishop Hill is not a place where history is protected behind a Plexiglas wall or caricatured as oldey-timey nostalgia.  It’s a place of living tradition, beautiful craft, quiet landscapes and pastries that will bring you to your knees.  The story of Eric Jansson and his colonists may have run its course, but the interdependent character of those utopian Swedes (and really, is there any other kind?) is alive and well in Bishop Hill.  This legacy ornaments a really lovely little village.


quad-berry pie at the Red Oak

For current information on visiting Bishop Hill, click here.

For the Annual Midwest Folk Festival, held in Bishop Hill, click here

One thought on “let us now praise small historic sites: Bishop Hill, Illinois

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s