I’ve walked Bishop Hill’s brick and board sidewalks as an owner of a craft business; as a resident, a new pioneer of sorts; and as a parent raising children in an environment that showcased immigrant history yet provided access to new-age technology. I began my writing career under the tutelage of the editor of the Galva News just as the slow decline of newspapers became apparent. When I turned to writing fiction, I stood in front of the Steeple Building and decided that whatever I wrote would have two main goals. First, to make Bishop Hill a character as developed and alive as any other. Second, to use preservation as an overall theme, because at that time the stately structure needed restorative help. When my fictional woodworker said “This too can be saved” he was using the real mantra of Ron Nelson, a colony descendant and one of the driving forces behind the wave of preservation and restoration work begun in the 1960s. Add in the life’s work of the Swedish-born folk artist Olof Krans and you have the basic elements of my first novel, Clouds Over Bishop Hill.
Fast forward to this year’s June Midsommar Music Festival. I drove into Bishop Hill from Davenport to deliver posters for my latest book, Shadows Over Bishop Hill. At my first stop I was dismayed to find a petition asking for signatures to save historic colony-era buildings. Again, preservation and restoration were the main issues at hand. I was reminded of the time, years ago, I was stopped on the street by a distressed visitor who asked how I, as a resident, would let such a thing happen. I needed more information and was told about the roof of the Colony Church. I went to investigate and witnessed firsthand the dismal sight of blue sky showing through a gaping hole in the roof. I was shocked at what I saw and how I’d missed knowing about it before then. Thankfully, the roof got fixed along with other major repairs.
That was then, today’s Colony Church and the tarp-covered Olson barn stand in sharp contrast to the Steeple Building, which has been through several rounds of repairs and improvements completed far more recently than most of the state-owned property. No matter who owns an historic structure, care and maintenance must be ongoing and timely. Old wood exposed to nature’s elements cannot wait forever.
I have found the more I write about Bishop Hill, the more my thoughts about the meaning of preservation have expanded. Preservation doesn’t begin or end at just the upkeep of buildings; it encompasses individual lives, families, and communities—past, present, and future. I must commend Courtney Stone for his efforts to bring these issues to light with his petitions. We have a lot of work to do to make sure this part of American immigrant history and culture endures and never fades away.