How old—really—is this old church?

Our story so far: Our old Methodist church we purchased to turn into a home came with a long history and many memories.

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Author’s note: As one might expect in a real-time memoir, facts don’t always come to light in perfect chronology, and today I’m correcting one of those facts.

During one of the early showings of the church, Tyler and I learned from the caretaker that the church had been built in 1899, so when I began this blog, we believed the church was 119 years old.

Well, that’s close. But not quite. I learned later that the sanctuary for the church was constructed in late 1891, making the church 126 years old. So I’ve attempted to correct every reference to the church’s age in this blog (and boy, were there a lot!). Today, I’m sharing that story of discovery.

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In early January, I joined the historical society meeting of the nearby congregation with whom the parishioners of our church had merged a year and half before. Tyler and I were curious about the history of the church, and I figured these ladies might have answers.

Three women had gathered in one of the rooms of the parish hall, and they were already hard at work when I arrived. One efficient woman was filing bulletins. Another was writing thank you notes for donations to the church. The third, a long-time member of the congregation of our church whom Tyler and I had met when we attended the worship service a few weeks prior, greeted me warmly.

“Oh, I brought some things you might be interested in,” she said. “I didn’t know if you would make it here today.”

As we chatted, the woman writing thank-you notes realized I was the person who’d purchased the former church. “Are you the woman who bought the church? The one writing about it?”

She looked at me like I was a celebrity, and I was flattered.

“Yup, that’s me.” I’m sure I wasn’t blushing.

Bludeprint of main floor
Original blueprint of the old Methodist church.

This friendly group welcomed me, and directed me to a number of interesting newspaper articles about the church and the original blueprints (which were actually blue). Meanwhile, they continued their work. I learned that day that the best history keeping occurs in the present, not the past. Their work to document what was going on in their congregation in the here and now—the pastors, the weddings and funerals, baptisms and confirmations—might be best appreciated in a hundred years, just as I was appreciating the work of nameless women and men in the past who saved blueprints and cut out newspaper articles.

Poring through the newspaper stories, I learned the Methodist congregation in my little village formed in 1859 at a time when total membership in Methodist societies in America was growing rapidly and the U.S. Civil War was still the subject of speculation; Wisconsin had become a state only eleven years before. Services were conducted in the schoolhouse and in a building also used by Congregational and Baptist congregations.

The building Tyler and I had taken ownership of on Nov. 28, 2017, had been built in late 1800s by a Rev. Smith who had collected donations in order to purchase the lot for $300 on Sept. 29, 1891, not long after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes mystery and Benjamin Harrison was in the middle of his single term as president of the United States. The Sunday school and preaching hall (the modern-day sanctuary portion of the building) were dedicated two months later on Nov. 29, 1891, according to a history of the church recounted in a local newspaper.

So our church was almost exactly 126 years old.

(The motion picture “Hostiles” playing in theaters right now makes mention of a direct order from President Harrison and dramatizes the struggle of Native Americans and pioneers in that era; it’s difficult to imagine women wearing bonnets and men carrying shotguns and driving a team of horses to our church, but surely, that’s what was happening at the time.)

By 1894 (a year after inventor Whitcomb Judson debuted his “clasp locker,” more popularly known as a zipper, at the Chicago World’s Fair), the church membership had increased to twenty-five. Since women didn’t earn the right to vote in national elections until 1920, I’m guessing the figure of twenty-five was of men. An addition—what I have been calling the overflow area—was built. The addition also must have included the belfry though that isn’t specifically mentioned in the historical papers.

mauve wallpaper
Could this be original mauve wallpaper?

The 1890s became known as the Gay Nineties (history books today are quick to clarify the meaning of the word gay back then—an age of merriment and decadence). The era is also sometimes referred to as the Mauve Decade because chemist William Henry Perkin’s aniline dye—a synthetic alternative to the expensive natural dyes in use at the time—introduced the widespread use of that color in fashion. Interestingly, what appears to be the original wall covering in the sanctuary of our church is mauve-colored paper over the plaster.

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Tomorrow: We find more old photos of the church. See them here.

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