By Jan Lee Buxengard
Special to the Caledonia Argus
The Portland Prairie Church will have its annual summer service on Sunday, July 29 at 11 a.m. at the pioneer church located on the eastern edge of Wilmington Township. Guest preacher will be Rev. Gordon Wiegrefe, whose father Marvin grew up on Portland Prairie.
Plan to come a half hour before the service and participate in a hymn sing from the old hymnal with accompaniment from the pump organ. Immediately following the service, there will be a potluck lunch on the church grounds. Be sure to bring chairs and blankets for outdoor seating.
In light of this annual event, it is most appropriate to recall the history of this early pioneer church. The Caledonia United Methodist (UMC) and Portland Prairie Churches share a great deal of history as they were served by the same church conference and shared the same pastors.
To set the scene, Minnesota became a territory in 1849. In 1852 the government drew the state line, and the following year drew sections and quarter sections. A land office was opened in Brownsville in 1854 so people could buy land from the government.
As early as 1851 pioneers from the eastern states, including New Portland and Maine, settled on Portland Prairie.
The first settlers who came in 1854 were Methodist from the states of Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut. They traveled by train from Chicago to Rockford, Ill., stagecoach to Galena, Ill. and riverboat to Lansing, Iowa. Then they traveled 20 miles by ox team, walked, etc., arriving on Portland Prairie.
The church was organized in 1855, and services were held in homes. After the McNelly schoolhouse was built in 1858, it was used until the group linked with the Caledonia Methodist Church.
According to an article written in 1904 about history of the Caledonia Church, one of the early pastors, Rev. J. L. Dyer (1857), “was an elderly man, with a rough exterior, and popularly known as ‘Sledge Hammer Dyer,’ because of his energetic demonstrations in the pulpit. Before entering the ministry he worked in the Galena lead mines in Illinois.”
The first meeting about building a church was held Jan. 3, 1876, in the house of Mr. George Cass, who gave the land on which the church was built. The building committee was T. Nealy, Henry Robinson, Geo. Cap and E. C. Arnold. Plans were furnished from St. Paul by J. McNeilly, who was then the representative in the State Legislature.
On Feb. 15, 1876, the contract to build the church was let to Mr. Tuttle of New Albin, Iowa. The wood frame structure would be built on land donated by Dr. George and Ellen Healy Cass on the eastern edge of Wilmington Township.
The Eastlake architectural style uses geometric shapes in simple, elegant motifs. In June of the same year the church was completed and occupied, but it wasn’t until June 30, 1877, that the church, called Portland Prairie Methodist Episcopal Church, was dedicated. Total cost of the project was $1,540.
Rare taste and elegance
From a newspaper story written in 1876: “Near the residences of Mr. J. Shumway and Mr. Albee is situated the Methodist church, of which Rev. Mr. Bowdish of Caledonia, is pastor, and the edifice is an architectural gem of rare taste and elegance – really a ‘little duck of a church,’ which is dressed so tastefully in clothes of paint that but few can resist entering it. Mr. Bowdish holds services there every Sabbath at three o’clock.”
The first Baptism was that of John Henderson McNelly (infant) on May 5, 1877; first wedding, Fremont Yeaton Metcalf (in fact it was Frement Everett) and Mary Eva Shumway, July 3, 1877; and first funeral, Florence Yeaton Metcalf, May 16, 1879.
The agricultural community of Portland Prairie was thriving, and at one time 35 families belonged to this church.
Winds of change
After wheat rust caused crop failure in the 1880s, many of these first families, who had endured so much, sold out and moved on west to the Dakotas and Indian Territory in Nebraska.
In 1925 the Portland Prairie church sold the cemetery to the Portland Prairie Cemetery Association. The oldest person buried here was born in 1770 and died in 1857.
In 1932 when Portland Prairie ended regular services families transferred their memberships to the Caledonia Methodist Church, and the rural church has been preserved with one or more services held there annually. In 1935 the remaining families transferred to the Caledonia church. Through the years, 39 ministers have served this congregation.
The Portland Prairie Church building is owned by the Caledonia UMC and an independent community group, The Portland Prairie Cemetery Association, who have taken physical responsibility for the church structure.
The church steeple, which was originally tall and pointed, has gone through several changes through the years. In the early 1900s the style was changed and again in the 1950s. The current steeple style, while maybe not as spectacular as the others, is more practical for upkeep.
For the 1976 centennial celebration of the church building, a rustic cross was made from cedar posts saved from a fence that at one time surrounded the property. The cross was mounted on the interior wall at the front of the church.
In 1978 the Portland Prairie church and cemetery transferred to Caledonia, and in 1982 the church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A celebration of the 150th anniversary of the church building took place the summer of 2006 and included a cemetery walk to celebrate the first meetings of the pioneers.
Through the years the church has had weddings, baptisms, cemetery walks and family reunions. And, each year the pioneer church opens its doors for two worship services. One is held on the last Sunday in July with a hymn sing prior to the service and a potluck lunch on the church grounds immediately following the service.
The other service is held on Christmas Eve. With no heat and only the illuminating glow of candles and kerosene lamps, it is truly a memorable and humbling experience and reminder of times past.
The scriptures are read from the 1869 Bible given to the church by the family of Leonard Albee, who came to Portland Prairie from Burrillville, Rhode Island in 1858.
The pump organ, which is used for services, was given to the church in 1947 when the Caledonia church bought a new organ.
The Portland Prairie Cemetery Association has been taking care of the building for a long time, and since December 2007 has had ownership of the church property. They hope to continue this responsibility with support from people who care about the church.
“We take great pride in the building as it is a landmark of the Portland Prairie area,” Deb (Lapham) Wray, secretary/treasurer for the cemetery association, said. “We will continue to maintain and repair gravestones as needed.”
Over the years some of the upkeep has included fixing windows that were broken in a hail storm in 1996. The exterior of the church was painted in 2005.
During the summer of 2007 inside repair and painting over the wall paper was completed. That fall, the east side of the property was cleared of some brush, and the outhouse was put on new foundation beams.
In subsequent years the foundation stones were removed and reset with new cement; two new beams were placed under the floor on the north and south sides; new cement stairs and a sidewalk section were completed; and the siding was repaired.
The cemetery association continues to collect historical information and complete church records of Baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc. Each family with historical connections to Portland Prairie is encouraged to submit a family tree to be kept as part of the church records.