Dala Horses and Lindsborg
The Story of a City and a Swedish Horse
Only in Lindsborg. That’s an often-used phrase in and about this central Kansas plains town of 3,200. Founded by Swedish immigrants in 1868, Lindsborg has emerged as an unusual blend of cultural heritage, education, visual arts, agriculture, music, theater, and more than its share of independent thinkers.
The Swedish pioneers who founded Lindsborg and Bethany College brought Dala Horses with them to remind them of their homeland. They were toys for children and family heirlooms with an ancient history filled with symbolism. The name "Dala" (pronounced "daw-la") comes from the Swedish province of "Dalarna," in central Sweden. The familiar bright red decorated horses originated in the 1800s when the painted kurbit or flower-patterned saddle was regularly added to the horse.
Traditions vary in giving credit to woodsmen and to soldiers for originating the craft. The Dala Horse had gained international popularity when it was chosen by the National Crafts Union for part of the Swedish display at the Paris Exposition in the mid-19th century. Skills for creating the Dala Horse have been passed from generation to generation and today it is one of the few living folk traditions of Sweden and, one might say, even of Lindsborg.
With Lindsborg's strong ties to Sweden, the Dala Horse was adopted several decades ago as Lindsborg's community identity icon and welcome symbol. It seems appropriate that the Dala Horse was selected by the City of Lindsborg as its symbol of identity with Swedish customs. The practice of using a Dala Horse-shaped plaque at the entry of homes, bearing the address or family surname, was begun in Lindsborg by local artists in the early 1960's.
In Lindsborg, the Dala Horse is to be seen in many different places - the City's letterhead, on City trucks, police cars, on storefronts, as decorative additions to many homes, and, probably most commonly, as bright welcoming house signs on local residences. Often the name of those living in the house is painted on the side of the horse, sometimes the street number of the house, and often a Swedish greeting (either "Välkommen" or "Kom Igen") is added as well.
Local artisans have been crafting a variety of Dala Horses for many years, and Lindsborg hosts one of the country's most well-known Dala Horse factories in the Hemslojd, a Scandinavian gift store and workshop where Dala Horse-shaped signs are crafted and personalized. The Hemslojd also handcrafts other Swedish-style wooden items, especially door harps and clocks along with custom etched glassware.
Of course, Lindsborg is known for a lot more than the horses. Foremost is its heritage. Nearly half the town's residents have Swedish ancestors. Even today the town's phone book is filled with names like Swenson, Anderson and Johnson. Two popular celebrations, "Svensk Hyllningsfest" and "Midsummers" commemorate the town's Swedish heritage with folk music, dancing, arts, crafts and ethnic foods. The Swedes brought with them a great love of the arts and today the town takes its cultural responsibilities seriously, supporting more than 60 artists and a dozen art galleries along with the annual Messiah festival. The Messiah festival, which has been held every Easter week since 1882 at Bethany College, is the oldest continuous live performance of Handel’s Messiah in the country and twice has been televised nationally.
Lindsborg has created the nation’s only herd of Wild Dala Horses. In 2000, Lindsborg decided to cast the traditional Dala shape in large fiberglass forms, an idea patterned after Chicago’s cows on Michigan Avenue. Local people and folks with Lindsborg connections have sponsored each Wild Dala. Each is unconventionally decorated by one on the town's many local artists. New additions to the herd are feted in a public unveiling party complete with street theater and parody songs sung by the crowd. A brochure of the Wild Dala Horses is available; it lists the location and story behind each horse. New Wild Dalas are occasionally rounded up.