Bishop Hill Colony State Historic Site

Location: Bishop Hill, Illinois

Webpage: Illinois State Park

General Description: In 1846, a group of Swedish immigrants seeking religious freedom left their homes in Sweden under the guidance of their charismatic religious leader, Erik Jansson.  Although their first winter in 1846, was a severe struggle in small wooden huts in the side of a ravine, they eventually built a highly successful communal society.  The entire community lived in boarding houses with small bedrooms and communal dining areas.  Everyone in the community worked at the many enterprises they became known for.  These include extensive farms, dairy cattle, woodworking, linen production from flax, orchards, and wagon building.  Unlike many religious communities, there purpose was not to create a utopia from an earlier time.  Instead they embraced all the latest technologies of the early 1800s.  The colony thrived for 15 years before disbanding in 1861, due in part to some bad investments made by the trustees and younger members moving away.  It was many years before the property could be split up by the members and today Bishop Hill is a quiet country community.   Since becoming a State Historic Site, the town of Bishop Hill has seen a resurgence from tourists and efforts have continued to protect the structures and culture that remains.

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Impressions:

1) It can be a little confusing when you first enter Bishop Hill figuring out where the Historic Site is, since it is the entire downtown area.  At the southern end of town is the official location of the historic site with a small museum and information about the colony. There they have a short video about the colony and some interesting paintings by a local artist depicting remember scenes of his boyhood in the colony, as well as, some of the residents.

VisitorCenter

2) Once you get oriented, the small downtown area of Bishop Hill is a fascinating trip into the past of the 1850s.  Some of the buildings are open to the public, while others are private residences.  The most notable is the communal church with pews divided by sex with males on the right and females on the left.  The chapel is on the second floor, as the first floor and basement were divided into small bedroom apartments.  Those on the first floor contain exhibits about life in the colony which includes examples of the woodworking produced by the colony.  This includes a unique pull out bed that doubled as a couch during the day.

3) Other buildings include the Boys Dormitory, Blacksmith Shop, Carpenter Shop, Administration Building, Cobbler Shop, Hospital, School, Meat Storage House, Steeple Building, Store, and Livery Stable.

4) There are also a number of craft shops that can be visited in some of the historical buildings in the downtown area.  Most notably was the Colony Store that had a number of traditional Swedish items for sale.