People On the Land: Modern-Day Treasure Built on Utopian Past

Illinois’ Bishop Hill colony isn’t the best known of the utopian social experiments that dotted the American countryside in the early 19th century. So it’s an undiscovered treasure for many people. The town’s leaders would like to change that – to a point.

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Sometimes, a summer day approaches perfection:

Warm, but not too warm.

Humid, but not too humid.

Thunderheads, but no thunder showers.

And then, there’s the music in the air. This summer saw the revived Bishop Hill Folk Festival, sponsored by the Illinois village’s Heritage Association.

Folk musician Chris Vallillo, who specializes in preserving and performing traditional music from Illinois and the Midwest, was the driving force behind this event, as he has been with past festivals in the village. He seems to have boundless energy and acted as an organizer, performer, and emcee of the two-day festival held in late July.

Chris Vallillo, shown performing at the 2016 event, was a driving force behind reviving the Bishop Hill festival. (Photo by Timothy Collins)
Chris Vallillo, shown performing at the 2016 event, was a driving force behind reviving the Bishop Hill festival. (Photo by Timothy Collins)

Vallillo was characteristically enthusiastic about the festival, which saw 800 or so visitors settle down to listen in the beautiful town park that formed a cathedral-like setting for the musicians. Performances included old time square dances, blues, Swedish, bluegrass, hammered dulcimer, and Mexican music.

Historic Bishop Hill (population more or less 130) and its town park offer an ideal venue for this type of event, which help tell the story of the town’s persistence and survival, especially because this year marks the community’s 170th anniversary.

The village’s logo calls the place “utopia on the prairie, then and now.” Vestiges and memories of its early communal settlers are well preserved in community’s shops, visitors’ center, and museums. The story is quite American, a reminder of high ideals on the frontier more than a century ago. In 1846, about 1,400 Swedish immigrants seeking religious freedom came to the United States, following Erik Jansson, a charismatic leader who disputed a number of Lutheran tenets. The Bishop Hill colony—one of many utopian places created during this time period—was founded on the rich prairie land about 25 miles northeast of Galesburg, Illinois, first settled in 1836.

Galesburg, with its rail connections, peaked at about 37,000 residents in the 1960s as a Knox County industrial, transportation and services center and home of Knox College. Bishop Hill, in neighboring Henry County, followed a far different course. Not all of Jansson’s followers came to Illinois from New York, but the colony, within years of its founding, began to thrive in the wild prairie. Buildings constructed during the early years indicate a high level of prosperity based on a communal approach to economic, social, and religious life.

Within three years of its settlement, the Bishop Hill utopian community was farming 700 acres. It had a flour mill, two sawmills, and a three-story frame church. The Swedish colony flourished for most of its 15 years, disbanding in 1861 following Jansson’s assassination by a fellow commune member in 1850 and a financial scandal in 1857 that involved two of the late leader’s closest followers. By 1880, the village population had fallen to 350, a trend of decline that has been recorded in most census years since then.

But the population loss did not bring death to the community, which now occupies 1,500 acres on the Edwards River with 35 historic buildings. The website description is accurate when it describes Bishop Hill—since 1970, a National Village Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places—as a “quiet country village where the charm and character of the original colony have survived the test of time.”

Bishop Hill has an attractive combination of charming ambience and an active group of associations and private businesses. Tourism has been a mainstay for decades. There are seven museums; three art galleries and studios; about 15 shops, including two lodging places and several related services; and four restaurants. At least eight organizations, including the state, play a role in promoting what the village has to offer. During the tourist season, from April to December, the town’s organizations and businesses put on about 20 weekend activities, such as the revived folk festival and events celebrating the community’s ethnic roots. These events draw around 90,000 visitors a year.

The wooden colony church was constructed in 1848 -- a period when several uotopian communities were established in the U.S. -- often far from the cities of the East Coast.
The wooden colony church was constructed in 1848 — a period when several uotopian communities were established in the U.S. — often far from the cities of the East Coast.

Recently, the community benefited from an accident of geography and the growth of green energy markets. In 2012, Invenergy LLC built two windfarms near the village and donated $350,000 to the village government, the Bishop Hill Arts Council, formed in 1983, and the Bishop Hill Heritage Association, formed in 1962.

The infusion of funds from Invenergy brought matching grants, donations, and local private investments that allowed the village to, among other things, upgrade facilities and restore buildings, including the $320,000 Steeple Building project and the 1908 Krans Livery Stable. The three-story, red-brick 1854 Steeple Building houses the Heritage Association with a visitors’ center and public space for conferences, classes, family gatherings, and other events. The restored blacksmith shop is a museum with meeting space.

Todd DeDecker, Bishop Hill Heritage Association administrator, says that the ongoing events reflect on the village’s rural and Swedish heritage. He is happy with the way the village is working now, but would like to be able to increase the marketing budget to attract more visitors. He views this as part of continuous improvement for the local economy, although he is cautious about over-commercialization that might rob the village of its charm.

Bishop Hill is a backroads community, maybe a mixed blessing, likely an asset in an all-too-busy world. Historically, it is not as well known as some contemporary nineteenth-century socialist experiments, such as the Amana Colonies in Iowa, settled in 1855. The colonies are a major tourist attraction along Interstate 80 between Des Moines and the Quad Cities. Bishop Hill was not that well known in its time. Two period books, Contemporary Socialism, by John Rae (1884) and History of American Socialisms by John Humphrey Noyes (1870), do not mention the village.

Even though Bishop Hill is not as well known and may not be as well located as similar remnants of our national heritage of social experimentation, the community persists and even thrives because of in its beautiful setting. Its leaders recognize the importance of their historic assets and a strong ethic of public and private cooperation that manifests the communal past in modern times.

The setting of a folk festival on a delightful Sunday afternoon in a park where traditional and ethnic music echoes among mature trees is surely idyllic. In the dreamy, warm air, the music triggers thoughts of what has happened in this place and what is happening now.

What might happen in this place is part of a continuing experiment. With its truly small, but rich assets, Bishop Hill constantly expresses itself like the music flowing through the village on a lovely afternoon, creating a mellifluous future that is full of promise.

Timothy Collins is an independent writer, editor, and consultant and proprietor of Then and Now Media. From 2005 to 2016, he was assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs. He is the author of Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.

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(Promotional video produced by Bishop Hill Heritage Association)

 

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