Bengt Erlandsson opened his creation High Chaparral to the public in 1966. A unique place created by a unique man who combined a large helping of stubbornness, imagination and the perseverance characteristic of Småland to make his dream come true. What was initially meant as a manifesto for freedom is now one of Sweden’s most famous tourist attractions, with a unique theme shrouded in myth: The Wild West. Read the exciting story of Big Bengt, the man with the world’s wildest imagination.
The story of Big Bengt
Bengt Tage Erling Erlandsson, this story’s protagonist, is born on October 10, 1922, in the small village of Brännehylte in Småland. His parents, Carl and Hildur Erlandsson, run a logging operation and sawmill on their property. Bengt grows up with seven siblings. It is a childhood of play and mischief, but also of hard work. The parents toil at logging and farming and the sawmill, and the children are called on to do their share from an early age.
The dream of America comes over Bengt early as well. Life in the Småland countryside in the 1920s is marred by poor harvests and poverty, and many Smålanders choose to seek their fortune on the other side of the Atlantic. Bengt gets wind of these stories, since he often sits and listens in on the adults’ conversations. Whenever the farm has a visitor, Bengt takes his place at the kitchen table and is all ears. He gets to hear the most amazing stories of thrilling events and individual destinies. He is particularly fascinated by the stories of the brave Smålanders who emigrated to America. The farmers, loggers and businessmen who traveled to a foreign land on the other side of the world to start a new life for their families. Bengt’s curiosity grows and he devours every book he can get his hands on about the Wild West pioneers, and cowboys and Indians. At some point a dream is born of one day setting foot on American soil and seeing the settlers’ cities with his own eyes.
Bengt’s inner businessman in also awakened early. In Brännehylte his grandfather Alexander runs his own cottage industry producing items like brushes and brooms. Bengt is there almost every day, helping with both manufacturing and the books. Eventually he comes up with the idea of bringing brushes and brooms along to school in his schoolbag and selling them to the farms on his way home. His plan means many late evenings along the roads, but Bengt enjoys doing business and being able to earn his own money. At 13, he has managed to save up enough to buy his very own bike. His happiness is complete. Bengt loads the bike up with goods and expands his sales operations.
A young businessman
When Bengt finishes school he already has plenty of experience as a salesman and is a known personality in the Gnosjö region. In the late 1930s the area has only about 30 companies, but its budding business climate and entrepreneurship will give birth to the world-famous concept of the “Gnosjö spirit”.
Bengt helps his father with work on the farm for a few years before getting a driving license and hiring on as a milk truck driver in Hillerstorp. It is a job he enjoys, getting to drive between the dairy and the farms in the Gnosjö area and meeting people to talk and joke around with every day. At one of the farms he also meets his big love and companion for life Hillevi, who works there as a milkmaid.
On his rides in the milk truck, Bengt passes by rows of factories lining the roads. Discarded pieces of sheet metal and other waste material destined for scrapping are a common sight. Bengt thinks it’s a shame that so much perfectly good and useful material is going to waste, so he asks the manufacturers if they’ll let him take care of it. Eventually he buys a lathe and a planer and starts up his own small business at the farm back home in Brännehylte. This marks the start of Bengt’s life’s work and a long succession of deals and business operations. After the war, Bengt founds Brännehylte Mekaniska together with his brother-in-law Tage Björkman. The factory is located next to Bengt’s childhood home. Here they produce kitchen utensils, gardening tools, hinges and brackets, among others things. As the company grows, Bengt expands his dealings, buying up not only leftover materials but soon entire shuttered factories and machinery fleets. Eventually he buys out his brother-in-law. In 1946, Bengt registers his second company, Brännehylte Handels.
In 1949, Bengt and Hillevi are married in Kulltorps church. They move to Brännehylte in 1952, where they build a house and where their son Kent is born the same year. Two years later their son Alf is born.
He soon outgrows his factory in Brännehylte. Bengt needs to expand. In 1957 he buys an agricultural parcel next to Store Mosse outside Kulltorp. The area is at a remove from the town, deep in the Småland pine forest. It is here that Bengt imagines he will finally taste a bit of freedom. The freedom to do what he wants to and make his dreams come true without constantly being scrutinized and judged. Just like a cowboy who lived by his own laws in the Wild West. That same year, Bengt decides it’s time to finally make his childhood dream a reality.
Did you know that …
… in his years as a businessman Big Bengt manufactured railroad barriers, dental chairs, hospital beds, office chairs, toasters, washing machines, gasoline jugs, index card boxes and kitchen utensils?
Journey to America
During his childhood and on business trips through Sweden, Bengt has encountered stories about America again and again. The dream of traveling to the home of the cowboy comes true when in 1957 he is able to buy two one-way tickets costing SEK 3000 each for himself and his wife Hillevi. They cross the Atlantic the same way the Småland settlers did a century before them: by an ocean voyage lasting nearly three weeks. Once on American soil, they buy a car and take to the endless highways.
On their trip Bengt gets to experience what is left of the Wild West and the places he has heard stories about. The trip includes stops at many of the forts and trading posts that still stand today as monuments to the violent conquest of new land that has characterized America’s history. Bengt feels free and inspired during his trip to America. Here there is no Law of Jante (the one that calls for ‘cutting down tall poppies’) and no one who looks down on those who manage to make money. The American Dream, the idea that every citizen can make something of himself regardless of social class, dovetails perfectly with the basic notions Bengt has from his childhood and his Småland.
Bengt brings these impressions and plenty of stories back home to Småland. But also a strong desire to build something of his own. To create something that nobody else has before. What if he could bring the myths, the legends, and the stories of the real Wild West – and build them, so that people could experience it all over again? What if he could create a place where people could come and feel as free as cowboys? But Bengt has an important principle that he never wavers from. He never reveals his plans in advance, not to anyone.
Once back home in Småland, he forges his settler’s plans while at the same time expanding his commercial operations.
1965 is the year that Bengt finally has the opportunity to make what he built in his mind since returning from America into a reality. From his own imagination and with the help of skilled craftsmen, he builds a military fort using leftover telephone poles. The idea is that he will invite his customers and business associates and treat them to an extraordinary experience. Before long the fort is home to a saloon where Hillevi serves good food and drink, plus a swimming pool where visitors can take a dip. Eventually Bengt realizes that his guests also want to be entertained, so he asks his stable hands to put together an exciting Wild West show with cowboys and bandits. Bengt’s business associates love to visit his fort, and it’s not long before other curious people begin to come around.
Did you know that …
… Big Bengt is an honorary citizen of Tucson, Arizona? The Arizona residents who maintain the traditions of the old west honored the Swedish enthusiast in 1972. Bengt and his youngest son Alf were then invited to visit Old Tucson, where the TV series High Chaparral was shot. There Big Bengt was made an honorary citizen, as a token of appreciation for his work to manifest the Wild West in the old country. He wore the sheriff’s star he received on this occasion around his neck ever after.
The rumor of Bengt’s unique building soon begins to spread through the countryside. Curious townsfolk come in their cars and try to peek through the palisades for a glimpse of the wilful entrepreneur’s latest antics. Bengt’s plans to have the fort for his own use only change rapidly.
In 1966 he decides to open the fort to the public and builds a real entrance with a ticket window. The fort is named “Fort Erlandsson”. A couple of years later, Bengt changes the name to “High Chaparral” after the popular American western series running on TV at this time. Admission costs SEK 5, and for that price visitors can see the inside of the fort with its blockhouse, saloons, spotted Apaloosa horses, a swimming pool and a Finnish smoke sauna. Success is a fact. Visitors from all over Sweden make the pilgrimage to High Chaparral. Journalists too. With his Wild West fort and his groundbreaking ideas and views, Bengt becomes a popular interview subject in articles and TV reports. He is given the nickname “Big Bengt” by a journalist at Expressen, and soon the country comes to know him as “Big Bengt” – the sheriff in Småland. But Bengt’s vision doesn’t stop at a fort – he has bigger plans. He wants to create an Eldorado of freedom, where adults and kids can relax, play and have fun. It’s a place where he wants millionaires, laborers, farmers and politicians to be able to meet with an open mind and have fun.
High Chaparral’s expansion gets going and Bengt works with zeal. When he gets an idea, he makes sure to put into action right away. As soon as ground is broken on one project, Bengt hurries on with his cowboy hat and thinks up his next idea. A whole new city quickly takes shape, like a scene right out of American westerns featuring John Wayne and Howard Hawks.
It’s not long before construction starts on an authentic western street with a bank, saloon and sheriff’s office. The western street is also used as the main stage for the well-attended show. Bengt’s energy never ebbs, nor does his creativity and desire to make things. As he himself comes to be known as Big Bengt to the entire Swedish people, High Chaparral soon becomes one of Sweden’s biggest tourist destinations. At the end of the 1970s, the amusement park is already drawing nearly 200,000 visitors per season. But Bengt never planned for High Chaparral to become a big and important tourist destination. He sees the Wild West city as his favorite hobby, and alternates between his life as a sheriff in a cowboy hat and his other life as a businessman and Managing Director of Brännehylte Handels.
Did you know that …
… Sweden’s first “lingonberry” western “I död mans spår” was filmed at High Chaparral in 1974?
A year of headlines
In early 1980, Bengt is arrested for tax offenses by uniformed police at his office in Kulltorp. Bengt protests that he is innocent and that his business and accounting have always been proper. Bengt, now aged 60, then spends a total of 103 days in custody before being released. This marks the beginning of a drawn-out legal process, much of which plays out in the Swedish media. In February 1982, Bengt is convicted on two counts of gross tax fraud and sentenced to eight months in prison. Hi is found innocent on 10 other counts at the same time. Because he has been held in custody so long, he only goes on to serve 19 days of actual jail time.
The tax case results in around SEK 200,000 of back taxes owed to the tax authority. A few months later the tax authority presents a new tax claim: now they want SEK 1.5 million in unpaid taxes and VAT. Bengt is not content disputing the claim by letter or telephone, or in the press for that matter. He parks himself in a sleeping bag outside the tax office in Jönköping and goes on strike. “I want everyone to know that I am innocent, and that I intend to stay here until they leave me alone,” Bengt says in an interview with GT.
For much of his professional life, Bengt has to live with being associated in the public mind with illegal construction, cheating and tax offenses. If given a chance to explain, the reason for his resistance to certain regulations and laws is his strong conviction that every individual must be allowed to develop and grow exactly as they want. His entrepreneurship is based on a strong belief that every person should be able to fulfill his dream without being knocked down by the Law of Jante and bureaucracy. In all likelihood it is probably also the strong belief in man’s own strength and will that forms the basis for his great fascination with the Wild West, and with the freedom that this particular era symbolizes.
In the mid-1980s, Bengt leaves the helm of Brännehylte Handels and High Chaparral to his sons Kent and Alf. But he does not go into retirement. Still wearing his cowboy hat, he continues working on new projects.
These days the park is run by Bengt’s grandchildren, the brothers Emil and Philip Erlandsson.
2016 marked the 50th anniversary of Bengt Erlandsson opening High Chaparral to the public. Both Big Bengt and Hillevi died in 2016 to our great sorrow, but his fascination for the heyday of the cowboy lives on through High Chaparral. Every year the park draws a quarter of a million visitors from all corners of the world to experience what we love about the Wild West – the excitement, the freedom, the myths and the legends. So it’s fair to say that Bengt’s dream of bringing the Wild West home to Småland has come true.