Visitors to Yosemite and California National Parks do a double take as they approach the Swedish Village of Kingsburg on Highway 99. Whatever is a Swedish village doing in the San Joaquin Valley, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco?
Many tourists stop at the bright new California Welcome Center and venture down the citys main street called Draper. Looming above is the citys water tower in the form of a Swedish "rosemaled" coffee pot and every where you go you see Swedish touches like wood-shingled roofs, domer windows and half-timbers. You spot dozens of dala horses, Dalecarlian murals and there is a working Mora clock outside the City Hall, that was declared the most beautiful building in Fresno County in 1913. The Kingsburg Chamber of Commerce actively encourages businesses and residents to enhance the Swedish character of the village.
At first Kingsburg may feel a bit too heavily Swedish-themed. (Its a bit like the pancakes at the Dala Horse restaurant. Nice and thin like Swedish ones with lingonberry sauce in a squeeze bottle, but just a bit too heavy on the powdered sugar.)But then again the atmosphere is nice and small-town America and the town starts to grow on you. And the more you explore the wide pretty streets of this historical village with a Swedish pedigree the more you start to like it.
The area around Kingsburg was first settled by sheep ranchers in the middle of the 19th century. They observed how the Natunut Indians cut ditches from Kings River to bring water to their crops and followed their example. The was the start of a irrigation system that made the whole valley bloom. In 1875 came the railway and the news of good farming, warm climate and free government land began to spread.
Frank Rosendahl from Närke and Andrew Erikson from Ishepeming, Michigan were the first in a decade of Swedish migration that gave the town its special character. By 1921, according to a survey , 94 percent of the population within a three-mile radius of Kingsburg was Swedish. Today you still meet Swedish-speaking citizens but the "Swedish" portion of the 7 500-strong community is probably no more than 25 percent.
Kingsburg is extremely clean and well-kept and has the lowest crime rate in the Valley. The police force consists of 13 full time and 13 reserve officers. The wholesomeness of the community goes back to the early days before widespread irrigation, when the citys wealth was in wheat and it was even called Wheatville. The town had plenty of saloons for the transient workers who moved from farm to farm and it was not unusual for them to fire their guns when they celebrated. The townsfolk became more and more alarmed and eventually organized themselves as the the "drys" who managed to outlaw all but two saloons when Kingsburg was incorporated in 1908. Two is still the maximum number of saloons permitted to operate in Kingsburg.
At one end of the pretty Draper Street you find the railway and the dala horse crested depot building that is a historical monument and might eventually become a Swedish museum. At the other end of Draper Street is a Memorial Park with a three-crowned fountain. The park has a bandstand where the communitys famous 9-piece municipal band still gives much-loved performances. It is the fourth bandstand of a tradition that started in 1887 when a Swedish cornetist by the name of Claus arrived fresh from the Stockholm Conservatory and managed to form a Kingsburg band of 15 that first played on the railway platform. By the time Claus left town two years later the band had 23 members. Today it is Dale Engstrom who holds the baton and continues the tradition with the all-volunteer band. He is the fourth generation in the band along with five other family members.
Not far form the bandstand past Kingsburg High (home of the Vikings) is Kingsburg Historical Park. Several historical structures from the area have been relocated here. You can visit the Olson house full of memorabilia constructed in 1908 by Peter Olson who was born in Skåne in 1857. He worked as a logger in Minnesota and learned the carpenters trade before moving to Kingsburg where he became a successful grape grower. You will also see a medical building, a general store, a school house, a service station, an old windmill and five covered wagons. The latest addition is a firehouse with a soon-to-come antique fire engine and ambulance. In the back you see the Olson Brothers Welding Building showcasing the engineering ingenuity of the Swedish farmers that also produced the 1923 patented Larson Box Booster Pump.
Kingsburg is situated in the San Joaquin Valley, the richest agricultural valley in the world. The city is the home of world-famous Sun Maid Raisin Growers and the Del Monte plant still plays a major role. The plant started out as the Kingsburg Cooperative Cannery and it was thanks to its superintendent by the name of Swensen that it kept open all through the 1932 depression and the rough economic times that followed. Today the area is a "redevelopment" zone with an active chamber of commerce and economic incentives for commercial and industrial projects to take a serious look at the Swedish village.
One Swede who has discovered Kingsburg is Kjell Liljedahl who has opened Gustavus of Kingsburg on Draper Street offering Swedish-made furniture in the Gustavian style. The Gothenburg native who first worked as a contractor in Redondo Beach purchased 96 acres near Kingsburg and built his dream house there. Now he is heralding a rebirth of Swedish tradition in the village and hopes that other Swedes with an artistic vision and handicraft skills will follow suit to this unique place with so much tradition and goodwill to offer to Swedes.
One of the best times to visit Kingsburg is during its four-day long Swedish Festival held in May before it gets too hot during Midsummer. There are pancake breakfasts, parades and the coronation of the Festival Queen and dance around the maypole. The festivities have become more and more authentically Swedish in later years after locals started travelling more to Sweden and more present day Swedes visited and also settled down in the area.