Tuesday, May 3, 2016

No More Bell to Toll

From Kris Smith:

Wisconsin isn’t an old state, relatively speaking; it’s only been one since 1848. To this native New Englander, the Badger State is pretty new, and the differences between regions are interesting. New Hampshire has way more old cemeteries, but a lot fewer abandoned buildings. With this find, I got both. Kind of.

Estonian Church

This is the country’s first and oldest Estonian Lutheran church. It was built in Gleason around 1914 or 15 by immigrants fleeing Russian oppression, who decided the Wisconsin River Valley would remind them of their lost homeland and provide plenty of farm and timber land. The congregation was only about 30, but the church, once they built it, became their community center. The cemetery was consecrated before the church went up. Eleven of the original 14 interments remain and many have new markers, although I preferred to photograph one of the originals.


They had an altar, pews and a lectern; all made with rough-hewn planks. Women sat on one side of the aisle, men on the other. Decoration came from their own hands or gardens. What they didn’t have was a bell. Bell-lessness didn’t last long; soon Sears & Roebuck sent “one of their smallest bells” as a result of a donation request from church elders, who stated that Estonians were good customers and the company should give them a bell.

The church saw sporadic, but consistent use by the Estonian immigrants for the next half-century, but tragedy struck soon after the 50th Anniversary celebration. Vandals began to desecrate and destroy the tiny building. Everything was smashed or stolen, including the much-loved bell. In 1970 the people decided to board up their church and leave it alone, figuring that if something looked unloved and useless the vandals would leave it alone. They were right.

Today the church stands alone in its clearing. Some renovation has been done over the years with efforts to preserve the rustic little building. It’s charming and sad and once again has no bell.

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