Little Sweden in the Valley: Kingsburg, CaliforniaJuly 11, 2016
You’d think that being the home of the world’s largest box of raisins is what would put Kingsburg, California on the map. Or perhaps the claim to fame of this San Joaquin Valley town – just about halfway between L.A. and Sacramento – is that it’s the birthplace of movie star Slim Pickens, he of that distinctively hoarse Western twang, or even Olympic gold medal decathlete Rafer Johnson. Then there are those who know Kingsburg as a stop on the popular Fresno County Blossom Trail, a meandering route through the central valley’s fruit tree orchards in the weeks leading up to spring’s official arrival.
All of that plays second fiddle to Kingsburg’s most celebrated distinction – its moniker as “Little Sweden,” celebrated with Swedish festivals, Dala horse lampposts, Norse cuisine and a 60,000-gallon water tower fashioned to look like a giant Swedish coffee pot.
Välkommen to Kingsburg.
The story of the town’s Swedish roots is not an unfamiliar one. Not long after Andrew Erickson emigrated from Sweden to Michigan, he set his horizons farther west and landed in the rich farmland south of Fresno in 1886. Soon other Swedish immigrants would follow, and three and a half decades later, “Little Sweden” already was living up to its name: 94 percent of the town’s 1,300 residents were of Swedish descent.
While Kingsburg has grown and diversified over the years – tripling in size since 1970 and today with a population more than 40 percent Hispanic – its Swedish legacy remains a defining part of the town’s cultural life. The architecture in downtown Kingsburg has a decidedly Swedish flavor. The buildings boast ornate decorative elements, bold colors and kitschy, whimsical patterns. And then there are the ubiquitous Dala horses – the town’s unofficial emblem – riding herd throughout the quaint business district.
And speaking of that prominent symbol of Swedish life, the Dala Horse also is the name of one of Kingsburg’s most popular Swedish-themed restaurants. Best known for its breakfast – featuring its signature Swedish pancakes with the requisite lingonberry sauce and a side of Swedish potatoe (yes, the Dan Quayle spelling) sausage. If you fall in love with Dala Horse’s delicate pancakes, not to worry as you can take a package of its secret pancake mix home with you.
Down the block on Kingsburg’s main drag is the Svensk Butik Gift Shop, a fixture on Draper Street for just over 30 years. The shop’s shelves are adorned with all manner of Swedish-themed wares – Dala horse earrings, Swedish gingersnap cookies, chocolates and spices, linens and tableware, flower wreaths, a Swedish flag iPhone case and even a Pippi Longstocking wig. And that’s just scratching the surface. No one ever seems to leave June Olsson Hess’s shop emptyhanded.
Vestiges of Kingsburg’s history punctuate the town. Some of its oldest buildings, including 19th-century schoolhouse and homestead, are part of the town’s historical park, as are exhibits featuring aspects of immigrant life.
Kingsburg celebrates its Swedish heritage each year with the Kingsburg Swedish Festival, now a half-century-old tradition that revels in all things Svensk. The weekend-long event kicks off on evening with a pea soup and pancake dinner, followed by the crowing of the Swedish Festival queen. Over the next two days, revelers can enjoy a giant Swedish smorgasbord with traditional hot and cold dishes, a Swedish pancake breakfast, a parade and maypole dance and a Viking battle reenactment. And throughout the weekend, there are live dance performances, Swedish folk music and plenty of opportunities to shop for Swedish-themed food, merchandise and knick-knacks up and down Draper Street.
Looking down on the festivities – as it does all year – is the town’s signature landmark, the 122-foot-high water tower, first erected in 1911 but retrofitted as a Swedish coffee pot – with handle and spout and swirling decorative patterns – in 1985.
The landmark has become a kitschy roadside attraction visible, even at night, from Highway 99, and much easier to find than the box of raisins.