BISHOP HILL –More than 170 years ago, Swedish immigrants seeking religious freedom left their home to find a new a utopia, a place described to them as “land of plenty, brimming with milk and honey.” They found it in what would become Bishop Hill – but it took awhile to get there.
First, they sailed from Sweden to New York before making their way to Chicago via the Great Lakes. From there, they walked the final leg of their journey – nearly 160 miles – to find religious freedom and a communal life.
Recently, I followed in their footsteps, touring what is now a country village – the original colony disbanded in 1861 – that still lives up to its description. It’s a land of plenty to do and see. The National Landmark Village offers museums, eateries,gift shops and art galleries, seasonal festivals and holiday celebrations.
My first stop was the Bishop Hill Museum, part of the Bishop Hill State Historic Site. In this brick building, I met some of the inhabitants of Bishop Hill from way back when. They were all staring at me from their portraits, and they seemed so solemn, except for their lively eyes. These are the paintings of Olof Krans, born in 1838. He came to Bishop Hill at the age of 12.
I really enjoyed going through this museum, which also had a film you could watch before you looked things over.
Before I went to my next historic stop, my family and I decided to have some lunch at one of the several diners. We chose PL Johnson’s. The day we were there the restaurant hours were 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
I highly recommend a stop here. PL Johnson’s has a gift shop for browsing and offers some Swedish choices on the menu. We tried a large salad and Swedish meatballs.
All too soon, I found myself out of the comfortable atmosphere of PL Johnson’s and on the road of exploration. As time was limited, I chose the Colony Church, built in 1848. My gray-haired guide – who joked that no one ever really retires from Bishop Hill – told me she lives in a former colony building that her father converted into a home.
I couldn’t have chosen a better building to tour. My guide wandered with me as I went into each small room on the first floor. The displays in the rooms gave me information about Bishop Hill, and my guide added some more tidbits. I found out her ancestor was one of the people looking at me in the museum.
As I left to go up the outside stairs to the sanctuary on the second floor, she told me that on Christmas it's filled with people for a candlelight service, making the upper floor beautiful. I could just imagine it when I climbed up there. I made it a point to see where all the candles were.
In the days when Eric Janson first brought his followers here, men and women sat on different sides of the church. I wandered on both sides, picturing how it would have looked in the 1800s. It was difficult to imagine that the rooms I’d looked at downstairs were once the homes of families. How did they all fit?
Back down on the ground again, I did a little shopping. My main stop was at the Colony Store, where all kinds of things were Swedish. It was a good place to pick up a souvenir from the home country. The store is owned by Bishop Hill Heritage Association and proceeds are used to help support restoration efforts. You can shop and feel noble at the same time.
Wander on down to this quaint village and check out a charming bit of history that’s as old as the hills.
If you go …
What: Bishop Hill
When: Bishop Hill State Historic Site buildings (Bishop Hill Museum, Colony Church, Colony Hotel) open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. November through February
Cost: Free; by donation
Distance: 150 miles from Dixon
Accessible: Accessibility to wheelchairs limited
Information: state.il.us/hpa or 309-927-3345 for Bishop Hill Historic Site or bishophill.com and 309-927-3899 for Bishop Hill Heritage Association