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Little Sweden on the Prairie

Robert La Bua · 12 Oct 2009, 13:53

Published: 12 Oct 2009 13:53 GMT+02:00

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Okay, so Kansas isn't New York—even if there is a Manhattan in Kansas. Does every holiday have to be to an urbane metropolis or chic resort? When people asked me where I was going next, their response to mine was "Kansas?! What's in Kansas?" My answer to this question, in turn, was gauged carefully, depending on the level of shock betrayed by questioner's face: no eyebrows raised meant genuine interest, one eyebrow raised conveyed "Convince me". Someone with both eyebrows raised was not even hearing me speak; I had to wait for the horror and disbelief to subside before reciting the long list of activities and attractions on my itinerary.

The main focus of my visit to The Sunflower State is... curiously Swedish. As Swedes tended to do when they left the fatherland, they sought places exactly the same as the cold country from which they departed, forsaking majestic mountains and tropical paradises for fertile soil in order to recreate the place they had just left. In Lindsborg, the hot water from the tap runs scalding, just like at home.

The town of Lindsborg is known as Little Sweden USA. It was settled by Swedish immigrants way back in the late 1800s and has been making meatballs ever since. This is no ersatz playland imitation of Sverige; as with everything and everyone else in the fine state of Kansas, it is genuine. The Lindsborg community library is stocked with Swedish books; the local college team is known as The Swedes. Its signs are in Swedish as well as English, and hearing Swedish spoken in the street is an everyday occurrence, even if only spoken by a refined elderly gentleman talking to himself in a quaint version his mother tongue so old that no one from Ystad to Haparanda would today have any idea what he is saying.

Many Swedes have relatives here and don't even know it. At a time when the Lutheran Church controlled the lives of Swedes, emigrants who grew tired of awaiting approval from their pastors to leave the parish were simply expunged from local records as if they never existed. In order to assist Swedes investigating their ancestry, Lindsborg today has access to the most detailed genealogy records in the United States.

So, what is this place almost in the geographical centre of the continental United States? First and foremost, Lindsborg is a town where good people work hard and look after each other—and while it seems very conservative on the outside thanks to the bombardment of media stories telling us that all residents of rural America are redneck white supremacists who eat bullets for breakfast, the truth is somewhat less threatening. In fact, the truth is downright welcoming as an antidote to what we urban dwellers call civilisation. While such big-city creations as liability insurance and government bureaucracy have insinuated themselves into life everywhere, others such as abject poverty, homeless people, and heroin addiction are nowhere to be seen; taking their place are friendliness, helpfulness, and a sense of community that pervades every aspect of life.

Education has been a cornerstone of Lindsborg life since its founding in 1869, with the arts and athletics also encouraged in making the youth of Lindsborg into well-rounded citizens. This explains why Lindsborg children grow up to be doctors and lawyers who sing in the Swedish choir and why shop owners are also tennis champions when not tutoring students or making ostkaka.

Lindsborg is home to the biannual Svensk Hyllningsfest, a celebration of Swedish heritage which takes place in odd-numbered years. Don't expect crowds the likes of Berlin's Love Parade; after all, Lindsborg is a small town. What makes a deep impression is the community commitment and sheer enjoyment of efforts to make the festival a success. That other denizen of big cities—apathy—has no place in Lindsborg, where everyone participates in one way or another. From toddlers to seniors, almost everyone owns traditional Swedish clothing and is SO PROUD to wear it. Lindsborg adolescents, rather than scoffing at the past, fight for the privilege to dance in the folkdans group.

Swedish immigrants are still coming to Lindsborg. Like many a Kansan who moved elsewhere for professional or personal reasons, only to come back to enjoy the high quality of life here, Swedish people seeking a better life—just like the original founders—are still making their way to Lindsborg. Tom, owner of a clog factory in Dalarna, opened a small production facility in Lindsborg; Lindsborg's Bethany College hosts visiting professors from Sweden, and there are a few Swedish spouses around town. If SAS is looking for a profitable route, the Stockholm-Lindsborg run would make a good one, what with all the traffic coming and going between Big Sweden and Little Sweden.

It seems the amber waves of grain found across the state of Kansas beckoned to many Europeans fleeing the Old World for new lives across the Atlantic. The town of Wilson is Czech; many other towns are German. McPherson, just south of Lindsborg, celebrates its Scottish Festival every September just two weeks before Lindsborg's Svensk Hyllningsfest. Despite its Scottish name and celebration, McPherson is also proud of its Swedish heritage, the crowning glory of which is the painting of one Gustav Nathaniel Malm, whose work adorns the proscenium of the soon to be reopened McPherson Opera House.

The time between the Scottish Festival and Svensk Hyllningsfest creates the perfect window of opportunity to explore other Kansas attractions like Lucas, a friendly little town where quirky artists have built oddities such as the surreal Deeble House and the amazing Garden Of Eden, which looks simplistic but is full of political symbolism railing against the injustices of the day—curiously similar to the ones still thriving today. The humour is drier than the climate in Lucas, so Swedes fit right in. Cottonwood Falls and the Flint Hills are home to tallgrass prairieland that goes on for miles, changing colours with the seasons. The sight of bison at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is certainly something not seen in Europe.

If you fly into Kansas City, make a stop in Williamsburg en route to Lindsborg to enjoy some good Kansas cooking. So delicious are the barbecued ribs at Guy and Mae's Tavern in Williamsburg that they make the front page of the local Ottawa Herald every day. True, there is a sturdy piece of aluminum foil between the ribs and the paper, but pork grease has a way of permeating even the most impervious of materials—much like the vision of a certain Krypton-born, Kansas-bred superhero—so the paper plays an important purpose in its role more absorbing than any ever portrayed by Liv Ullmann.

Story continues below…

There is something fabulously primeval about eating meat with your hands; no utensils are presented with these ribs from heaven served in what is officially known as Guy and Mae's Bare Butt Bar-B-Que. Observing the fully clad staff, I asked where the bare butts were. Without missing a beat, owner Judy told me "In the kitchen" so I just HAD to go see for myself. I wasn't disappointed. Thankfully, though, the only butts on display were of the inanimate type—and I'll leave it at that. If you're wondering why Judy and her sister Diana are running a tavern called Guy and Mae's, it's because they took over a thriving business founded by their parents in 1974. Not a thing has been done to the place since, making the step into the premises a step into a timewarp of friendly welcome and sincere hospitality.

What does all this rurality mean? Come find out for yourself; it will do your cynicism a world of good. Kansas is the perfect destination for the quintessential American roadtrip with a Swedish twist. Lindsborg, and Kansas, make for a surprisingly transformational experience. I expected transformation in India, and Ethiopia has had a surprisingly permanent impact on my soul. Kansas, though, came as nothing short of a shock; never did I expect to find so many open-minded people, so much goodwill toward visitors, or so much cloudberry jam in rural America.


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Robert La Bua (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

20:06 October 12, 2009 by Kjell
I am so impressive about the town Lindsborg . All the sign boards written in Swedish. People in Lindsborg keep on exist as a Swede, try the language and have some Swedish things at home. One of the most active inhabitant living in Lindsborg is Mrs. "Julie-Ann Neywick" .

She tell us Swedes through flickr.com everythings about Lindsborg.

I hope the young people in Lindsborg know what it means for the future to know the history about your town. It means so much for us here in Sweden.

We are so proud people in USA do not forget us over here.

Nearly everyone in Sweden can speak English (fairly as I do). If people visit us from USA and Kansas, speak to us in English end even can speak a little bit Swedish, I can not tell you how much we love you if someone will do that.

Kjell Eriksson Nora Sweden

Jag är så imponerad när det gäller staden Lindsborg. Alla skyltar är skrivna på svenska Människor i Lindsborg fortsätter att vara svenskar, provar på språket och har svenska saker hemma. En av dom mest aktiva invånarna är "Julie-Ann Neywick" . Hon berättar allt genom flickr.com om Lindsborg.

Jag hoppas att unga människor i vet vad det betyder för framtiden att veta historien om eran stad. Det bryder så mycket för oss här i Sverige också.

Vi är så stolta att människor i USA inte glömmer bort oss över här.

Nästan alla i sverige talar engelska (någotsådär, som jag gör) . Om människor besöker oss från USA och Kansas , talar till oss på Engelska ock kan även prata lite svenska, Jag kan inte säga hur mycket vi skulle tycka om det om någon gjorde det.

Kjell Eriksson
21:29 October 12, 2009 by dalacowboy
Thanks for your great article on our little town, Robert!

In spite of the unusually cold temperatures this year, we had a wonderful Hyllningsfest! I don't know if you were in our coffee roastery, as we had a standing room only crowd for our brewing demonstrations, but we met a lot of wonderful Swedes and Americans who commented on how much they were enjoying Lindsborg.

Next time, I hope even more of our merchants will wear traditional Swedish dress to add even more to the ambiance of the festivities.

Stop by next time you're in town for a sample of our Swedish Mörkrost. Thanks again!

Mark Galloway

Owner - Blacksmith Coffee Roastery
23:18 October 12, 2009 by Beavis
Its not the only town..Kinsburg in California....except its a rather scary place with swedish flags and dala horses on every post.


However the Danish town of Solvang in California is much much nicer, with the rund tower,little mermaid,tivoli, mortensons bakeries etc.
23:24 October 12, 2009 by LudwigJohansson
I must visit Little Sweden some day :-)

You should name your children Swedish names!
17:10 October 13, 2009 by GefleFrequentFlyer
Hmm. If you got authentic morkroast, I'm going to have to bypass my normal weekend BBQ binge in KC and head west!
17:38 October 13, 2009 by mkvgtired
You can find these curious small towns throughout the US. I was driving through the upper peninsula of Michigan and ran into a few towns either populated mostly by Swedes or Norwegians (sorry dont remember the names). There is a town in West Virginia that is almost all Swiss. There are some "German" towns in Wisconsin. It is cool to see how well these isolated communities were able to preserve their native cultures for so long. In a big city they would have been confronted with other cultures causing a blending, but if these pressures are absent it seems like "old habits die hard". A very neat thing to see.
20:17 October 14, 2009 by mibrooks27
This is not exceptional nor rare. I live in Oregon near Junction City. We have an enormous week long Scandinavian Celebration every summer. That town has a Swedish folk museum Swedish bakeries, restaurants and stores. You can major in Scandinavian Literature at the state university and take classes on Swedish. There are a large number of people, here, who speak Swedish and read Swedish books (when we can get them). Most of the Northwest was settled by Scandinavian's and we are fiercely proud of our heritage. The area has, literally, hundreds of Scandinavian fairs throughout the year.
00:51 October 15, 2009 by DanishAmerican
This a very good article. It is nice to see something written about America that isn't extremely cynical or patronizing or full of bizarre stereotypes (although I do have to question the use of the term "redneck" -- where do Europeans get their ideas about America?) LOL But seriously I live in the state of Minnesota and over half the state of 4 million have either Norwegian or Swedish heritage (most not full, but mixed). Many of my friends have grandparents or great grandparents who still speak Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and Finnish in the home. Thanks for this great article and har en dejlig dag!
00:59 October 15, 2009 by jag2009
Many may disagree..

But in my opinion, if you goto a country, you intigrate to there ways, not bring your own heritage and traditions with you, and then making a little sweden with your own culture. You live in america. Not sweden.
04:48 October 15, 2009 by Greg in Canada
There are all kinds of small ethnic heritage communities all across North America. Little towns like this are very common in the USA and Canada. These folks are smart enough to turn it into a tourist attraction.
11:15 October 15, 2009 by La Figaro
Lovely article and its nice to see some people retaining their heritage elsewhere.

However, that brings me to the question, if immigrants to Sweden do the same, how will they be perceived? For instance, if some people from Iraq or Gambia take over a town or a little village and retain their language and some cultural habits, how will some swedes react or perceive them?

Jag2009, I completely agree with you though its not always possible, afterall the emigrants to US, Canada and Australia didn't try to assimilate or adjust to the way of life there rather they brought their way of life and 'forced' the natives to accept and adjust to it.
20:28 October 15, 2009 by timbrowne
I'd like to clear up a few misconceptions, as a native Kansan.

Your initial impression seems to be a result of too much influence from the 'liberal elite establishment' view of places like New York City. The vast majority of Americans live in friendly, peaceful hometowns that have unique histories, good food and are welcoming to visitors. It's always funny to hear New Yorkers talk about all the hicks and their guns when it's much much more likely to get shot on a subway than anywhere in the State of Kansas. But I digress.

All of our families moved to Kansas in the late 1800s from Europe, and settled amongst our own kind -- German (protestants in one village, catholics in another), Swedish, Czech, etc. A few people moved West from places like Ohio or Tennessee, but not many.

When they got to their vacant piece of prairie, they built a home and the resulting churches and cities took on characteristics of what they knew from the old country. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of these towns have kept some sense of place and history.

Why didn't they 'assimilate'? Really, there was little to assimiliate to. They didn't move in to an existing culture, they were nearly like colonists on the moon. It really wasn't until WWII and mass urbanization that people moved beyond these communities.

Most Americans now find towns like Lindsborg to be highly engaging and a great place to visit. Old World Wisconsin, near Milwaukee, actually has working farms from that period representing their major immigrants -- Germans, Swedes, Poles and Irish.

And you missed the best part about Lindsborg! They've been doing a community version of Handel's Messiah for generations -- back to when many of them probably didn't speak that much English.
00:14 October 16, 2009 by norling
Are we supposed to feel guilty about that?
04:24 October 16, 2009 by vonrudenborg
Don't forget Lindstrom, Minnesota! Google it and you'll see what I mean. We have many of these communities and remember our heritage but we are Americans first and foremost. Three of my four grandparents were born in Sweden and the other one in Germany. My mother who died recently at age 91 spoke fluent Swedish which was very convenient when she, my aunt, and my grandmother wanted to discuss things that we as children weren't supposed to know about!

Robert, I appreciate your excellent article. The small towns and cities in "fly over country" are very different from what most people outside the US envision this country to be. They are peaceful and safe places to live.
02:13 October 18, 2009 by delusion1982
Well said @la figaro. Immigrants to europe have in many places set these small "towns" or districts, where they try to keep their heritage and culture for themselves, and not integrate. Now this only resulted in hatred and racism (ironically to this article reactions). I wonder if we will do the same things we teach our children to do at school : "treat people the way you want them to treat you"
13:48 October 18, 2009 by Renwaa
Great article. It makes me want to go back to the States.

Let me also echo the sentiments of the cartoon character portrayal of Americans. Sensationalism sells and if the European press can find a few goof-balls to put on the television, they do. I find the most outspoken criticizers of the US and Americans are people who have not actually been to the States or spoke to any. 90210 and Girls of the Playboy Mansion are not typical of any society. Many of us reject this ridiculous behavior.

I am also originally from Northern Minnesota and my cabin by Lake Vermillion was close to the "Little Sweden" resort. There are many Scandinavian towns such as Norway, MN and Askov, MN which was founded by the Danish People's Society in 1906. In Grand Marais, MN there is the famoush "Sven and Ole's Pizza" and we used to tell Ole and Line jokes at school and if you really wanted to insult someone, you called them a Finlander! Minnesota 'nice' is famous.

Also, since a few are confusing early settlers to today's immigrants segregating themselves from society, read Tim Browns post again. The early settlers embraced being American and brought their traditions with them. Many of today's immigrants don't want to be Swedes, or whatever, and under the foolishly naive Human Rights laws, expect and get the local laws and traditions and languages to conform to their identities in which the most aggressive many times have nothing in common with their new host country. It's not hard to see the difference to what enriches a country versus ghettoizes it. Take me, I'm a daughter of a Polish/English father and Mexican mother who grew up in Scandinavian northern Minnesota who ended up marrying a Dane. My version of home cooking consists of any kind of hotdish, pickled herrings, Swedish meatballs, farmor's frikadeller and rugbrød med leverpøstej, tacos and a good enchilada with mole sauce. I'm an American with a capital A but love my mixed heritages and am delighted to share with my bi-lingual kids and when we finally settle into Denmark, will happily welcome the Danish life and continue my studying of the language while passing on my American traditions to my kids. That is what I would think is an acceptable way to immigrate to another country.
17:33 October 18, 2009 by badgerknox
Where's the love for Sweden, Maine? That's a Swedish colony eveyone seems to have forgotten.
17:53 October 18, 2009 by norling
The north shore and the Vermillion range are very likely the most beautiful places on earth. I hope you find happiness in your new home in Denmark. By the way the wife and I were in Askov just yesterday looking for a place to retire to. We live in Cloquet right now.
17:10 October 21, 2009 by mkvgtired
timbrowne, well put. For all of those debating whether it would be ok for immigrants to Sweden to "take over" a town and impose their culture on it I would like to point out one very important difference in the situation. If you told the people living in "Little Sweden" or any other of these ethnic communities that they were not American they would look at you like you were insane. Having driven through (and stopped in) many of these towns you most often see the American flag flown (their country) above the flag from where they originated (their nationality). Above all these people consider themselves American, but they continue to learn about and practice their culture, which I believe is a good thing. They do not express the animosity toward the native culture that some immigrant groups to Europe have expressed. I guess you could compare a museum to an embassy. The American towns that retained their culture are more of a museum that invites people in to discover their culture. Some of the communities that have formed in large European cities have the desire to be cut off from from the rest of the culture. They want their own laws, and they have representatives that warn outsiders from coming into the areas out of "respect". This is more like a gated embassy than a welcoming museum.
21:53 October 26, 2009 by wxman
Don't forget the most Swedish of the large US cities, Chicago. At one time, there was never an American city with as many Swedes. Although much has changed on the urban landscape, a good chunk of the Northside is still Swedish. As a kid/young adult in the 50s and 60s, we always looked forward to the annual Svithjod Picnic and a delicious plate of sill och potatis at 7AM on a Sunday with a beer, of course!
22:53 October 27, 2009 by mkvgtired
I did not know about this. What neighborhood is this held in? I like to hit up the ethnic festivals when possible, but was unaware of this one.
06:26 October 28, 2009 by lornadoone
If you were there at Lindsborg's Hyllinsgfest, look at your pictures. Did you get that picture of a cute little girl in a pink coat in a Swedish costume? Did you get a picture of her dancing while the band was playing?
14:05 October 28, 2009 by eltechno
I am so happy you discovered Lindsborg Kansas. My VERY Swedish-American father's family lived there in the 1930s. My father and his brother graduated from Bethany and I still have relatives there. My favorite feature of Lindsborg is the community choir that sings Handel's Messiah on Palm Sunday and Easter with time for the St. Matthew Passion on Good Friday. Pretty ambitious for such a small town yet they have doing if for years!
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