Other than Kirsten the American Girl Doll or my love for Pippi Longstocking, I have no real ties to Sweden. And while I do love Swedish meatballs, I don’t have any real Swedish heritage.
So it might seem a little strange that I drove a bit out of my way to visit the Swedish Heritage Museum in Swedesburg, Iowa. But Swedish or not, the trip was definitely worth it.
Founded in 1986, the Swedish Heritage Society of Swedesburg is dedicated to preserving the history of the small, rural Iowa farming community. Today Swedesburg is an unincorporated community in Henry County with a population of about 90 (from what I could find). The Museum—like the town it collects the history of—is small, but full of artifacts donated by the town’s generations of Swedish decedents.
Start in the front of the Museum (which, fun fact, was formerly a grocery store) with an eight-minute video about the history of the community and its growth through the decades.
Founded by Swedish immigrants in the 1860s, Swedesburg has always been a small, farming community. Explore artifacts from various periods of Swedesburg’s history and marvel at the large role the church has had in strengthening the community. Keep an eye out for information about the first two Swedesburg Evangelical Lutheran Churches—both were destroyed by fires (one from a lightening strike). The current Church stands on the same site and was built in 1927.
After you’re done in the Museum’s main building, one of the Historical Society’s kind volunteers will guide you through the small library, where handwritten records and stories from local families help chronicle the former residents of Swedesburg and ensure that their legacy isn’t lost as families move away.
The back two buildings recreate the Samuel L. White General Store and Charles E. Bergh Tin Shop, both of which were established in 1875. Learn how the early residents of Swedesburg lived (some of my favorite artifacts were the antique coffeemaker and the ticket registry for local families’ grocery bill), and what major events have impacted the town over the last nearly 250 years.
Just outside is a small red cottage, recreated to look like one you might see in the Swedish countryside where many of Swedesburg founding families would have lived. Fun fact: The red paint used to adorn the cottage is a powder paint straight from Sweden.
But you’re not done yet! Traditional Swedish hospitality means that you’ll be treated to cookies and a cup of coffee (in a Dala Horse mug, of course), before you hit the road. Use this extra time to browse the gift shop for a Swedish souvenir or learn what’s going on around town from the Historical Society’s quarterly newsletter.
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Swedesburg’s Giant Dala Horse
Always a lover of World’s Largest things, I was immediately drawn to the towering Dala Horse outside the Swedish Heritage Museum. The Dala Horse is probably one of the most iconic Swedish images and also the most typical of souvenirs.
Since the time of the Vikings, horses have been considered a holy animal in Nordic cultures. While the origin of the first Dala Horse varies—some say it was a craftsman, others a soldier—they gained international recognition in a Swedish display of the Paris Exhibition in the mid-1800s. The designs painted on the Dala Horse often have strong religious connotations and some parishes even have their own Dala designs (similar to family crests).
My tour guide told me this giant horse was installed in front of the Museum last October. The Museum also previously displayed a Julbock—a festive goat made out of bails of hay or straw—at the entrance to the community, but after it was burned three times by vandals, they’ve stopped replacing it. Hopefully this Swedish icon will be a little more permanent (and vandal-proof).
Tips for visiting
The Museum itself is free and donations are welcome. If you plan on making any purchases, it’s good to keep in mind that the Museum doesn’t accept credit cards.
Monday – Tuesday: 9 am to 4 pm
Thursday – Saturday: 9 am to 4 pm
Closed: Sundays & Wednesdays
There’s no official website for the museum, but you can like them on Facebook for updates. Or, when in doubt, give them a call at (319) 254-2317.
Special Events: If you happen to visit in late June, you just might catch at glimpse at Midsommar, an annual Swedish summer festival that involves a may pole and traditional musical performances. Or if you happen to be passing through in the early December, attend the annual St. Lucia potluck and ceremony. Since the Historical Society was founded in 1986, the group has chosen a local high school junior with Swedish ancestry to play Lucia each year.
Swedish Heritage Museum, 107 James Avenue in Swedesburg*, Iowa
*Since Swedesburg is unincorporated, you might have to try Mount Pleasant to get your GPS to work.