Celebration at Swede Bend - 1937
Celebration at Swede Bend - 1937
For Mission Covenanters (now the Evangelical Covenant Church) the name, Swede Bend, has special meaning. They have not forgotten their modest beginnings on the plains of Iowa as shown by the festival atmosphere surrounding this 1937 gathering at the very church reckoned as oldest and first in the denomination. Nor did they allow this artifact to succumb to destruction, as it is preserved on the grounds of the Twin Lakes camp operated by the Midwest Conference of the Covenant at Manson, Iowa.
The Swede Bend church preserved at Twin Lakes Camp
Of corresponding significance is that this church counted as its first leader C.A. Björk, who became the first president of the Covenant and served in that capacity for eighteen years. For us, to live in Iowa and not visit Swede Bend would have been unforgiveable.
Swede Bend's Mission founder, C.A. Björk
Let's take that little trip together now, with the help of the wonderful book, "Touring Swedish America", by the Winquists. (now online) Their approach to Swede Bend was from Boone, northward, a better course than ours which was from I-35 and from the east. By coming from the south, one will first see the spire of South Marion Methodist country church which is one of two surviving Swedish structures in the area going back to immigrant times. Just past this intersection is the cemetery variously known as "Swedish cemetery", now "South Marion" which is the burial place of noted area immigrant John Linn.
Welcome to Swede Bend! (South Marion Methodist)
But to turn west down the road past the Methodist church and continue to the river is to go to the heart of old Swede Bend. The road jogs past the site of the first Swedish Baptist church, not marked, and to the marked site of the "Svenska Luterska Missionsförening's" first chapel. Contrast the view today with the 1937 festival picture above.
All that remains at the festive site
An "inconvenient truth" regarding our Covenant nostalgia about this "missionshus" was that it was not a new structure or site, but a "hand-me-down" from the Swedish Methodists. They indeed built this as their first church at Swede Bend, and moved to the larger edifice when they had outgrown the little chapel; this larger building was the one we passed earlier. So indeed the display for the Methodists in the Stratford museum contains the same picture as that of the Covenant. They shared the same "first church." Beyond this, there is historical light to be shed on the very character of that first "missionshus" itself. Was it meant to be a church of a new denomination or rather an auxiliary chapel to the Lutheran church? More on that later.
We are in sight of Stratford now, to the north, but before entering the town proper we should note the Hardin County cemetary to the west (also once known as the "Johnson cemetery". The road has turned northward at the Covenant marker, and this cemetery is indicated by a road sign. As noted, one drives pretty much through the center of a farmplace to access this early burial ground with stones marked as early as 1855.
The oldest cemetery in the area, near the river
Also as often noted, there is no town named Swede Bend; we have just been through the heart of what is known by that name. According to one anecdotal source, the first Swedish Lutheran church building was along this road, northward from the Covenant marker. What we have observed at other places is also true here: each of the various Swedish immigrant churches were built virtually in sight of each other!
Though we have not seen it in print, we are pretty safe in assuming that the rise of the village of Stratford in importance to the community hinged on the coming of the Railroad through that location.
The Swedish Lutheran church in Stratford
On the eastern edge of that town stands the only other surviving church building from the immigrant era: the Augustana Lutheran church. The first Swedish Lutheran pastor in Iowa, Magnus F. Håkinson, was its founding pastor. Though his first Iowa location was far away at New Sweden, and nearer his final pastorate and burial site at Munterville, it was during his ministry at Madrid / Swede Point that he visited Swede Bend. Thus we can say that the Swede Bend Lutheran congregation is older than the Augustana Synod; one of four in Iowa to claim this distinction. This will have a bearing on the birth of the Covenant denomination as well.
The (Swedish) Baptist General Conference church in Stratford
A fine new church building in Stratford is that of the Swedish Baptists (now General Conference Baptists) and is the direct heir to their Swede Bend ancestry. (The relationship of a newer Methodist church in Stratford to the Swedes south of town we have not yet determined.) On the west edge of Stratford the community has preserved the house of prominent Methodist pioneer John Linn.
Our tour book guided us to the museum on main street; there we were prompted by a sign on the door to phone for the curator. Carol Larson soon appeared, and confirmed that she was one and the same Larson who operates a bed-and-breakfast at Swede Bend. Her home is located near the very road described above and she remembers attending Bible School at the old Covenant church. At this museum we saw our first example of the Methodist Episcopal Book of Discipline in Swedish, and a surviving altar of murky lineage from the immigrant days as well as much more.
What appears to be an altar, found in the home of Baptists, and the Methodist Discipline book
As noted, our drive through Swede Bend country made a turn from westbound to northbound at the Covenant marker. The reason for this was the Des Moines river which divides the region and provides the "bend" in the name Swede Bend. Since we came directly into Stratford from the east on our first visit, we made two false starts seeking Swede Bend which resulted in two feints across the river which we had to retrace. The Des Moines river makes more of an impact on the Iowa countryside than we were prepared for. It is a deeply cut and wooded valley most uncharacteristic of the midwest (spoken from the perspective of a Nebraskan). Before the arrival of the railroad, this was the transportation venue to the region and on its waters the first immigrants came to Swede Bend. How we would like to see a picture of the riverboats and landings from these misty beginnings; for now our imagination and that of an artist will have to suffice.
How the steamboat era might have looked
The following gives some insight into the steamboat days:
"Although from the very first the Des Moines River was deemed a navigable stream, not until the building of Fort Raccoon did the steamboat industry assume important proportions. The pioneer steamboat on the Des Moines was the S. B. Science, Captain Clark, which made a short trip in the fall of 1837. August 9, 1843, the Ione landed troops and supplies at Raccon Forks, now Des Moines City. The Ione was the first steamboat to ascend so far above the mouth of the river, and was hailed with rejoicing by the settlers whom it passed.
Now navigation of the Des Moines took a great spurt. The Des Moines River was to be one of the most valuable streams in the country, and Central Iowa was to be the favored portion of the Territory. Congress was asked to assist in the matter, and in August, 1846, turned over to Iowa a large quantity of public land yet unsold, bordering the river on either side. This land was to be put on the market by Iowa, and the money acquired was to be spent in facilitating navigation on the Des Moines.
'Des Moines River Improvement' set the people in Central Iowa wild. No man who prized his popularity dared say a word against it. It entered politics and became the issue of the campaigns. But politics and speculation ruined the progress of Des Moines River Improvement. The bubble burst. In 1866 the Legislature declared the Des Moines, and the Turkey from the town of El Dorado, no longer navigable. This decision permitted the building of dams and bridges, which had been prohibited because obstructing the course of the steamboats.
While Des Moines River Improvement was in its glory the boats running did a good business. They carried considerable freight and transported passengers from town to town. Standing on the deck of a steamer the crew and passengers joked and chaffed with the people on shore, as the channel swerved now to one side, now to the other. A steamboat could go clear to Fort Dodge.
A number of towns sprang up along the banks at places designed for landings. While navigation lasted they attained considerable importance. But when the river became too shallow for the boats, and traffic ceased, the main occupation of these towns was gone. Their object for existing vanished, and in cases where the railroad did not help them they were left to dream of the times that were, and of those that might have been. Quiet, uneventful towns are these, eternally waiting for something to 'turn up'." (-from an internet source on steamboats in Iowa)
Early accounts report that Swedes landed on both sides of the river at Swede Bend, but since there were no bridges then, the first being built in 1872, the two communities grew along separate but parallel lines. We do not want to neglect the westerners but for now must focus on the east side of the river. There were ultimately more Swedish churches to the west than to the east.
Another topographical observation is spelled out on the Swede Bend website, www.SwedeBendIowa.com : the area is pock-marked by "prairie potholes." During our early spring visit, nearly every field was blemished by these glacially induced flaws. Low spots which were very wet were everywhere and often featured orange hydrant-like devices near their centers which we took to be drainage heads. This problem had two results: the federal government allowed states to distribute this land liberally to settlers, and the same settlers were quick to sell them and move on. This may have placed a restraint on the growth of the community and its churches. On the other hand, time seems to have been slowed as well, and the landscape of Swede Bend has changed less than in most places.
Text of the Swede Bend marker
At this distance in time, one can fall victim to the following fallacy: if a church, like Swede Bend, is the oldest in the denomination, then it follows that it must be the oldest church in its community. We were mistakenly of this view about the Mission church in Stromsburg (oldest in Nebraska)...wrong...and would again have been wrong in Swede Bend. In fact, the Covenant church was dead last into Swede Bend. To find out more about who indeed might have been first, you will have to read the rest of this piece. Historians observe that the earliest immigrants to Swede Bend had the reputation of being quite unchurchlike...they were known to pass around hip flasks after the services to "wash down what they had heard!"
As background to the Swede Bend story, we must go back to the 1849 immigration of the "Esbjörn group." That was, according to Norelius' history, a group of 49 who came through great hardship to Andover, Illinois and became the nucleus of the Swedish immigrant church in that area. He believes that one of their number was G. Smith, who would come under the considerable influence of the Jonas Hedström Swedish Methodists in that part of the country. Many of these Illinois Methodists were dissenters from the early Bishop Hill sect of Janssonites, but typically retained some of the perfectionism of that group. It is said that Smith exemplified this, and was described as a "Free Methodist."
It is Smith that first proclaimed the Methodist message in Swede Bend, but was followed by visits from the more orthodox Methodists Peter Cassel and Andrew Ericson, who offer correctives to Smith's ideas. Cassel was an influential figure from the New Sweden, Iowa, settlement and also later located at Swede Point / Madrid. Ericson hailed from Hedström's Victoria, Illinois settlement, but in 1854 he sold his land there and purchased 80 acres at Swede Bend. (Methodist historian Liljegren reports that he had also served the Burlington congregation till '56) There he spent the rest of his life, though we did not look for his gravesite on our first visit. It should be noted that all of these individuals came to America as Lutherans and were variously converted to Methodism.
Smith is also credited with organizing a congregation at Dayton, across the river in 1855 which is elsewhere referred to as the Webster country mission. Liljegren lists him as the first pastor, and goes on to give each of his successors at Swede Bend:
"Stratford was formerly called Swede Bend, and here we find one of the oldest Swedish Methodist congregations in Iowa. G. Smith was the first methodist preacher who preached in this area, and a congregation was organized by him in April, 1854. The following preachers have served the congregation: Andrew Ericson, Eric Nordin, John Linn, John Ostlund, John Linn, J.E. Berggren, John Bjurstrom, C.F. Wennersten, A.G. Engstrom, J.E. Berggren, J.T. Wigren, John Simpson, G.E. Rosendahl, L.M. Lindstrom, John Levahn and Hugo Alm. The church was built during Eric Nordin's time of service, 1861. This building was sold and a new one constructed in 1876. The membership is 85, and a Sunday school, organized in 1858, has an attendance of 75."
In this report we learn the date of the building of the first Methodist church at Swede Bend, which later became the first Covenant church. There is a lapse in time between the Covenant founding date of 1868 and the new Methodist building in '76, which for now we shall resolve by assuming that the Björk group met elsewhere in the interim. (note that the Methodists themselves had existed for 7 years before building their first church)
The "new" Swedish Methodist church of Swede Bend
For a description of Methodist worship and mission work we have the admittedly biased description of Esbjörn, as he observed it in Illinois:
"...class sessions; public testimony regarding spiritual conditions and experiences; prayers in which three, four and five persons would at times simultaneously but individually participate audibly while the congregation would sigh, groan, and puff, such are the means by which the simple folk are charmed and stirred. When these, upon being questioned, testify that they have never before seen or experienced such reverence and emotion, they are then individually prayed for, and when everyone is really stirred up, then Holy Communion is conducted. Everyone is invited to partake and if there are any who hesitate, it is affirmed that the devil is restraining them; they are then invited to join the Methodist church for a trial period of six months by coming forward, grasping the pastor's outstretched hand and giving their hearts to God while the congregation joins in singing a hymn. If they do not come forward they are rebuked for their diffidence before men. And then, while the congregation sings, one or two of the older members begin to come forward and grasp the pastor's hand, so that by their example they might set the process in motion. And when they have actually joined the new church, they are given to understand more or less clearly, both publicly and privately, that they are now truly converted." -Esbjörn
So the staid Swedes encountered the phenomena of American revivalism, which really has not changed all that much before or since, but came as a shock to Esbjörn and those of like mind. It was an effective formula at Swede Bend, and soon the Swedish Methodists had built the large church still standing in south Marion township, apparently eclipsing the efforts of the other denominations.
O.M. Nelson, the chronicler of Swedish immigrants par excellance, has this to say about John Linn:
"Before 1850 Swedish immigrants settled near what is now Dayton. Among them was John Linn (or Lind) and his wife, Mary E. Sombers. He was born in Dödringhult, Ingatorp parish, Småland, May 29, 1826, and with his wife left his native land in May, 1849, spending 4 months and 11 days crossing the ocean. After their landing in America, they continued their journey by canal boat to Keokuk, and thence by team and wagon to Madrid in Boone county, Iowa, finally making their home in the southeast corner of what is now Webster county, before the federal survey had taken place, Linn took possession of a tract of land in Highland township, and was the first white settler in that township. Their daughter, Julia, who was born January 8, 1851, is said to have been the first white child born in Hardin township.
On account of the great distance from Mr. Linn's home to the nearest flour mill, Mr. Linn found it necessary to construct a hand mill, by means of which a strong man was able to grind two bushels of corn a day. This mill proved of great service to Mr. Linn and his neighbors in the early days of the settlement. In 1853 a man wanted to sell to Mr. Linn 80 acres of land where the city of Des Moines now stands for $320, but Linn refused the bargain, because he thought the price too high.
In 1854 Mr. Linn embraced the Methodist doctrine, and organized a church of that faith, and three years later was authorized to preach. After that he divided his time between the care of the congregation and of his farm. In 1868 he became pastor of a congregation in Moline, Ill., and in 1874 was promoted to Presiding Elder of the Iowa district, removing then to Des Moines." -O.M. Nelson
An honored son of Swede Bend
We shall once again have to parse some disparate information from the sources. The church which Linn organized must have been the same one associated with G. Smith's visit to Dayton. Did Linn serve both this and the congregation on the east side of the river? That would not be unusual. In any case, his career among the Methodists was advancing as indicated above.
Linn's name also appears in Nebraska Swedish Methodist history, and we can report this personal encounter with his name from Stromsburg's rural Swede Plain Methodist church:
Nettie Carlson, who we knew in Nebraska, was the granddaughter of one of the twelve charter members of the Swedish Methodist congregation in Andover, Illinois; Mrs. Helena Hurtig. (Swede Plain Centennial book, p. 7) Also mentioned is a Mrs. P. Bergman who was from Hedstrom's Swedish Methodist congregation at Victoria, Illinois. An early pastor, John Linn, visited from his base at Saronville near Sutton in 1875. He is indeed described as having previously served at Madrid and Swede Bend, Iowa.
John Linn distinguished himself and his home community; little wonder that his house is being preserved as a monument.
One of the helpful documents for Swede Bend research is the online map collection of turn-of-the-century counties and townships. There one can find the names Linn, Björk and others. They also pinpoint the location of churches. The Webster county GenWeb site is a good place to begin. We wondered why the railroad line took a swing to the north a mile or more on these maps before returning to its westward course across the river. Seeing the lay of the land made it obvious; there was quite a grade to negotiate.