Midsommar Fun: Geneva’s 72nd Swedish Days

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 anticipate the carnival 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.”

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.

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 1900s.

Most people who stop by Swedish Days weren’t even born when “Geneva Days” began more than 70 years ago, shortly after World War II ended. The retail division of the Geneva Chamber of Commerce started a small promotion, where shoppers could find special bargains at local stores. After two years, it became known as “Swedish Days.”

Ever since, activities have been introduced, removed or reintroduced, but a favorite event is the city’s “Geneva Settler’s Coffee,” where longtime residents (those who have lived here at least 15 years) get to enjoy breakfast and special recognition.

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.

These days, the grand parade on the final day is a major highlight. Eye-catching floats, talented community marching bands, prancing horses and other performers entertain for more than 2 hours. Nearly 45,000 people turn out, says Rush.

This year’s Swedish Days offers an abundance of free entertainment. Nightly musical acts on Central Stage kick off Wednesday. 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.

This year the band Jaerv, from Sweden, headlines Saturday night’s activities.

Some shops offer specials all week, but a must-visit shopping destination is Sweden Väst, Rush adds. Picture an area of all things Swedish, including entertainment, vendors and food.

This year, Stockholm’s Restaurant & Brewery is co-sponsoring Sweden Väst with Friends of the Viking Ship (FOVS). 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 can be viewed during the festival.

“Sweden Väst is there to help reconnect us to our Scandinavian roots,” says Michael Olesen, owner of Stockholm’s Restaurant & Brewery.

Food booths feature traditional Swedish fare in addition to American and ethnic foods, including brats, corn dogs, turkey legs, sandwiches, meatballs and pizza. The Geneva Settlers Breakfast is at Copper Fox, 477 S. Third St., on June 23 at 8:30 a.m.

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 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.

Geneva locals swell with pride when reminiscing about Swedish Days. It’s an event that makes them both proud to call this community home.

“I love Swedish Days,” says Oleson. “I have always loved everything about it.”

For information on Swedish Days, contact Geneva Chamber of Commerce, 8 S. Third St., Geneva, (630) 232-6060.