Welcome to Lindsborg, America’s“Little Sweden” in Kansas
Traditions, celebrations, oratorios, and the ultimate Christmas toy
CYNTHIA ELYCE RUBIN
The Norwegian American
Following in the footsteps of its resourceful founders, today’s Lindsborg, Kan., artfully blends old traditions with the forces of modern life. Settled by Swedish immigrants in the 1860s, nestled in the Smoky Valley, this community of about 3,500, proudly displays its Swedish heritage and love of the arts. About 40% of Lindsborg celebrates its Swedish genealogy, and the rest of the population celebrates the community known as the “Little Sweden of the Plains.”
The Dala at home in Lindsborg
Lindsborg has adapted the Dala horse as its community logo and symbol of welcome. It is part of the official city seal. Many homes display plaques painted by local artists and affixed to the front porch or on poles in Lindsborg and surrounding communities.
A wild herd of Dala horses—the only herd in the entire United States—can be found throughout the town. In 2000, the first traditional Dala was cast in a large fiberglass form, an idea fashioned after that of Chicago’s cows on Michigan Avenue. The concept of “cow parade,” however, has its origins in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1998, when artistic director Walter Knapp organized Land in Sicht (countryside in view). This concept was brought to Chicago when business owner Peter Hanig and Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Lois Weisberg organized an event in 1999 called Cows on Parade. There were so many copycat public art projects launched around the country that a 200-page book, American Art Parades: When Pigs Flew, Guitars Rocked & Cows Jumped Over the Moon, a photographic celebration of the larger-than-life art forms that paraded across America in some 85 cities, was published in 2007.
In Lindsborg, each wild Dala is sponsored by locals or people with Lindsborg connections and decorated by the town’s many artists. A free map and brochure developed by the Lindsborg Convention & Visitors Bureau describes each horse’s location and meaning. For example, Kronor, the Dollar Horse at 109 S. Main St., hand-painted by local artist Shirley Malm, is named for the Swedish money unit with the greenback features of a $1 bill, sponsored by Farmers State Bank. And Rörmokarens Vän/Plumber’s Friend at 135 N. Main St., is sponsored by the grandchildren of Carl and Esther Anderson. Carl was a Lindsborg plumber who avoided a watch but was never late for an appointment and Esther, a fabulous cook who never used a recipe. Their grandchildren say that Mormor and Morfar Anderson “just knew.”
Hemslöjd, Swedish for handicraft, is a shop that carries handcrafted items made in the Swedish style and from Sweden. Owner Corey Peterson proudly says it is the No. 1 importer worldwide of traditional Dala horses from the Nils Olsson Dala Horse Factory in Sweden. A 6-foot-high Dala horse marks the shop’s location. Artists in the Hemslöjd workshop create different types of wooden items and custom etched glassware every day except Sunday. They also make flat versions of the Dala horse. For Norwegian visitors, a Fjord Horse can be personalized for the buyer.
So much to celebrate
The town’s Swedish heritage is also commemorated in its popular celebrations: Våffeldagen (Waffle Day) in March, when Swedish waffles and waffle costumes take center stage; Svensk Hyllningfest (Swedish honoring festival) the biannual celebration that pays homage to pioneer Lindsborg settlers; Midsummer; and St. Lucia, a celebration of the winter solstice—all times of folk music, dancing, arts, crafts, and culinary specialties.
The Swedes brought with them a great love of the arts. Today, the town takes its cultural responsibilities very seriously, supporting more than 60 artists, a dozen art galleries, along with the annual Messiah festival, held every Easter week since 1882 at Bethany College.
Upon hearing George Frideric Handel’s oratorio “Messiah” performed in London, the Rev. Olof Olsson immediately expressed his enthusiasm for the work in a letter to his friend Dr. Carl Swensson in Lindsborg. Thus, in 1882, the decision was made to perform the “Messiah” that spring with Swensson’s wife, Alma, conducting. Chorus members came from miles. Most had no knowledge of music, and some had little knowledge of English. But Alma persevered, and the first performance occurred at Bethany Lutheran Church. A special performance was given for King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden in April 1976 in Presser Hall Auditorium, the event’s location since 1929. Lindsborg is credited with the oldest continuous live performance of Handel’s “Messiah” in the country.
As you make your way through town, you will find unexpected art galleries. The Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery features the work of Birger Sandzén, a Swedish-born, Paris-trained modernist who became an influential artist in Kansas. Beginning his career as a faculty member at Bethany College in Lindsborg in 1894, Sandzén gained an international reputation.
Small World Gallery, home to National Geographic Photographer Jim Richardson, is on Main Street. His wife, Kathy, and local artist, Brianna Zimmerling, round out the gallery with their IBIS Woman custom jewelry, featuring beads and findings from around the world.
Not to be missed is the Red Barn Studio, a museum that gives tribute to artist Lester Raymer (1907-1991), known for rummaging through the castoffs of others, Raymer’s art can truly be described as a mixture of creativity and upcycling. His toys, gifts for wife, Ramona, are a visitor favorite.
Built in 1898, one of the few working roller mills in the United States fires up every May for demonstrations. It is open to the public year-round to lend itself to a better understanding of the early days of grain production. Mills like this were developed to process the hard, red winter wheat that was introduced to Kansas in the late 19th century. The mill sat vacant for years until its 1981 restoration.
Small town, big outreach
Just across the street is the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair Swedish Pavilion designed by notable Swedish architect at the turn of the century, Ferdinand Boberg. It is the only example of his work in the United States. Honoring Sweden’s architectural heritage, the building follows the design of the traditional Swedish manor house or herrgård. It was moved from Bethany College to the Old Mill Museum and was entered in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
Lindsborg is certainly one of America’s best small towns with a large impact. Its highlights of traditions and arts demonstrate a grassroots creativity that showcases the values of the original Swedish immigrant settlers.
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This article originally appeared in the Nov. 13, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.