Bishop Hill Post Office

These days I am itching for some serenity, probably because my family’s summer schedule isn’t really a schedule. As soon as I’m into a new routine, it changes again. So putting together two photo essays of my trip to Bishop Hill with my friend Barbara back in May is a good remedy.

Two friends on a trip

As an American Studies major, I have always had an affinity for the various religious communities that sought refuge in America, some of them to thrive (like the Mormons, eventually, anyway), some of them to bloom and then whither, like the Shakers (see my trip to Shaker Village last September). One such group were the Swedish religious dissenters, followers of Erik Jansson, who founded the Bishop Hill Colony in the western prairie of Illinois in 1846.

Bishop Hill is now an Illinois State Historic Site, as the colony disintegrated in 1861 after most of its able-bodied men (needed as workers) left for the Civil War. In addition, Erik Jansson, described as a charismatic and visionary leader, was murdered in 1850 and, even though the colony thrived in the 1850s because of its industrious settlers who traded their agricultural products and crafts, the colony suffered from a lack of leadership that added to its demise.

I’ve always wanted to visit there, especially when I found myself driving west on I-80 towards Iowa. However, Bishop Hill is a good 20-mile detour from I-80, or a 3-hour drive from Chicago, so it’s really a trip in and of itself, which I didn’t manage until now, when Barbara was visiting, my friend from my American Studies days at the University of Munich, and thus the perfect companion for such a foray into American history.

The Colony Church, built in 1848, was our first stop in the village. It doesn’t look much like a church; there is, for instance, no steeple and even the plain windows belie the building’s purpose. However, only the upper floor is a sanctuary, reached by those stairs.


Side note: As I go up the stairs, Barbara notices that my left leg has more freckles on it than my right leg. Really! That’s what friends are for…

The inside of the sanctuary – I don’t think I’ve seen a more serene one. Walls washed in bluish white, plain wooden pews, no adornment whatsoever (not even a cross), and everything oh so soothingly symmetrical. We were told that Christmas morning services are still held here. The center divider separates the men’s and the women’s section, customary in churches at the time.

The pews, made of black walnut.
This is the hallway of the first floor of the church that contains ten rooms each that used to house one family per room. The small space was sufficient because people ate in a communal dining room in another building. Also, each room was heated by individual stoves, which by 1850s standards was pretty comfortable, considering that other Illinois pioneers were living in primitive log dwellings and dugouts.
The wonderful Mrs. Ray, a descendant of original colonists who still lives at Bishop Hill, took us around. Here she is standing next to typical furniture of the time.
Bishop Hill Colony Brick – By 1848 the colonists were firing their own brick from clay found nearby. Women and children did much of the work in the brickyard, which was apparently so boring that they amused themselves with decorating the bricks with their initials.
Another room featured household items of the day, such as this candle mold, insert iron and neck yoke.
A leaf is stuck in the window of one of these ten rooms on the first floor. Looking out you can see the brick steps leading down to another set of family rooms in the basement of the Colony Church.
At the end of our trip, Mrs. Ray comes towards us as we walk towards our parked car, off to the right of this white picket fence. In a minute, she’s off from work and will walk down to her house. But before that, she will pick up that pesky beer can that you might have noticed sitting inside the fence, proof that this is still very much a living village as the pub is right next to the church, to the left of my field of vision here.
Tomorrow, dear readers, part 2 of this trip to Bishop Hill.