photo by: jasmine/flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

February 2, 2016

Bishop Hill Community Still Keeping a Utopian Promise

  • By: Gwendolyn Purdom

It was little more than a grassy plain in western Illinois, but to the group of Swedish immigrants who had arrived there in 1846, the acres that would become the Bishop Hill colony were the promised land, a haven from the religious persecution they faced back home and a place to live and work communally.

One hundred and seventy years later, the utopian community founded by Erik Jansson remains a sacred place for those who live there, many of whom are descendants of Jansson’s original fellow settlers, largely because local residents make preserving the buildings and charm a priority. In the fall, Bishop Hill officially rededicated its newly-restored 1855 dairy building as an interpretive center—and that was only the latest rehabilitation project the heritage-minded National Landmark Village has tackled in recent years.

“Some historic villages are sort of made up. You know, they bring in buildings from different places and put them all together, but that’s not the case with Bishop Hill,” Bishop Hill Heritage Association administrator Todd DeDecker says. “To me, Bishop Hill is a snapshot of what the best of the 1850s looked like for rural Americana.”

In the fifty years ago since it was formed to preserve and interpret the history of the unique Midwestern community, the Bishop Hill Heritage Association has worked to maintain and restore Bishop Hill’s 18 pre-Civil War buildings, a commitment that has now earned the group a 50-Year Anniversary Gold award from the Illinois Association of Museums and the 2015 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award for Stewardship from Landmarks Illinois. The association’s president Deni Menken says that preserving utopian communities like Bishop Hill is especially important because they often don’t get the kind of publicity that other historic sites do.

“It’s kind of sad that essentially utopian communities are not taught much,” Menken says. “I’m sure they’re a kind hot button [issue], because they’re just such a fascinating part of history.”

photo by: Bishop Hill Heritage Association

The old dairy processing plant in Bishop Hill was turned into a center for education and organizing events; this room now serves as a conference room.

Menken served on the committee for the dairy building project and says it was essential that work started on the property when it did.

“When we went into it, it felt like if we didn’t do it, it was going to be undoable,” she said. “So we pushed forward.”

That push included transforming the former dairy processing plant-turned-storage-shed into an educational center and event space with an upstairs commercial tenant and a rental apartment. Missing ceiling parts and floorboards were replaced. Original Swedish decorative details were revealed.

It was all possible, Menken says, because the group partnered with the right local contractors, much as they had with earlier projects like the 1854 steeple building and the 1853 colony store.

“If we had the wrong people on that, who’s going to think, ‘Oh, this is wonderful!?'” Menken says. “They’re just going to be hacking it down.”

But even severe budget cuts from the state this past year couldn’t hack down Bishop Hill’s spirit. Though founder Erik Jansson was killed five years after Bishop Hill was founded and the utopian colony only lasted 15 years in its original format, the social experiment was considered successful.

“I’ve been coming to Bishop Hill since I was a kid,” DeDecker says, “and what got me wasn’t the Swedish angle, it was that Bishop Hill is just a classic immigration success story. They came from Sweden to escape religious persecution, looking for new economic opportunities, and they found them here in the plains of western Illinois and they became, in a very short time, a very successful town.”

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