In the center of Kansas, nestled among sandstone hills and covered by a blue-gray haze, lies the Smoky Hill River Valley. Within the confines of this valley, one can often hear a few words of the Swedish language mixed with the everyday English of the valley’s hearty farmers and shopkeepers. Place names such as Falun, New Gotland, Smolan, Salemsborg and Lindsborg also hint of the cultural background of the valley’s people. Steeples piercing the bright blue sky beckon the faithful to worship, and above all a great white cross placed near the summit of the highest of the Smoky Hills, daily reminds us all of our Swedish pioneer ancestors. Today we remember the struggles they overcame to come to this place, establish a community, foster in their children a love of education, music, art, and an abiding reverence for the mother country.
A Swede named Anders Carlgren first entered the valley of the Smoky Hill in the year 1866. Two years later, during the summer of 1868 two separate colonization companies were organized to promote Swedish settlements somewhere on the Great Plains. The Swedes of Illinois were suffering greatly from poverty, unemployment, and lack of available farmland. They wished to settle in groups where abundant land was available, where they could practice their culture and worship freely.
The First Swedish Agricultural Company of McPherson County was organized in Chicago with the intent of founding a colony along the northern border of McPherson County, Kansas. This company petitioned Pastor Olof Olsson of Sunnemo Parish in Värmland, Sweden to lead this colony and establish a Lutheran church in this new parish on the western frontier. Pastor Olsson arrived with a sizable portion of his Swedish congregation and soon established the Bethany Lutheran Church. Through his outstanding leadership the town of Lindsborg was also founded.
Concurrently that same summer, the hardships the Swedes endured in western Illinois inspired the establishment of the Galesburg Colonization Company. Made up mostly of Swedish immigrants from Småland, the group organized through the Swedish Lutheran Churches in Galesburg and Andover, Illinois. Led by the indomitable spirit of Pastor A.W. Dahlsten, then Pastor of First Lutheran in Galesburg, this company sent a committee, led by Dahlsten, to the plains to find a suitable location for a large colony of Swedish immigrants. This group also found its way to the Smoky Valley and bought a considerable tract of land in southern Saline County and western McPherson County. Soon a few migrants from Illinois and then a flood of Swedish immigrants made their way to the Smoky Valley of Kansas. Those pioneers founded both the Freemount and Salemsborg Lutheran Churches in 1869 and eventually the towns of Assaria, Smolan, and Marquette sprang from this colony.
Other smaller colonization groups soon joined the major colonies in populating the Smoky Valley. Falun, New Gotland and a sizable Swedish population in Salina were the result of this second wave of Swedish immigration to Kansas. Before long, the Swedish language was as commonly heard in central Kansas as was English.
Olof Olsson stayed but a few years in the Smoky Valley but his contributions proved to be of great significance. He was succeeded at Bethany Lutheran Church by Pastor Carl Aaron Swensson. Swensson was a renowned orator, politically active, and possessed of great energy. He soon found a need among the Swedes for an institution of higher learning. Through his efforts, the Bethany Academy was founded in 1881. The academy flourished and evolved into Bethany College. Bethany became, and remains to this day, the heart and soul of the Lindsborg community and long ago developed as the cultural center of the community. The college is well known for its music, art, and teacher education programs and a nationally ranked N.A.I.A. football program. The “Terrible Swedes” tradition of producing winners dates back to the last century.
On a visit back to Augustana College Pastor Swensson heard the Messiah sung and determined that Lindsborg should perform Handel’s Messiah on Easter Sunday. Pastor Swensson’s wife, Alma, readily agreed and undertook the enormous task of organizing the Bethany Oratorio Society. For months, local farmers, housewives, and shopkeepers rehearsed Handel’s massive and moving spiritual masterpiece. Finally the first performance was held on March 28, 1882. From those humble beginnings in the little church has grown the Bethany Oratorio Society that acknowledges worldwide acclaim, and continues to perform both Handel’s Messiah and J. S. Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew during Holy Week each year.
World renowned performing artists also often find their way to Lindsborg. Many years ago Lindsborg audiences were treated with concerts by such great artists as Pablo Casals, Jussi Bjorling, Madam Schumann-Heink, and numerous others. In recent years such varied concerts have included the Vienna Boys Choir, the Strategic Air Command Band, and jazz artist Wynton Marsalis. Often national tours of performing artists include stops in New York, Los Angeles and Lindsborg.
The Lindsborg community and the Smoky Valley grew uniquely on the Great Plains as a center for music, art, and education. The Swedish communities of the Smoky Valley have contributed many church leaders, performing musicians, writers, artists, scholars, and political leaders and contributors in countless other fields. The poor Swedes who were forced to leave their beloved Sweden only needed the rich virgin soil of this valley to grow, flourish, and bloom into the rich cultural center of today.
As you visit this lovely valley, pause occasionally and listen for a violin, a voice or piano. A child will be diligently mastering a classical phrase. Pass a studio and notice the deft fingers of a local artist bringing beauty to an empty canvas or a bit of wood. Visit a classroom and observe the children learning about their heritage. Better yet, visit a secluded spot overlooking the valley, gaze quietly across the bounteous fields, and perhaps you too will hear, just audibly above the wind, the whispered strains of a hymn, sung in Swedish, and reminding us of the blessings we share in the Smoky Valley of Kansas.
–by Tom Holmquist
One of the questions most often asked by visitors to Lindsborg has to do with the symbolism of the town's repeated use of the Dala (Daw'la) Horse. This gaily-colored horse appears in many forms throughout the city, having been adopted as the central motif in the official logo of the City of Lindsborg in the 1960's.
The original Dala Horse (Dalahäst) has been around for many centuries, and probably was created by Swedish woodcutters in the province of Dalarna near Mora. During the long winters, these lonely men would spend their evenings away from their families, and passed their time by carving little toys for their children. While these carved wooden toys, made from the scraps of the men's occupation, were mostly horses, some were also roosters or pigs. However, the most enduring of these little creatures remains the Dala Horse.
The bright, happy little animal as we now know the Dala Horse probably originated in the 1700's. The carving of the stocky little tailless horses had become a well-established tradition, but up until this time they had been unpainted and had just the natural grain of the wood for ornamentation.
In the winter of 1716, while King Charles XII of Sweden waged war throughout most of Europe, many soldiers were quartered in private homes in the Mora area of Sweden. Because of the severe winter and the war, all suffered from lack of food and warmth. Tradition has it that one such soldier, in his spare time, carved a Dala Horse from some scrap wood in the home where he was staying. Before presenting it to the child of the home as a gift, he painted it a bright red. This was a readily available color in this area, being produced from the copper mine at the nearby community of Falun.
He decorated the horse with kurbit painting for the harness and saddle. The use of kurbits as decorative motifs on the horse came from the soldier's deep religious background. It is the kurbit, or gourd, plant which grew up around Jonah as he sat outside the city of Ninevah, and protected him from the sun's devastating rays.
In return for this bright toy, the woman of the house gave the soldier a bowl of soup. He made another horse and received another bowl of soup. When word of his success in bartering for food reached the other soldiers, they too began carving and painting horses in exchange for food. Thus the Dala Horse is credited in part with the army's surviving the cruel winter.
Dala Horses traditionally were made during the long fall and winter evening hours when the weather prevented any outdoor work from being done. Although they are a natural outgrowth of the clock and furniture making industries common in the Dalarna Province, the Dala Horse has evolved into a symbol of all Swedish handicrafts. The traditional color of Dala Horses is a bright orange-red, but they are also to be found in natural wood, or painted white, blue, or black, all with brightly colored painted kurbit-type trim.
The village of Nusnäs, in Dalarna, is considered by some to be the home of the only authentic Swedish Dala Horses. Over 250,000 Dala Horses are produced there every year.
There is quite a bit of work required in the production of these decorative little toys. Most are made of pine, which is dried for three to four weeks after the initial carving. This prevents the horses from splitting after they are painted. The design is first drawn on the wood and sawed by machine. Then they are given to the carvers, who finish them using their own individual techniques. Each carver will normally choose horses of the size that is most comfortable to him to decorate, which means that the horses are available in many varying sizes. No two horses are ever truly identical.
In Lindsborg, the Dala Horse is to be seen in many different places - the City's letterhead, on City trucks, on storefronts, as decorative additions to many homes, and probably most commonly as bright welcoming emblems on local residences. Often the name of those living in the house is painted on the side of the horse, sometimes the street number of the house, and often a Swedish greeting (either "Välkommen" or "Kom Igen") as well.
Visitors to our community will be welcomed at the outskirts of town, and along nearby highways, by signs featuring the Dala Horse insignia.
Over the years increasing numbers of local craftsmen have learned to make these gaily colored horses. Thousands of Dala Horses are now produced annually in Lindsborg.
To visitors and old-timers alike, please look on our friendly, snub-nosed little horse as a token of our goodwill and a symbol of Swedish frugality and dexterity. It seems that the little scraps of wood left over from furniture and clock making have truly gained a rightful place in the annals of ethnic handicrafts.
Lindsborg’s history is full of facts typical of a small town. Widely known are the facts about the Swedish immigrants’ arrival, the dates of the founding of the churches, and when Bethany College was founded. These dates, as important as they are, only tell part of the story. To complete the picture we need to hear the humorous anecdotes, nicknames, and about the personalities of those who built our community. First a few facts.
After the immigrants began arriving, they found that the Homestead Act required that they live on a section of land for about five years before they could claim the land for their own. In the early years, three brothers and their brother-in-law built their shared home right in the middle of four sections of land. Their home actually touched all four sections, which meant that each man could claim his own section yet they only had to have one house. These settlers had good heads on their shoulders.
In 1909 Dr. Alfred Bergin of Bethany Lutheran Church wrote about the wonderful water of Lindsborg. He wrote that “drinking water around here is very good,” and that the “water from these wells is crystal clear, fresh, good, and soft.” He did acknowledge that the water did “contain, at times, forty grains per gallon of hard elements...” which “give the body some necessary minerals to keep it in a healthy condition.” Now, those person that have followed Dr. Bergin in living and working in Lindsborg all must figure that either the water has changed drastically since 1909 or Dr. Bergin was a true optimist. Perhaps he was one of those persons who saw a half-full, rather than a half-empty, glass of water.
Bethany Lutheran Church figured out a unique way of encouraging families to pay their tithes. It was decided in 1889 that “the names of those who have not paid their church dues and the balance of money due be read aloud once a year in the church.” It’s certain that this procedure helped bring in the money as well as assure a good crowd in church at least once a year.
By the early 1900’s it became necessary as well as fun to use nicknames because of the many persons with the same name. Bethany Lutheran Church had 29 members with the name of John Johnson. Many interesting nicknames began to appear.
Al Capone: owned a beer joint, Boots: owned the shoe store, Charlie Duck: short man who walked with a waddle, Grub: operated the college food services, Jockey: horse trader, Pat Murphy: fictional name used during raids on the beer joint, Popcorn: sold popcorn next to the movie theater, Professor Wind: operated the bellows for the pipe organ, Scoop: Town Marshall, Green House Anderson: operated the local nursery, Curly Head: had kinky hair, Bird Legs: had long skinny legs, and Big Swenson: large farmer near Freemount.
One of the best nickname stories concerns a young man named Johnny. Johnny made an unfortunate mistake with his girlfriend which caused the young lady’s father to believe the young couple should get married right away. Johnny was perhaps a bit unsure of the idea, and even more unsure of how his future father-in-law would react to the news. Johnny hid when he heard he was being hunted by his girlfriend’s father and became forever known as “Johnny in the Well.”
Much has been written over the years about the hard life of the pioneers. Many of these stories and nicknames illustrate that these pioneers had a sense of humor that helped them in their daily struggles and they also give us a glimpse of our ancestor’s warm personalities.