Sign of the times

The Midsommardag, or Midsummer’s Day fete is a tradition that in Sweden marks summer solstice, the longest day of the year. The festival was brought to Kansas by immigrants.

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.