- 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
On May 12, 1850, Eric Janson preached what was to be his last sermon in the colony church. The text he chose was ominous—from Paul’s second epistle to Timothy: “I am already being offered and the time of my departure is come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith ”” The next day, May 13, Janson went to Cambridge, the county seat of Henry County, on legal business. Root came up to him in the courthouse; there was an argument about Charlotte, a shot rang out, and Eric Janson fell, mortally wounded. In five minutes he was dead.
His sorrowing, bewildered followers could not believe what had happened. He could not be dead. Their prophet was immortal, they reasoned; he would, as Christ himself had done, rise again after three days. So they carried him into the church and laid him on a table in front of the pulpit where he had so often promised them the plenty they now possessed. For three days they kept a vigil, waiting and hoping, but when on the third day nothing happened, they put him in a wooden coffin and, weeping, carried him to the cemetery. His monument reads:
ERIC JANSON FOUNDER OF THE TOWN OF BISHOP HILL BORN IN BISKOPSKULLA SWEDEN DEC. 19, 1808 MURDERED MAY 13, 1850
A man named Jonas Olson—no relation of the family whose young son was to become the painter of Bishop Hill—was chosen as the colony’s new leader. Under him and the trustees who governed with him, Bishop Hill’s prosperity continued for a time. There was a major upheaval, though, in the mid-fifties, when after a visit to the Shaker community of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, one of his elders convinced Olson that he should introduce celibacy into Bishop Hill. This radical departure from the ideals of Eric Janson, who had encouraged marriage among his disciples, was rejected, but not before many worried couples had left the colony.
During his first two winters at Bishop Hill, young Olof Olson attended school; when he grew older he was an oxboy and later worked in the paint shop and the blacksmith shop. The outbreak of the Civil War stirred the Jansonists to fervid patriotism for their new country, and when Lincoln called for troops to defend the Union, Bishop Hill raised an entire company of volunteers. One of these was Olof. Upon entering the army he followed the ancient Swedish custom of taking a new name. For in a nation swarming with Olsons and Johnsons it was important for soldiers to have names that would quickly distinguish them from each other. It was also thought conducive to military spirit to have a short, hard-sounding name. Olof chose Krans, meaning “wreath,” and he and his family thereafter permanently adopted it, preferring it to the more common Olson. The company from Bishop Hill had a distinguished war record, fighting at Shiloh and Vicksburg and marching with Sherman from Atlanta to the sea. But Krans was not to experience these glories: after the battle of Fort Donelson, Tennessee, he became ill, and in June of 1862 he was given a disability discharge.
During his brief service in the Army, Olof Krans had had two dreams—to return to the colony he loved and to marry his childhood sweetheart. But by the time he came back, the girl was already married to another and the communal colony was no more. After almost fifteen years of prosperity Bishop Hill had fallen on hard times. There were those who blamed Jonas Olson and the trustees and accused them of squandering the community’s funds. Whatever the reason, the facts were undeniable: the colony was in serious debt, and the number of the faithful had fallen from a high of 1,100 to a low of 655. Thus, in anger and bitterness, the communal colony had been dissolved in 1862, and the property, which had once belonged to all, was divided up among those of the disciples who remained. Most of it still belongs to their descendants.
His dreams shattered, Olof Krans went into a deep depression. During these difficult years he earned his livelihood by operating a horse-drawn photographic studio; it is likely that many of the portraits of the members of the Bishop Hill colony that he painted later on were based on photographs taken at this time.
Eventually Krans shook off his melancholy and, in 1867, married and moved to Galva. There, like many another primitive artist, he became a house painter. But Krans also did interior decorating—wood graining, marbelizing, and the like—and some of his work gave play to his fertile imagination. The window sills of one house became jungles of plants; vines grew on the pew ends of Galva’s Swedish Methodist church, while the ceiling of the Lutheran church was transformed into an azure sky spangled with golden stars.
He was a familiar and well-liked, if eccentric, figure in Galva. His painted backdrops and curtains for the local opera house were much admired, and his delight in dressing up in uniforms was viewed with a good deal of humor. It is difficult to tell whether he helped organize the Galva Fire Department because of his concern for life and property or because he enjoyed donning his tall fireman’s hat with its bright brass plate in front. And he probably got as much pleasure out of putting on the uniform of the band he helped organize as he did out of playing the bass horn. But dearest of all to him was his Grand Army of the Republic uniform with its bold sergeant’s stripes. Every Decoration Day Krans would step out in his blues, and, according to local legend, the neighbors would always say with an indulgent smile: “Here comes Olof in his Union suit.”