- Historic Sites
A Prarie Dream Recaptured
The Utopian Swedish colony at Bishop Hill, Illinois, lasted only sixteen years. But in Olof Krans’s strange and evocative paintings it has a kind of immortality
October 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 6
But there was very little time for self-pity at Bishop Hill. The colonists were up at dawn, and the first business of the day was to file into the cruciform log church to hear one of the prophet’s two-hour sermons. He preached every morning and night on weekdays and three times on Sunday, and those who dozed off were given a sharp rap on the head with a stick by one of the monitors stationed around the auditorium. But nodding was not common, for Janson was a spellbinding speaker, and few of his followers wanted to miss his assurances that their days of illness and suffering were soon to end.
Indeed, his prophecies of the good life for all were soon fulfilled. Within a year the colony had 350 acres planted in Indian corn, oats, wheat, and broomcorn (a variety of sorghum used to make brooms). This last was Bishop Hill’s most important cash crop, and hundreds of acres were soon given over to it; with prices soaring to three hundred dollars a ton, it brought in thousands of dollars a year for the communal treasury.
Since the economic theory upon which the colony was based called for all to share and all to contribute, persons of both sexes and all ages had jobs to do. The young girls were milkmaids; the young boys drove the oxen; men were blacksmiths, wheelwrights, tailors; women were weavers, spinners, or bakers. In the fields all did their part, working in an almost military formation to demonstrate the co-operative principles by which they lived. An account left by a member of the colony describes the joy of this unified labor, which impressed all who visited Bishop Hill:
During the busy season, other labor was lessened or suspended for that in the fields, and men, women, and children over 14 years of age worked side by side.
Sometimes at the close of a day’s work in the harvest field, the laborers formed a line of march and, singing the songs dear to them, they returned to the village to partake of the evening meal.
There was one practical reason for having the women sharing the men’s labors—they always outnumbered males in the colony.
Young Olof Olson and his family must have been struck by its architecture when they saw Bishop Hill for the first time. Though scarcely four years old, the colony could boast extraordinary buildings that surpassed in size and style anything in the surrounding villages. In the summer of 1848 a big barnlike frame church eighty-four feet long and fifty feet wide had been built. Its basement and first floor contained apartments for married couples, and on its second floor was an auditorium that could seat a thousand people in the Jansonist fashion—men on the right side, women on the left. That same year work was started on a vast communal apartment house called, because of the material used, the Big Brick. It was two hundred feet long, four stories high, and contained ninety-six rooms and six halls. At the time of its construction the Big Brick was one of the largest buildings in the Middle West. In the next few years, using the bricks that the young people of the colony turned out at the rate of ten thousand a day, some eighteen important buildings were constructed. Among them was a clock-towered Steeple Building, which served as a general headquarters; a store; and a school where Mary Sandburg, Carl Sandburg’s sister, later taught. The Steeple Building was handsomely designed in the Greek revival style, and its architecture has been compared to the finest Shaker and Moravian structures. (Three Bishop Hill structures—the colony store and post office, the hotel, and the Steeple Building—are now listed in the Interior Department’s Historic American Buildings Survey.)
Things were indeed going well for the colony. But there were problems, too. Bishop Hill suffered from a continuing defection of those who were lured away by the more relaxed way of life and the greater economic opportunities of nearby Galva and Galesburg, which soon became predominantly Swedish themselves. And when gold was discovered in California, even some of the leaders of the community left for a time.
A more serious blow fell just seven months before Olof Olson and his parents arrived at Bishop Hill in 1850. Charlotte Janson, cousin of the colony’s leader, had fallen in love with a non-Jansonist named John Root, a young Swede who had been serving in the American army in Mexico. She was permitted to marry him only on condition that if Root should leave Bishop Hill Charlotte would remain behind. Before long, Root did leave; but soon he was back, demanding that his wife be allowed to go with him. The men of the colony intervened: twice Root “abducted” his wife, and twice she was forcibly returned. Public sentiment outside of Bishop Hill was in Root’s favor. There was even a threat by a mob of outsiders to burn the colony if Charlotte was not turned over to her husband.