Sweden on the plains

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Here in "Little Sweden, U.S.A."— where a day without something Swedish is like a day without sunflowers — it didn't surprise me to see a woman wearing a T-shirt proclaiming, "Swedish by marriage."

On a spin through central Kansas in June, I had come to Lindsborg — population 3,200 — for its annual Midsommardag, or Midsummer's Day fete, a tradition that in Sweden marks summer solstice, the longest day of the year. The festival was brought to Kansas by immigrants, who came in the 1860s; it died out in the 1930s and was revived in 1971. (This year's fete will be June 19.)

It was Välkommen (welcome) one and all, as the revelry got underway in Swensson Park on a drizzly Saturday, with announcer John Pearson proclaiming, "Let the festivities begin!" Whereupon women in long dresses with aprons and men in knee britches and vests marched in, two by two, playing a traditional Swedish walking song, or marsch, on their fiddles. (In Sweden, processions — such as that of a newlywed couple from church to home — are traditionally preceded by fiddling musicians.) Then came the Lindsborg Swedish Folk Dancers, a high school troupe performing polkas and schottisches. The blue and yellow Swedish flag flew alongside the Stars and Stripes, and a quartet sang both nations' anthems.

And that was just the warmup.

The main event, the raising of the flower-decked majstang (maypole), followed by dancing and merriment, would be that evening on the green at Heritage Square at the Old Mill Historical Complex.

What had drawn me to the Kansas plains was the promise of seeing a different slice of ethnic America, in a town where Swedish Americans, although not living in some long-ago past, value and preserve their heritage. And what better time to visit than at festival time?

At Swensson Park, I chatted with Mayor Ron Rolander, whose Swedish great-grandfather homesteaded in the area. "They say Lindsborg is more Swedish than Sweden," said Rolander, who's never been to Sweden.

Rosy-cheeked girls with blomkrans (flower crowns) in their hair skipped through the park. Even people who are not Swedish could get into the spirit by being photographed with their heads poking through cardboard cutouts of a pair of costumed Swedes dancing. Swedish meatball sandwiches, Swedish pancakes, potato sausages and homemade ice cream with lingonberries were being dished out at booths.

I had flown into Kansas City, rented a car and driven about 200 miles west to Lindsborg, arriving in a cloudburst and following a brick-paved road to the turreted pink and blue Rosberg House B&B, where the Lincoln Room awaited me. (David Spellman, who with his wife, Sabrina, runs the Victorian inn, is a Civil War buff and had a hand in the room's décor). I settled into a wing chair and perused a book on Honest Abe.

Art fanciers may know of Lindsborg through Swedish-born Birger Sandzén, a Paris-trained modernist whose oils, watercolors and lithographs are in some of the world's great repositories, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum. For many years he taught at Bethany College here; the handsome Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery on campus displays, among his works, oils of the Western and Southwestern landscapes he loved.

My first taste of Lindsborg was at the Vasa, a cozy brick-walled spot with a fireplace in the rear of the Swedish Crown restaurant on Main Street, where I sampled the Swedish sampler — meatballs, ham loaf, dilled potatoes, pickled herring.

Lindsborg, dominated by twin grain silos, is primarily a farming community. But the town and surrounding Smoky Valley area have attracted a colony of artists working in various media. Beth Walker, formerly of Seal Beach, can be found at her loom at Elizabeth's on Main Street. Other local talents include a basket maker, jewelry makers, potters, painters and woodcarvers. Small galleries abound. At Helmslöjd, a Scandinavian gift shop and studio at 201 N. Main St., visitors can watch craftspeople creating Dala horses.

The herd of pony-sized 4-foot fiberglass Dala (pronounced daw-lah) horses stabled around town were fancifully decorated by some of those artists for "Search for the Wild Dala," a public art project begun in 2000. "I thought it was really silly to start with," said the mayor, "but guess who sponsored one? If I had a dollar for every time my horse has been photographed, I could retire. People spend all day finding every one of them."

There are 29 of the tailless equines, including the spotted Dala-matian; Salvador Dala; Hello, Dala; and Two Bits, Four Bits, Six Bits, a Dala. Several were decorated by Shirley Malm, who creates updated Swedish objets d'art at the Station, a studio and shop in a converted 1930s gas station on Harrison Street. (The Chamber of Commerce at 104 E. Lincoln has a free guide to the Dala herd.)

The Dala horse has its roots in 18th century Sweden, where lumberjacks in Dalarna province would gather around a fire after winter days felling logs and carve horses from wood scraps. Village children treasured them and, later, it became popular to paint the horses in bright colors with floral motifs much the same way as people of the province decorated their furniture and interior walls. Some of the Dala horses sold here are made in Sweden, some locally. The Dala also appears on mugs and mouse pads and even on the municipal seal.

Although the mayor at first scorned the horse project, he isn't anti-innovation. Indeed, he ran for office because he "thought we were kind of stagnant" and needed to spiff up downtown. He helped negotiate a million-dollar federal grant to create a hiking and biking trail — now on the drawing board — along the town's abandoned railroad line.

Lindsborg has emerged as a mini-mecca for chess devotees and in July will host the U.S. junior chess tournament. It all began when Russian-born Mikhail Korenman of the Bethany College faculty lured former world champion Anatoly Karpov here for a 2002 tournament. A year later, Karpov chose Lindsborg as the home for the only Anatoly Karpov International School of Chess in the United States, offering classes taught by grandmasters. He spends two weeks here each year.

Lindsborg's cultural life is closely tied to the college, a four-year Lutheran liberal arts institution founded by immigrant Swedes in 1881. Its annual Easter week presentation of Handel's "Messiah," a 122-year tradition, has been broadcast on public television. A farmer and a doctor may be singing side by side in the 300-voice choir.

The biennial Svensk Hyllningsfest, a three-day festival with parade held every other October (the next will be in 2005), honors the town's forefathers, who came fleeing drought, famine and religious persecution in Sweden.

A new generation of creative people like Jim and Kathy Richardson have settled in Lindsborg. Seven years ago they abandoned Denver and moved here with son Tyler, now 18. "I was astounded by how much talent there was in this town," said Kathy, who runs their Small World gallery in what was, in the 1920s, a women's toggery shop on Main Street while Jim travels on photo shoots for National Geographic.

The Richardsons are among co-founders of the gag-loving Lindsborg Lunatic Fringe, which last year staged "No Smiling Day" on Main Street. "We all got dressed up in our black suits — the ones we pull out once a year to sing in 'The Messiah' — put on our dour faces," Jim said, and they paraded up and down Main Street carrying signs, "Don't Even Think of Laughing." "Some people were sure we were some sort of radical group," he said. "Others gave us high-fives and really thought it was hilarious." Fringe member Becky Anderson, proprietor of the Swedish Country Inn, said, "Lindsborg has always been full of eccentric people."

There's the rather eccentric John Whitfield, 76. He's known for his liturgical carvings and sculpture and has built a free-standing chapel next to his home made from odds and ends such as old jukebox parts. He created the sculpture that stands at the community hospital and is represented in the Birger Sandzén Gallery. The son of lay missionaries — his father was English, his mother a Kansan — Whitfield doesn't buy into the mania for all things Swedish, even though he has lived here for 19 years. But he did get into the spirit one year, riding a bike under a boat float in the Hyllningsfest parade. Unfortunately, he ignited the boat's cannons with a firecracker and it nearly "blew me over."

The place to be at 5 p.m. Saturday of Midsommardag was at the Swedish smorgasbord in the Bethany College student union. Sitting down next to Steve Pera, pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church, I asked whether "Prairie Home Companion" host Garrison Keillor gets it right when he tweaks Lutherans as reticent and quaintly moderate in all matters. He smiled and said, "Pretty much right."

Sated with meatballs, cucumber salad and Swedish tea ring, revelers continued on to the Old Mill Complex, where there's a Swedish pavilion from the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Under a humid sky, young and old, even those with babes in arms, joined in the dancing.

Low plains drifterOn Sunday, with downtown pretty much shuttered, I drove 45 miles southwest to Hutchinson and the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, where I spent two hours, enthralled. This terrific museum has World War II German V-1 and V-2 rockets, the flight jacket worn by test pilot Chuck Yeager when he broke the sound barrier over the California desert in 1947 and the restored Odyssey command module from the hair-raising Apollo 13 flight ("OK, Houston, we've had a problem here … "). I stood in an Apollo white room, just as the astronauts had before launch.

Heading back to Lindsborg, I zipped north along Interstate 135 as a red sun was setting. A Kansas tornado warning interrupted a radio concert by the Berlin Philharmonic.

The next day I lunched with Kathy Malm, executive director of the Lindsborg Chamber of Commerce, at the Viking Motorcycle Co. and Fat Bob's BBQ downtown, where tables share space with biker gear. Motorcycles in Little Sweden? "Twenty years ago they'd probably have run us out of town," said ponytailed owner Mark Gant, but not today. There was far more to-do over the first liquor store coming to town. A group of female Harley fans regularly rides in the 21 miles from Salina to eat barbecue and shop.

It was with regrets that I left Lindsborg, where I'd felt warmly welcomed, and I was well housed and certainly well fed. I continued northeast 49 miles to Abilene, boyhood home of Dwight D. Eisenhower and home of the Eisenhower Center. There I toured the little house where the former president and his five brothers were reared. Furnishings include a shortwave radio given Mother Ida Eisenhower by her sons so she could get news of World War II from Europe. At the visitors center, you can buy "I Like Ike" buttons and, on the grounds, visit the Place of Meditation, the simple chapel where plaques mark the graves of the former President and Mamie Eisenhower and their first-born, Doud Dwight, who died of scarlet fever at age 3.

Nearby, I discovered the Dickinson County Historical Society's Heritage Center museum. "Lookin' for a good horse?" asked the attendant at the 1901 steam-engine carousel, which was built in Abilene by amusement park king C.W. Parker. I handed him a dollar and chose a white mount. He flipped a switch, the Wurlitzer played and around I went, all alone.

But the real treat at this complex is the Museum of Independent Telephony, where displays include 19th century phones, telephone-themed sheet music ("All alone by the telephone … ") and a replica of a turn-of-the-century telephone office with a switchboard with bellows in case of overheating. And who knew that Sprint evolved from Brown telephone company, founded in the late 19th century in Abilene?

Nearby, at the Greyhound Hall of Fame, I was greeted by Chig, a retired female racer from Iowa, one of three arthritic ex-competitors living there. The museum honors legends such as Rural Rube, the Man o' War of greyhound racing. I was puzzled to find this in Abilene, until I learned that the county is the greyhound breeding capital of the United States. (California is not among 17 states that sanction greyhound racing, although the sport was introduced to the U.S. in 1919 at Emeryville, Calif.)

Abilene calls itself the "little town of mansions." One of the most imposing is the Lebold Mansion, built in 1880 by banker and land developer Conrad Lebold to persuade his Yankee bride that Abilene wasn't the lawless end of the Earth. I climbed to the top of its tower, where Mrs. Lebold would scan the horizon for rowdy cowboys before venturing out. Lebold lost the mansion in bankruptcy, and it later was a home for female telephone operators and an orphanage. Today its owners, Gary Yuschalk and Larkin Mayo of Victorian Interiors (formerly San Francisco-based), have turned its 23 rooms into a museum that is a decorative arts showcase.

Five days in Kansas had passed quickly, and soon I was off to Chicago. A traveler who had largely ignored the Midwest — what could there possibly be to do in Kansas? — I'd been disabused of my East Coast-West Coast smugness.

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Bison and greyhounds and museums, oh my!There's plenty to do in rural Kansas. Visitors can visit a farm where buffalo roam, see a space center, meander through a restored mill.

Smoky Hill Bison Co., 2660 E. Hobbs Creek Road, Assaria, Kan.; (800) 790-2665, http://www.bisonfarm.com . On Saturday evenings from May through October, Linda and Verne Hubalek welcome visitors to their buffalo farm nine miles northeast of Lindsborg. They serve buffalo burgers and take guests on a tram ride out to the pasture to view the herds.

The day I visited, Linda — wearing a "University of Oz, Home of the Fighting Totos" T-shirt — led the way, summoning the herd bull, "Come, Bandit! Bring the girls." Warily sizing me up, the herd went into circle-the-wagon mode, calves in the middle, cows around them and the bull on the outside.

This land once was homesteaded by Swedish immigrants, and Linda, who's half Swedish and grew up nearby, has written extensively about these pioneers. It follows that she has named the buffalo cows for pioneer women: Esther, Betsy, Clara, Dolly.

"Verne and I are part of the herd," said Linda, loosening the electric fence and getting close to Dolly. There are two herds — the "show and tell," or breeding herd, and the all-male meat herd, 80 animals in all. The meat herd grunted and stared at us. Their fate will be to go to market. But "the girls stay with us," Linda said, and can be "adopted." For $30 a month, anyone can "own" a buffalo and receive e-mail photos of the adoptee.

The visitor center is free and is open daily. For the Saturday night meal and tram ride, the fee is $17 for adults and $13 for children 5-12; reservations required.

Lebold Mansion, 106 N. Vine St., Abilene, Kan.; (785) 263-4356, http://www.lebold-mansion.com . Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Adults $10.

Greyhound Hall of Fame, 407 S. Buckeye, Abilene; (800) 932-7881. http://www.greyhoundhalloffame.com . Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Free.

Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, 1100 N. Plum St., Hutchinson; (800) 397-0330, http://www.cosmo.org . Adult tickets, including the Imax theater and Hall of Space museum, $12.50. Senior discount. Open daily.

Red Barn Studio, 212 S. Main St., Lindsborg; (785) 227-2217, http://www.redbarnstudio.org . The home and studio of the late multimedia artist Lester Raymer is a museum run by the Raymer Society for the Arts.

The quirky Raymer created museum-quality art from castoffs — fabric scraps, old furniture, garage sale jewelry. Especially charming are the toys he made each Christmas for 32 years for his wife, Ramona.

Open 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission $5.

McPherson County Old Mill Museum, 120 Mill St., Lindsborg; (785) 227-3595, http://www.oldmillmuseum.org . A $2 adult ticket includes the 1898 Smoky Valley Roller Mill, which processed flour until 1955, and historical buildings in adjacent Heritage Square. It's a treat to meander through the restored mill, climb the narrow steps and inch around the old scales and sifters. Open daily.

Beverly Beyette

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Lindsborg, like the old country

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Southwest and Frontier offer nonstop flights to Kansas City, Mo. American, United, Continental, Northwest, Midwest Express and Delta offer connecting flights (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $178.

To Wichita, Kan., American, United, America West and Continental offer connecting flights. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $225.

WHERE TO STAY:

Rosberg House B&B, 103 E. State St., Lindsborg; (888) 215-5234, fax (785) 227-2041, http://www.1885rosberghouse.com . Lovely rooms and suites in restored Queen Anne mansion. Full breakfast included, stylishly served in the parlor. Rooms, some with fireplaces, $74 to $169. Swimming pool.

Swedish Country Inn, 112 W. Lincoln, Lindsborg; (800) 231-0266, fax (785) 227-2795, http://www.swedishcountryinn.com . Very Swedish, including the pine furniture. Rooms are on the small side with small baths. Swedish breakfast, included, served buffet style in attractive dining room. Small gift shop with things Swedish. Sauna. Rooms begin at $59.

WHERE TO EAT:

Ol Stuga, 119 S. Main St., Lindsborg; (785) 227-8762, http://www.olstuga.com . For local color — and to catch up on local news — belly up to the bar for a deli sandwich with choice of fixings from jalapeños to sauerkraut. ($4-$5).

Brookville Hotel, 105 E. Lafayette, Abilene; (785) 263-2244, http://www.brookvillehotel.com . Legendary family-style chicken dinners served much as they have been since 1915. For $11.95, you get sweet-sour coleslaw, fried chicken, mashed potatoes with cream gravy, creamed corn, biscuits and ice cream.

Kirby House, 205 N.E. 3rd St., Abilene; (785) 263-7336, http://www.kirbyhouse.com . Midwestern fare, including "our famous chicken fried steak," highlights the menu at this restaurant in a restored Victorian-era banker's mansion. Dinner entrees, $10-$22.

TO LEARN MORE:

Lindsborg Chamber of Commerce, 104 E. Lincoln, (888) 227-2227 or (785) 227-3706, http://www.Lindsborg.org .

Kansas Travel & Tourism, 1000 S.W. Jackson St., Suite 100, Topeka, KS 66612; (800) 2-KANSAS (252-6727) or (785) 296-2009, fax (785) 296-6988, http://www.travelks.com .

— Beverly Beyette

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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