Once the promised land, a Lake Pepin village now is a favorite day trip.
© Beth Gauper
At a festival, a grandmother dances with her grandkids on Spring Street.
Once, people went through hell to get to Stockholm, Wis.
It's different nowadays. It's only a joy ride away from the Twin Cities, and the streets of this pretty hamlet on Lake Pepin are lined with sports cars and motorcycles on weekends.
There are shops, galleries, inns, a pub; it's the place to go for a room with a view or vroom with a brew.
In 1854, this bit of land at the foot of the Mississippi bluffs was the destination of more than 200 emigrants from the impoverished village of Bjurtjärn, Sweden. Promised "paradise on earth," they instead endured cholera, deprivation and betrayal.
Until recently, the locals assumed all the immigrants who left had made it to Stockholm. Then, the Bjurtjärn Theatre Group showed up in town with their historical play "Off to America: They Sold Their Homesteads."
"We found out things we didn't know happened," said Pat Carlson, who helped her husband, Wally Zick, arrange the first performance. "Some of it is shocking."
Then the 50 members of the Swedish troupe returned to Village Park for a second show, using their own nine-piece orchestra and sets built by Zick.
Speaking dialogue in English and singing in Swedish, they told the engrossing story of how Stockholm really was founded, based on a 19th-century article in a Swedish newspaper and their own research.
In rural Sweden, farmhand Petter Pettersson had read news of the Gold Rush. In 1849, he left for America with his brothers Erik and Anders, who felt oppressed not just by poverty but also by rigid social classes enforced by a tyrannical pastor, district judge and constable.
Petter and Anders went to California, but Erik worked as a lumberjack on the Mississippi, where he found a town site on Lake Pepin.
He wrote home to the oldest brother, Jakob, and not long after Jakob had left for America, Erik returned to Sweden to recruit colonists with tales of free land and "soil rich like butter."
In 1854, he left Bjurtjärn with more than 200 people, from the richest landowner to the wife of the town drunk, who had her husband declared "incapacitated" so she could leave without him.
© Beth Gauper
Shoppers go into a gift shop in Stockholm's one-block downtown.
But Erik was a scoundrel. He pocketed their money and put them into the cheapest ship's quarters, where many became ill; on the train west, he packed them into cattle cars.
A third of the villagers died, including his own mother, whom he pretended not to know so he could avoid paying for her funeral.
Others decamped in Moline, Ill., after sending a sheriff to retrieve some of their money, and the man who became known as the "King of Stockholm" arrived with only 30 colonists.
A Swedish-Wisconsin connectionMany of Jakob's descendants were in the audience, including Sally Meixner of Stockholm.
"I was surprised they remembered us," she said. "There must be all kinds of stories that are passed on."
Jakob and his small party also encountered adversity on the way over.
The captain of their ship died, and his inexperienced son took over, ramming the boat into an iceberg before veering south to the tropics; in Moline, the Petterssons' daughter died.
In Stockholm, Jacob and his wife, Sara, a daughter of the feared district judge, lived in a log cabin for 15 years, until Jacob built a two-story stone cottage modeled after a painting of Sara's childhood home.
It still has its original maple floors, carefully crafted window moldings and 15-inch-thick stone walls, but now it's filled with work by local artists, such as the pierced-metal lamps made by Pepin blacksmith Tom Latané.
"Artists are the heartbeat of this area," says Krebs, who arrived in 1980, the year the first gallery opened.
Once, 300 people lived in Stockholm. They farmed and ran stores but also brewed lemon beer, bred kosher carp and dredged for clams used in buttons, eking out a living any way they could.
But the town site was more pretty than practical, and there was no way for the town to grow.
It had virtually withered away by the time artistic types from the Twin Cities found it and opened the gallery, antiques and gifts shops and a cafe.
New life as a shopping destination
Now, nearly all the businesses have turned over, and a new generation of shopkeepers is operating in Stockholm.
© Beth Gauper
Stockholm Gardens & Nursery sells perennials and annuals from its land overlooking the highway and river.
Shops occupy the old opera house/general store, anchored by Abode, which features the work of local artists, such as Gaylord Schanilec's prints, Mary Logue's hooked rugs, Perry Ingli's paintings and Lucy Elliott's shrines.
"It's unbelievable, the talent in this little tiny place," says proprietor Alan Nugent. "The premier talents in certain fields are located right here in Stockholm."
But what customers want most, he says, are pieces that portray bluffs, river scenes, barns — anything that looks like Stockholm.
"They want a piece of this place," he says. "There's something magical down here, and people respond to it. You hear about people who go down for a weekend visit and come back with a house."
That's about what happened to jazz pianist Butch Thompson and his wife, Mary Ellen Niedenfuer, who came to visit friends and ended up moving to Stockholm.
"We'd been exploring different places to live, but we'd go home to St. Paul and say, 'No, home is really much nicer,' " Niedenfuer said.
"We didn't do that about this place," Thompson said.
Niedenfuer helped organize the Lake Pepin Art and Design Center in Pepin, which offers art exhibits, workshops and music and film events.
"There are so many artists, and we're trying to get more of them to come out of the woods and get involved," she says.
The people who are attracted by Stockholm's beauty tend to sow more beauty.
Many of the hollyhocks and lilies now blooming in gardens up and down the river come from Stockholm Gardens, where Harley Cochran and Beth Shide sell a wide selection of plants and maintain a glorious perennial garden along the highway through which people can walk.
In the tiny downtown, the contents of shops have changed, but little else. The whitewash still is peeling on the limestone facade of the 1864 Merchants' Hotel building, now the Spring Street Inn.
Trains still thunder by next to the old house where veteran potter Diane Millner sells her stoneware. Birds nest under the sidewalk overhang of Northern Oak Amish furniture, in an old farm-implements store that's still heated by a wood-burning stove.
Around the corner, Nancy Fitzsimons and daughter Shana Finnegan have opened The Palate in an old-fashioned but brand-new bungalow where they hold cooking classes and sell kitchenware, wine and gourmet food.
Finnegan bustles around her countertop, preparing tasty morsels to offer customers. She grew up in Stockholm, she said, and inherited a love of entertaining from her Swedish grandmother.
© Beth Gauper
The grounds of the Great River B&B include a barn.
"One thing we like to do is feed people," Finnegan said. "My grandmother's philosophy was, you always have a cup of coffee on and something sweet to eat. That's kind of the premise we operate on here."
A few doors down, Ingebretsen's av Stockholm is the sole outpost of the beloved Minneapolis gift shop that has served Scandinavians there since 1921.
"It's pretty crazy but fun," says Sally Meixner.
Visitors listen to music, snack on ice cream or pie and shop their hearts out. For a break, they sit on the benches along Spring Street and watch the world go by.
For the first settlers, Stockholm was home but hardly the paradise on earth they'd been promised. To day-trippers, though, it's close enough.
Trip Tips: Stockholm
Getting there: It's 1½ hours from the Twin Cities. If you drive via Prescott, stop to check out the Great River Road Visitor and Learning Center on Wisconsin 35 south of town, overlooking the confluence of the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers.
When to go: On Thursdays and Fridays in summer, nearly all the shops and restaurants are open, but there's less motorcycle traffic on the River Road.
A few shops close for a day early in the week, but most are open daily through October, then weekends through Christmas; they close for winter and reopen for weekends in March.
Non-motorcyclists may want to avoid the spring and fall benefit Flood Runs, when thousands of bikers circle Lake Pepin. In 2016, they're April 16 and Sept. 17.
© Beth Gauper
The 1869 Great River B&B on Lake Pepin was built for one of the first settlers.
Accommodations: If you think the trains will bother you, bring earplugs.
The Great River B&B, Jacob Peterson's 1869 house, is on a lovely acreage with a barn just south of town next to Stockholm Gardens. It's full of original artwork, antiques and books and has gas fireplaces and a single whirlpool.
There are three bedrooms, but proprietor Leland Krebs rents to only two people at a time. He returns in the morning to prepare a light breakfast. 800-657-4756.
On the hill above town, the turn-of-the-century, three-bedroom TansyHus sleeps nine in six beds. Pets may be accepted.
Downtown, the Spring Street Inn in the old Merchants Hotel includes a two-room suite with kitchenette and sleeps four. 651-528-9616.
The Historic Stockholm Hotel sleeps up to 18 in six bedrooms. Dogs are welcome.
Within walking distance, the Splendide is a two-bedroom, two-bath renovated 19th-century stone farmhouse.
For smaller wallets, the Great River Amish Inn in Pepin has nice motel rooms. Call 715-442-5400.
There's camping in Stockholm's Village Park, right on Lake Pepin. It's $14 for tents, $18 for RVs, first-come, first-served. There are toilets but no showers and no sewage station for RVs.
Dining: The Stockholm Pie & General Store Company serves dessert pies made from scratch and also pot pies and quiche. In the general store, pick up cheeses and Wisconsin wines and beers, including those from New Glarus.
Gelly's Pub and Eatery is a friendly place with good food and a nice deck. Its menu of burgers and pizza is augmented by such specials as fajitas, chicken-wild rice soup and rhubarb crisp, and it has a decent beer list.
In Stockholm, the courtyard of Bogus Creek Cafe and Bakery is very pretty.
Tuesday night is Pizza Night at A to Z Produce & Bakery in the bluffs above Stockholm, where Ted Fisher and Robbi Bannen create pizzas with farm vegetables and meats and bake them in wood-fired brick ovens from 4:30 to 8 p.m. Bring your own drinks, napkins and plates for a picnic. It's at N2956 Anker Lane, 715-448-4802.
For more about dining in the area, see A spin around Lake Pepin.
In Pepin, the Harbor View Cafe in Pepin is very popular, but evening diners should get there by 4:45 p.m. to avoid a long wait; the restaurant does not take reservations, 715-442-3893. For dining al fresco, the Pickle Factory has a deck and a view of Lake Pepin.
Nightlife: Check the calendar of WideSpot Performing Arts Center on Spring Street.
Cooking classes: The Palate offers cooking classes with local chefs. Call 715-442-6400 to register.
Information: Stockholm tourism, 715-442-9077.
Last updated on May 26, 2016