This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
The Swedes who came to the Rock Island area in the 1850s and ‘60s to work for John Deere are known to be a reticent bunch. They have shared a few of the customs they brought with them from the old country—lutefisk, meatballs, and those orange dala horses lined up on mantles—but it is just like Swedes to have kept the lilac house a deep dark secret.
I'm about to tell on them. Every back yard deserves a lilac house. Dorothy Roseman, who ran the old College Drug in Rock Island told me how to do it. She remembered them from Sweden and from her own Moline back yard.
Make a ring in a corner of your yard ten or twelve feet in diameter. Every three feet or so around this circle, plant a lilac shoot. Leave one small opening as a door.
Lilacs grow fast. The second year begin trimming the lilac bushes on the inside of the ring to keep the area open. By the third year the lilac bushes will have grown out to form a hedge. Year four, when the hedge reaches seven feet, stop trimming the inside walls of your lilac house, so that branches overhead can grow into a roof as protection against the sun and even light rains. The soft patter of raindrops on the leaves will only add to the magic.
What gazebo of dead wood could match your living lilac house for color and fragrance, for sturdiness? Who could pass by and not be enticed in? A lilac house is the perfect place for morning coffee with two or three friends, for cool green afternoon thoughts, for writing letters and journals.
With a bit of trimming and thinning out old branches, a lilac house will last your lifetime. Your children can play house amid the lilacs or listen to grandma read stories. Young people can hold hands there, and fall in love, and take their rest in old age.
Unlike lutefisk and dala horses, the lilac house has real roots. Think how much more beautiful and loving a world this would be had the Swedes given us their lilac houses—and kept their lutefisk secret.
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.