Along my ethnic enclave tour, I came upon a town along Highway 99 that said: “Kingsburg Swedish Village.” If I wasn’t convinced something other than cowboys & country music was going on in the Central Valley, the windmill near the highway beckoned me to turn off and explore. Sure enough, I found Draper Street with Swedish facades, flags and dala horses. Mayor Bruce Blayney explains that in Kingsburg all commercial buildings are required to display a Swedish connection, such as using blue and yellow, the colors of the Swedish flag. Even the City Hall displays the American, Californian and Swedish flags together.
Stockholm Cafe and Bakery
I first stopped at the Stockholm Cafe and Bakery where I met Jann Coles, the owner. Her grandmother came from Sweden and Jann would like not only to see Swedish Village preserved, but a Swedish Center established. An enthusiast of the local history, Jann eagerly told me the wonderful history of Kingsburg Swedes.
The town was originally inhabited by rough bandit pioneers who came during the gold rush. The streets full of guns, drunks and crime, city officials wanted to change this trend, so they invited a large community of Swedes from Michigan to make the trek overland and settle in the Central Valley. Subject to ethnocentrism (due to the Germans in Michigan) by the 1900′s eighty percent of Kingsburg was Swedish.
But one generation later (around the 1950′s) their children had either moved away or became fully integrated. The Swedish flavor of the town waned. In the late 1970′s and early 1980′s, locals wanted to revive their Swedish heritage, so they brought Swedes over from the motherland to help build the facades we see today. Draper Street is the main drag where visitors can enjoy all things Swedish, peppered in with a Chinese restaurant and Pan Mexicano bread store, in keeping with the fluidity of ethnic enclaves.
The center attraction of Swedish Village is certainly Jann’s cafe where you can try Swedish pancakes for breakfast or a bevy of traditional dishes for lunch, including the Traditional Scandinavian, The Malmo, Royal Swedish Meatballs or The Nordic. Jann explains that the last remaining Swedish immigrant living in Kingsburg, Inga, comes in to eat here regularly. Jann sells traditional Lingonberry preserves, yellow peas for soup and the Leksands Knaecke with the Dalla Horse logo. She also displays a historical Kingsburg calendar, a newsletter and several other items that form the beginning of her future cultural center.
The Dala Horse
Next to her establishment is a large dala horse, the handcarved and painted symbol of Swedish handicraft. Behind the horse is an alley that leads to Draper Theater (also known as the E&e Performing Arts Center). Along the side of this alley, a Swedish mural colorfully depicts a map of Sweden as well as the names of Swedes who came to Kingsburg.
But since so few Swedish immigrants remain in Kingsburg, a controversy has spawned. Some inhabitants wonder if the array of ethnic groups who lived in Kingsburg should be equally commemorated alongside the Swedes. For example, a commemoration to Jimmy Johnson who graduated from Kingsburg High School in 1957 and became a San Francisco 49er football player sits along Draper Street. A multi-cultural mural against the public library recognizes Swedes alongside the native Nahuatl peoples. The original pioneers are also given tribute in this mural:
“The history of the Town of Kingsburg begins in the early 1870′s when the Central Pacific Railroad was built and the train stop was named “Kings River Switch.” Later it was named Wheatville, then Kingsbury in 1874. With its share of saloons, and bandits, it was considered one of the “toughest” towns to live in. Finally, on December 1, 1875, Josiah Draper and his friends finally established the first residences and named the town, Kingsburg. It was the influx and help from a diversity of cultures and religions, that the community of Kingsburg began to civilize itself. Finally on May 18, 1908 the Town of Kingsburg was officially incorporated.”
Bandit Alley To The Swedish Coffee Cup
Past the Dala Horse down George Boyle Lane, the Kingsburg Historical Society has commemorated its bandit past, citing the book Bit of Sweden in the Desert by Pauline Peterson Mathes that documents these stories. Constable George Boyle was shot to death by three escaped convicts. One placard details what happened to Boyle and another tells the story of a Lee Cowan who drank, fought and murdered a townsman and then disappeared forever.
A little beyond the alley, a mural shows a man helping a convict escape. The building used to be the Kingsburg County Jail, which has been turned into a small museum open to visitors.
If you look up, you’ll also notice the water tower has been turned into a Swedish teacup.
Swedish Village creates a grand festival every year during the third week of May. They also have two other festivals: Julgransfest, which is the lighting of the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving. The first Saturday of December is also the Santa Lucia Festival. Traditionally, the oldest daughter of the household wears a long white gown, a red sash and a glowing crown of candles. She awakens everyone in the morning and serves her household saffron buns and coffee as an opening to the Christmas season. In Kingsburg, festivities start early with girls in traditional dress serving breakfast. A street fair continues the fun along with a Gingerbread contest and a Parade of Lights.
Don’t Forget A Sidetrip to Sun Maid Raisins
Last but not least, down the road from here, you can visit the Sun Maid Store and see from afar (no tours available) the factory that makes the world’s largest bulk of raisins. Swedes made up part of the original cooperative founded more than a century ago by area farmers. Armenians were, however, the first raising growers in the Central Valley. (Stay tune for more about the Armenian communities next week!)