Geneva's Swedish Days

Even having grown up in Geneva, Illinois and spending most of my life in the Fox River Valley, I was mostly unaware of what Swedish Days was all about. I certainly didn’t know much about Geneva’s history and how the Swedish population influenced the area. And then a good friend with Swedish heritage shared his great-grandmother’s recipe for Swedish sausage. That’s an entirely different story. But I thought I’d share some history with you. I hope you’ll find it as interesting as I did.

Swedish dancing

Once known as Big Springs – back in the early 1800s – Geneva, Illinois has an incredibly rich and storied history. The proud Pottawatomi Indians and their chief, Waubonsee, called the area home; those names can be seen attached to many places in the Fox River Valley: from the excellent Pottawatomi Park along the banks of the Fox River in Saint Charles to the fine Waubonsee Community College located on State Route 47, just to the southwest of Geneva.

If names like Dodson, Herrington, Hamilton, Campbell, Ford, Bennett and Peck – to name just a few – sound familiar, it’s because they were some of the original residents of Geneva. Some of those original settlers included those who came from New England. Others literally stumbled upon the area and fell in love with the beauty of the forests, fields and scenic river that flowed past. Some crossed the ocean from Italy; others from Ireland and Sweden. The dramatic transformation in Geneva’s population was aided greatly by the first railroad service to Geneva. By 1900, approximately half of Geneva’s ever-growing population had roots from overseas.

Scandanavians brought with them many traditions from the “old country”, including the Swede’s Svenskarnas Dag, or Midsummer Festival; it was the original Swede’s Day. Begun in 1911 in Evanston, IL, the festival began to celebrate that time when the sun was at its highest point in the sky: mid-summer and symbolized by the May-Pole. In 1925, the celebration moved to Good Templar Park on the east side of Geneva, where a crowd of almost 20,000 people joined in the festivities.

Maypole

The Mid-Summer celebration in Good Templar Park is different from the one everyone now knows as Swedish Days, celebrated in downtown Geneva and started in 1949 by the Geneva Chamber of Commerce in order to attract visitors, celebrate the city’s rich Swedish heritage and to coincide with the Mid-Summer celebration at Good Templar Park.

That original and likely small celebration has led to an incredibly large and fun festival that annually features a carnival, endless musical talent (mostly featured on the old courthouse lawn), a plethora of food booths, a vintage-style trolley for the Geneva History Center Trolley Tour, a grand parade to end the celebration and of course, plenty of shopping opportunities in historic downtown Geneva, Illinois.

It’s easy to get to Geneva, especially by using Metra – the train makes a stop right at the south end of Third Street, and that’s where most everything takes place. So join me in Geneva during Mid-Summer, where you will have six days to celebrate all things Swedish!

Special thanks to the Geneva History Museum for some interesting background on Swedish Days.

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