Last night, I returned safely to my home after a trip to MN with my parents. On the way up to and back from my cousin's graduation, Mom, Dad and I took some short detours to see the sights along the way. Most probably think that Iowa doesn't have anything interesting to see, but now I know differently! (OK. Maybe these highlights aren't under the category of FASCINATING or MUST SEE stops, but they are interesting to ME and they helped break up the trip. We needed some breaks to stretch our legs.)
Outside of Nashua, IA... in the former settlement of Bradford, IA, we visited the Little Brown Church in the Vale. Here are some of the basic facts of the church building, the settlement of the town, and the song known by so many across our nation. (Excerpts from church brochure and web site.)
The first settlers came to the Bradford area in 1848 and with an abundant water supply and virgin timber, the town grew. By 1855 the first members of the Puritan-Congregational Church had begun holding meetings. By 1856, Bradford had 500 residents and was the first town in this part of Iowa (southeastern Iowa.)
A young music teacher named William Pitts was traveling by stagecoach from Wisconsin to Iowa to visit his future wife. While waiting for the stagecoach horses to be changed, he walked down Cedar Street and saw the empty lot where the church now stands. Of particular beauty, it was a wooded area in the valley formed by the Cedar River. Being a romantic young man, the thought came to him of what a charming setting the spot would make for a church meeting place. Returning home, he wrote the poem “Church in the Wildwood,” and later set it to music. He put it away in a drawer and forgot it.
Meanwhile, church members grew tired of meeting in places such as the lawyer’s office, abandoned stores and parishioners’ homes. They began making plans to build a church. A family in the parish gave them the property. When Rev. Nutting arrived, talk of building became serious. Limestone was quarried and by 1860 the foundation was laid. The Civil War slowed the work, but when one family gave trees and another donated the sawing of the lumber, the work never really ceased. By 1862 the building was enclosed and not a penny had been spent. When it came time to paint the building, the cheapest paint to be found was Ohio Mineral Paint, which would protect the wood but which was unhappily brown. With help from friends in the east, the building was finished, complete with bell, in 1864.
Mr. Pitts had married and was living in Wisconsin. In 1862, the couple moved to Fredericksburg IA to be near her elderly parents, and Mr. Pitts was hired to teach singing class at the Bradford Academy. Imagine his surprise when he saw a little brown church nestled in the very trees where he had stood some years before. He went home, found the song, and taught it to his class who sang it at the dedication service of the church. Pitts had written a song for a church that wasn’t there. The congregation had painted their little church brown without ever hearing of the song.
In 1865, Pitts sold the song to a Chicago music publisher for $25. He used the money to enroll in Rush Medical College, but his song was forgotten. After graduation in 1868, Pitts returned to Fredericksburg where he practiced medicine until his retirement in 1906.
History was hard on the Little Brown Church. The railroad by-passed the town and a flour mill moved to New Hampton to be on a bigger river. The railroad and other industry moved to Nashua. The town, once the county seat, slowly disappeared. In 1888, the church building was closed, although the congregation continued to hold Sunday School every week at the school. Occasional services were held at the building. In the early 1900’s a Society For The Preservation of The Little Brown Church was started, and by 1914, services were again held, as they are now.
History took another turn when the Weatherwax Quartet traveled throughout Canada and the United States in the 1920s and 30s. Their theme song was “The Church in the Wildwood” and they talked about the little church. After World War I, highways were improved and cars brought many visitors. When a School superintendent and a merchant's daughter were married at the church, a new tradition was started. Over 40,000 visitors come to the Little Brown Church each year, and over 400 weddings are performed annually. In June of 2005, the 72,000th wedding was held at the church. The congregation is alive and well with an active congregation and weekly services at 10:30 on Sunday. They remain, as they were founded, a Congregational Church, now affiliated with the United Church of Christ. The song continues to be sung in a little church that is painted brown and sits in the wildwood.
In 1998 the bell tower was completely restored. In 2000 with help from the State Historical Society of Iowa Site Preservation Grant Program, a new foundation was placed under the church. This project has enabled the church to be completely handicap accessible. Air conditioning has been added for the first time.
If you're not familiar with the song, you may listen to the tune and sing along with the lyrics below. (While it is not a true hymn, the song has been included in many church hymnals.) You may also may want to take a "virtual tour" of the sanctuary or make a trip to see it and the surrounding attractions in person.
The Church in the Wildwood
by Dr. William S. Pitts
There's a church in the valley by the wildwood,
No lovelier spot in the dale;
No place is so dear to my childhood,
As the little brown church in the vale.
(oh, come, come, come, come)
Come to the church in the wildwood,
Oh come to the church in the vale,
No spot is so dear to my childhood,
As the little brown church in the vale.
Oh, come to the church in the vale,
To the trees where the wild flowers bloom;
Where the parting hymn will be chanted,
We will weep by the side of the tomb.
How sweet on a clear Sabbath morning,
To list to the clear ringing bell;
Its tones so sweetly are calling,
Oh come to the church in the vale.
From the church in the valley by the wildwood,
When day fades away into night,
I would fain from this spot of my childhood
Wing my way to the mansions of light.