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Travelers sweep into Bishop Hill

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Lydia Sage / staff

A typical downtown Bishop Hill winter scene, when few tourists visit the historic Swedish settlement.

BISHOP HILL -- Years ago, Bishop Hill Mayor Robert Funke noted the home states of tourists who bought his handmade broomcorn brooms.

He doesn't keep track anymore. It's too hard keeping track of the people from all over the world who visit the Swedish settlement.

``I make brooms as a hobby. At first, I was amazed by the number of people from around the United States who bought them when they visited the village. Now, I know I have a `Funke broom' in every European country,'' Mayor Funke said.

He said he still is amazed that so many travelers from around the world include Bishop Hill on their itinerary.

Mayor Funke, who has been mayor seven years, credits the town's residents, preservationists and artisans for working hard to bring Bishop Hill international recognition as a Swedish landmark.

``It impresses me most that a tiny community of just 138 residents now, who can work together so hard to get this done,'' the mayor said.

The village is quiet during the winter, but blossoms like a prairie flower in the spring, a reminder of how early Swedish immigrants survived harsh winters in primitive earthen den-like homes, Mayor Funke said.

Religious dissident Erik Jansson led a group of followers from Sweden to New York then Chicage, before walking the last 160 miles to found Bishop Hill in 1846, according to historical accounts. Mr. Jansson was murdered in 1850, and the communal colony disbanded in 1861.

Mr. Jansson and his followers are recognized as pioneers of the ``great Swedish migration'' to the United States during the mid- to late-1800s, according historians.

When Swedish King Carl Gustav and Queen Silvia visited Bishop Hill in 1996, for the town's 150th birthday celebration, the king called Bishop Hill ``the most important Swedish monument outside of Sweden.''

Mayor Funke recalled the royal couple's pleasure as they watched the parade from the balcony of the historic Steeple building that day, and their visits to several other locations. ``I know they have every intent in the world of coming back again,'' he said.

An Iowa native who moved to Bishop Hill in 1981, Mayor Funke said those who helped Bishop Hill find its niche as a historical landmark, as well as in the tourist industry, have a common goal of preserving the town.

He said historical accounts indicate Mr. Jansson recruited the best tradesmen and craftsmen he could find as he planned the trip to the United States, where he and other Swedish religious dissidents hoped to find ``utopia.''

For about 10 months each year, Bishop Hill bustles with visitors who come to buy goods made by artisans still practicing traditional Swedish trades the old-fashioned way -- making pottery, broomcorn brooms, weaving cloth, spinning fiber and planting and harvesting crops.

Many weekends from April through December feature special events to entertain as well as educate, with various activities sponsored by several Bishop Hill organizations.

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has played an active role in preserving and maintaining the state historic sites, including the early Colony Church, Bjorklund Hotel, and Bishop Hill Museum, which showcases about 90 paintings by folk-artist and early Bishop Hill settler Olaf Krans.

The agency has been involved in preservation and restoration of Bishop Hill since 1946 when the village deeded its park and the Colony Church, a large collection Olaf Krans' paintings and other colony artifacts to the state, agency site manager Martha Downey said.

The state bought the colony hotel in 1968, which it restored and opened in the late 1970s, she said.

One of the agency's largest undertakings has been building and maintaining the museum that houses the Krans' paintings of early colonists and colony life, she said.

The agency also provides the village with a staff of full-time people to maintain the site and help tourists, Ms. Downey said.

``There has been so much take place since I got here,'' Ms. Downey said. ``It's been so much fun watching the people of the community work together.''

-- By Lydia Sage (January 22, 1998)

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