Jordbruksdagarna Ag Days

Bishop Hill Colony celebrates heritage with Jordbruksdagarna Ag Days

Original colony buildings at Bishop Hill.

Original colony buildings at Bishop Hill.

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As others look ahead to a new century, residents of Bishop Hill, Ill., take a look back at harvest methods from the previous century. 

The tiny prairie community (population: 130) was founded in 1846 as the only Swedish communal settlement in the U.S. Erik Jansson, a charismatic Swedish lay preacher, developed a large following in Sweden, but some of his doctrines encountered the antagonism of church and government officials. Jansson decided to lead his adherents to the U.S., where they could enjoy religious freedom.

To fund the mass immigration, Jansson established a policy of communalism. Wealthier Janssonists sold their property and used their money to buy tickets for their families and for less affluent members of the group. When the colonists arrived in the U.S., their co-mingled funds purchased farm-ground and needed supplies.

The Janssonists named their new home 'Bishop Hill' after Jansson's birthplace. The settlement battled difficulties for several years. A cholera epidemic decimated the colony, and, in 1850, a disgruntled colonist assassinated Jansson.

Unlike many communal societies, however, the Bishop Hill Colony did not fall apart following the death of its founder. In fact, the years following Jansson's death were the most profitable the colony had known.

Eventually, as many as 800 Swedes lived in Bishop Hill, and the colony acquired 12,000 acres of farmland. Mile-long furrows were not unusual. In 1856, the colony owned 586 cattle, 1,000 hogs, and more than 100 horses and mules.

Folk art paintings by colonist Olof Krans, who painted scenes from his childhood memories, show men and women planting and harvesting grain, and women driving pilings for a bridge. Men and women also made bricks used in the construction of large communal buildings.

Although the colonists lived communally, they preserved individual family units and built several large apartment buildings. The village also included a church, general store, carpenter shop, butcher shop, hospital and other buildings. Large communal kitchens and dining rooms were part of one large apartment house.

The colony also had four farm outposts, small farmhouses where colonists stayed to keep an eye on crops or livestock instead of returning to the village each evening.

The Bishop Hill colonists were progressive farmers, among the first in the area to use a threshing machine and raise shorthorn cattle. A visitor in 1853 reported seeing 40 to 50 dairymaids milking 200 cows in 30 minutes.

By 1861, financial problems, religious disagreements, and the Civil War had caused a growing dissatisfaction with the communal lifestyle. The Bishop Hill Colony dissolved, and property was divided among the members.

As time passed, the village's population decreased. But the original settlers always seemed aware of the importance of their colony. In 1984, the National Park Service named most of the village a national historic landmark because of its important contributions to the studies of ethnic heritage, Swedish immigration and the history of communalism.

In recent decades, residents have led efforts to restore the communal buildings. About 20 of the structures now serve as shops and museums attracting thousands of tourists annually.

Special programs entertain visitors with music, dance and storytelling, and festivals help recall "the olden days."

Since 1972, on the last weekend in September each year, the townspeople celebrate Jordbruksdagarna (Swedish for "Earth Work Days"), a harvest festival that locals refer to as "Ag Days." Sponsored by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which operates several museums in the community, Jordbruksdagarna turns the spotlight on old-fashioned harvest methods.

Bishop Hill residents and friends don old-time clothes and show their visitors how people once harvested corn by hand, throwing the ears into a horse-drawn wagon. After the corn is harvested, a horse-drawn plow tills the field.

Because the colonists grew sorghum and broomcorn, sorghum harvesting and pressing is a popular activity to watch, as is broomcorn braking, scraping and sorting. Not far away, the broom maker (also the town's mayor) creates brooms on equipment much like that used by the colonists.

In the village park in the center of town, youngsters can roll pumpkins, search for a needle in a haystack, shell corn, and play old-fashioned games. Folk musicians perform tunes from the past, often using vintage instruments.

In the field, a costumed villager cooks lye soap over an open fire, while someone else makes cheese. Although a variety of foods is available, the Bishop Hill Old Settlers' Association serves a traditional colony meal, including stew, hardtack and rice pudding.

Cider-pressing, brick-making, popping popcorn in a kettle, spinning, weaving, chair caning, blacksmithing, paper-making, quilting and woodworking are among the skills usually demonstrated at the event. FC 

For more information: Jordbruksdagarna (Ag Days), 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sept. 24-25 (Bishop Hill recommends confirming dates by phone); (309) 927-3345. 

Dianne L. Beetler is a lifelong rural resident who enjoys writing about people with unusual collections.