Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Valkommen till Swedesburg


Anyhow --- yesterday's early-morning cleanup of the Chariton square went very well. About 10 of us showed up at 6 a.m. armed with gloves, garbage cans, sacks and a variety of implements to deal with weeds in sidewalk and curb cracks, cigarette butts, scraps of paper, chewing gum and other stuff. Several of us worked until about 8 a.m. It looked wonderful when we were done. Really.

And it wasn't bad to begin with. But it's amazing how much litter is carelessly discarded, how fast weeds grow and how little effort it takes to make a considerable difference. There will be a repeat during late July. This is a project of the Design Committee of Chariton Area Chamber/Main Street.

Now back to Swedesburg, where a meeting of the Small Museums Group of the Iowa Museum Association took 42 of us, mostly from southeast and south central Iowa, on Monday. Hosts were members of the Swedish Heritage Society and the principal attraction, the society's excellent Swedish American Museum.

Swedesburg itself is an immaculate village of about 90 souls and perhaps 25 houses 10 miles north of Mount Pleasant alongside Highway 218 (or 40 miles south of Iowa City) in Henry County.

The most distinctive building in town is also its focus, the Swedesburg Evangelical Lutheran Church. This is the congregation's third building since its founding in 1861 --- an overheated chimney flue caused a fire that destroyed the first and lightning struck the soaring steeple of the second, a classic Scandinavian Lutheran church building. Third time around, the congregation built with brick and brick has prevailed. The congregation remains active, affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).


The beautifully maintained parish cemetery embraces the church's north and west sides. This happened to be my favorite among the tombstones.


Out day-long meeting was held in the Parish Hall a block southwest. This building began as a rather small academy for young women, became coeducational and finally was recycled to serve as the principal gathering place for the congregation and the community. Like Topsy, it just growed and now incorporates a small auditorium, gathering rooms capable of seatig a couple of hundred people, smaller meeting room, restrooms and kitchen.


Swedesburg still has a post office, but no commercial businesses --- other than the exceptional Swedish gift shop incorporated in the Swedish American Museum --- three doors south.


The main museum building began life as a store, but has been creatively recycled to incorporate a professionally designed display area introducing the community and its heritage, a coffee shop where residents gather and small meetings are held and gift shop.


The museum is considerably larger than it appears at first glance to be. A large genealogy and local history room at the rear of this building leads into a country store and from the store, into the Huckster Building, both carefully restored buildings once elsewhere in town. A tiny apartment furnised in vintage fashion is upstairs in the Huckster Building and a typical Swedish summer cottage is located in the side yard.


I really liked the general store, but was especially intrigued by the huckster display, which focuses on the part peddlers played in pioneer Iowa, where stores were few and far between. Fully loaded with staples and other items, the peddlar brought retail to the farm. This perfect little building also contains general displays related to Swedesburg history.



Take a look, too, while in Swedesburg at the Charles E. Hult home, built in 1867 just northeast of the museum and the community's oldest home. Although still privately owned and maintained by descendants and therefore not open to the public, it most likely will pass one day to the heritage association. I've not seen anything quite like the huckster display in any other Iowa museum.


Although Swedish immigrants arrived in southeast Iowa first during 1845, establishing the first Swedish settlements in the Midwest, Swedesburg itself dates from the 1860s when immigrants drained marshy soil in the north part of Henry County disdained by earlier settlers, creating some of what now is the best farm land in the region.

The Swedish American Museum is among the liveliest of Iowa's smaller museums, open a remarkable five days a week, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday except New Year's Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The operation is fueled entirely by volunteers.

When we were there Monday, Swedesburg was getting ready for its annual Midsommar celebration, which begins at 7 p.m. Friday on the Parish Hall lawn. The traditional majstang --- maypole --- will be raised and open-air concert will be followed by refreshments. This year's entertainers will be the Scandinavian Quartet, whose members met as students at the Royal College of Music, Stockholm. Swedesburg also observes Lucia Day as Christmas nears.

If you're in any doubt about how to get to Swedesburg, just head north of Mount Pleasant on U.S. 218 and watch for the big straw Julbok about 10 miles north on your left.

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