Swedish Days: A Midsommar Mainstay

At one time, nearly half of the residents of Geneva could claim ancestry from Sweden. While that’s not so much the case these days, the Swedes have left an indelible mark on this community, and it’s on full display during the annual Swedish Days Festival. Now going 72 years strong, this event is the best of traditions new and old.

Swedish Days in the 1950s and 1960s brought out many families in traditional Swedish clothing, paying tribute to relatives who’d immigrated from Europe half a century earlier. (Geneva History Museum photos)

All year long, residents of Geneva look forward to the annual Swedish Days Festival. Business owners plan for their best sales of the year, children eagerly anticipate a carnival popping up down the street, and foodies of all ages salivate over Swedish options that put IKEA’s meatballs to shame.

This year, Geneva’s 72nd Annual Swedish Days Festival runs Wednesday through Sunday, June 22-26. Laura Rush, communications manager for the Geneva Chamber of Commerce, which oversees the event, expects more than 200,000 people to attend throughout the week.

“I love to see the smiles on faces, especially first-timers to the festival,” she says. “They not only discover Swedish Days, but many also discover Geneva for the first time. It is not unusual to hear a story of a family moving here after they came for the festival. It makes it all worth it.”

An Ode to Swedish Heritage
Sweden in the late 1800s was overpopulated, says Terry Emma, executive director of the Geneva History Museum. There weren’t enough jobs for everyone, and the poor soil in most of Sweden made it hard for families to make a living as farmers. This led to heavy emigration to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when approximately 1.3 million Swedes left for the United States.

(Geneva History Museum photos)

It was work on the railroad that brought the first wave of Swedish immigrants to Geneva in the 1850s, Emma adds. But the biggest influx of Swedes occurred between 1880 and 1900. By 1895, an estimated 50% of the city’s population was Swedish. The east side of Geneva was referred to as “over there in Sweden,” and Swedish was spoken in homes and on the streets until the early 1900s.

Most people who stop by Swedish Days weren’t even born when “Geneva Days” began more than 70 years ago. The very first festival, lacking much of today’s glitz and glam, was held shortly after World War II ended, when goods were rebounding to marketplace shelves after wartime shortages. The retail division of the Geneva Chamber of Commerce started a small midsummer promotion, where shoppers could find special bargains at local stores over a three-day period. Children under age 12 were permitted to attend a free matinee at the Geneva Theater so their parents had more freedom to shop. Thus, the Swedish Days Festival was born.

After the first two years, Bill Sanders, the chairman of the special events committee of the Geneva Chamber of Commerce, changed the name of the festival to “Swedish Days” as a way to honor the considerable number of people of Swedish origin living in Geneva. The local Geneva Republican newspaper reported of Swedish antiques dazzling in store window fronts, and decorations with Swedish colors adorning the streets. Swedish foods were featured in many restaurants, and an overall “Swedish” atmosphere permeated throughout the city. A choral group of 65 singers performed Swedish selections on the final night, capping off a successful three-day festival.

“We are not unlike any other town that has a strong heritage,” says Rush. “There are still many generations of Swedish families living here, myself included. In fact, the Chicago area in general has many Swedish areas.”

Throughout the years, Swedish Days has changed to fit the times. In 1954, the festival became known as “Butter Days,” tas a promotional event between the Chamber and the Pure Milk Association. During those years, the festival included farm shows, dog shows and, for the first time, a parade.

In 1958, the festival returned to highlighting Geneva’s Swedish pride at the forefront. The festival dates were permanently changed from July to June to celebrate the beginning of the summertime. Merchants donned themselves and their businesses in Swedish garb, and, according to the Geneva Republican, everything had a Swedish aspect to it from the food to the entertainment, including a visit from the Swedish Council of Chicago.

(Geneva History Museum photos)

The festival was interchangeably called “Swedish Festival” and “Geneva’s Fest” as the years went on. Throughout the 1960s, the festival began to feature expanded activities for children and more mainstream music. During this decade, “Swedish royalty” became recognized for the first time, including a king, queen, prince and princess of Swedish Days.

As festival attendance grew, so did the extravaganza of the whole event. In 1972, the festival permanently changed from three days to six. Since then, activities have been introduced, removed or reintroduced, including fireworks, an art show, a craft show, a flea market, beer gardens, flash mobs, nonprofit food booths, hula hoop contests, music contests, drum and bugle contests, street dance contests, float-building contests, and even an ice cream-eating contest. A favorite event to pay respect to the Swedish heritage of the city is “Geneva Settler’s Coffee,” where longtime Geneva residents (those who have lived here at least 15 years) get to enjoy breakfast and special recognition.

“This year, we are celebrating 72 years of Swedish Days,” Rush says. “With a festival that is honored and cherished, to keep it going for 72 years, it has to evolve with the times. But events like the carnival, food booths and shopping have been around for as long as I can remember growing up here.”

Though the festival has changed, it’s still true to its original intention of encouraging people to shop local. Sales and bargains at local shops have been a part of every festival, as flashy ads in the Geneva Republican remind us.

These days, the grand parade on the final festival day is a major highlight. Eye-catching floats, talented community marching bands, prancing horses and other extraordinary performers entertain for more than 2 hours.

“We usually say around 200,000 will arrive over June 22-26, including about 45,000 at the parade on Sunday alone,” Rush says. “We pride ourselves on changing with the times, preserving favorites while introducing new things. We like to keep Swedish Days traditionally fresh.”

Since its conception, Swedish Days has brought special sales and promotions at Geneva’s local businesses. (Geneva History Museum photos)

Swedish Days has always been organized by the Geneva Chamber of Commerce, but somewhere along the way, it became a community effort to pull off.

“It truly is a community festival,” Rush says. “The shops and restaurants stay open late and offer specials. There are sponsors that support us financially so we are able to bring new events to the festival and continue to expand the favorites. The volunteers who assist with answering questions, our Chamber Board who encourages us to think outside the box, and of course the City of Geneva who help us with police, fire and public works departments… We are only a team of six at the Chamber, so truly we welcome and so appreciate everyone who helps us.”

Swedish Days 2022
Affectionately nicknamed “The Granddaddy of Illinois Festivals,” Swedish Days offers an abundance of free entertainment throughout the week. Nightly musical entertainment on Central Stage kicks off Wednesday with performances from the Geneva Park District and Geneva’s Got Talent. Festivalgoers are invited to lounge on the courthouse lawn while enjoying featured artists on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons from 1-3 p.m. Additionally, the Swedish Days Car Show is back on South Third Street on Thursday from 5-8 p.m.

“Music has been an integral part of the week, but that has definitely changed,” Rush says. “There used to be some big bands playing, and Saturday night was always ‘street dance night.’ Now, we have two bands Thursday, Friday and Saturday and we try to work with different genres, as we know demographics are from ages 1 to 100. We try to find music everyone can dance, tap their feet or sing to.”

The Swedish band Jaerv is the headlining act for the Swedish Days musical stage on Saturday, June 25. (Geneva Chamber photo)

This year, the festival is featuring the band Jaerv from Sweden on Saturday night.

“We are quite confident the crowd will respond very well to them,” Rush says. “These are the sorts of things we do to keep Swedish Days relevant.”

Some shops offer specials all week, but a must-visit shopping destination is Sweden Väst, Rush adds. Introduced in 2012, Sweden Väst has become one of the most popular events of the festival. Picture an area of all things Swedish, including entertainment, vendors and food. Sponsored by Stockholm’s Restaurant & Brewery, Sweden Väst takes place on Saturday and Sunday.

This year, Stockholm’s is co-sponsoring Sweden Väst with Friends of the Viking Ship (FOVS), says Olesen. FOVS is a local organization dedicated to saving and preserving a replica Viking longship that sailed from Norway to Chicago for the World’s Fair in 1893. The ship is approximately 78 feet long and can be viewed during the festival.

“Swedish Days is a festival that has continued to evolve through the years, and Sweden Väst is one of those events now available,” says Michael Olesen, owner of Stockholm’s Restaurant & Brewery in downtown Geneva. “Swedish Väst is there to help reconnect us to our Scandinavian roots. It includes food, crafts and history about what makes Scandinavian culture such a wonderful influence on our culture today.”

“If you are looking for that Swedish Days souvenir, this is where you will find it,” Rush adds.

Rush reminds festivalgoers to come hungry, since food booths feature traditional Swedish fare in addition to American and ethnic foods, including brats, corn dogs, turkey legs, sandwiches, meatballs, pizza, garlic crab pasta and roasted corn, to name only some options. “Sinfully good” desserts will also be available, Rush adds. And of course, if you’ve lived in Geneva for more than 15 years, be sure to join the Geneva Settlers Breakfast on June 23 at 8:30 a.m. It’s held this year at Copper Fox, 477 S. Third Street.

“During Swedish Days, many of the local nonprofit organizations have food booths spread throughout the downtown. I make it a point to support each and every one of them during the week,” Olesen says. “By supporting them during Swedish Days, they are able to support our local citizens in need throughout the year.”

Dining downtown at casual bistros or formal, five-star eateries is also an option. Plus, beer gardens offer food, drink and entertainment throughout the festival, including the Chamber’s Craft Beer Tent on James Street.

The carnival is open every day, and each day offers an unlimited ride wristband. Young visitors can also enjoy favorites such as a dodgeball tournament, 3-on-3 basketball tournament and mini-golf. June 24 is “Kids’ Day” where, from early in the morning to late into the night, kids can stay entertained, Rush adds. The day begins with the Kids’ Parade leaving from the Kane County Courthouse lawn on the Campbell Street side, and the fun continues with activities at the Geneva Public Library, both outside and inside.

Carnival activities keep the children entertained throughout Swedish Days, scheduled this year for June 22-26. (Geneva Chamber photo)

The Swedish Days 5K Lopp takes place Thursday, June 23 at 7 p.m. at the Northwestern Medicine Cross Country Course. And of course, the grand parade takes place on Sunday afternoon.

As Geneva locals, Rush and Olesen swell with pride when reminiscing about Swedish Days. It’s an event that makes them both proud to call Geneva home.

“I was born in Geneva and fondly recall all of my Swedish Days experiences,” Olesen says. “Roaming the town and carnival (unsupervised) when I was a young boy. As a teenager, getting together with friends and staying out late listening to the music on the Courthouse lawn. As an older teen, working for a small business on Third Street during Sidewalk Sales. As a young adult, enjoying the various beer gardens spread throughout the town. Circling back around as a father, now taking my daughter to the carnival. As a business owner of Stockholm’s for the past 20 years, serving those who have come to enjoy Swedish Days. Lastly, now on the Board of the Geneva Chamber of Commerce, being an integral part in creating the Craft Beer Tent supporting our local breweries. I love Swedish Days. I have always loved everything about it.”