A plain and moving beauty worth saving

By Karin Winegar
Minneapolis Star Tribune July 13, 2000

I should not have been looking out the window in the middle of the ceremony, I suppose, but the old white-mullioned windows were open on that bright October day, the corn rustled in the dry clear warmth, the leaves shimmered on the oak trees, the dust rose softly from the hooves of the black percheron team as they pulled the surrey down the single lane gravel road and up the rise to the church door. I had chosen Valley Grove Church in the farmfields just south of Northfield for our wedding because from this hilltop the view in all directions looked like the 19th century.

It was such a lovely valley view that Norwegian Lutheran immigrants built two churches on their little hill: the old church of blond limestone (1862) and the new church (1894) of white clapboard.

We had raised a banquet tent on the site where the horse shed once stood, a long open barn where parishioners could park their wagons, bobsleds and cutters out of the snow or sun while at service. That afternoon, beer was cooling in a borrowed horse trough in the tent, flowers spilled from pumpkin centerpieces, a fiddler played Roseville Fair and our friends kicked off their shoes and line danced over the hilltop, circling and weaving under the pines and around the graves.

One friend gathered acorns under the oak tree in the southwest corner of the churchyard, beneath which in 1859 Pastor Bernt Julius Muus from Norway baptized 52 children; he went on to help found St. Olaf College. We danced and strolled amid stones inscribed in Norwegian, monuments of Minnesota families dating to when Quie was spelled Kvi. We spent the night by oil lamps, listening to owls call and Prairie Creek sing in the hollow down the hill, the lamplight flickering on the family plot of scholar Thorstein Veblen, who wrote “The Theory of the Leisure Class” that launched the phrase conspicuous consumption — the idea of buying stuff just to show you can afford it.

I had hoped Valley Grove Church and its Brigadoon of a valley would stay like that forever, a place where peace, starlight, rolling fields and the seasons are as they were, a plain and moving beauty that Minnesota artists — from Fred Somers and Tom Maakestad to Gretchen Quie — have attempted to capture. As the quintessential immigrant farm church, it graces a John Deere national calendar, and it is one of only 22 Minnesota sites on the National Historic Register.

To the south of Valley Grove is Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, where may apples, morels and rare trout lilies bloom in spring, a last bit of the glorious oak savannah that once covered much of southern Minnesota. The Society for the Preservation of Valley Grove Church would like to acquire and protect all or part of the 118 acres between the park border and the Valley Grove hilltop, acres that recently came up for sale. Peter and Peggy McKinnon live on the Hellerud farm to the west, the homestead of the immigrants whose grandchildren are selling this land; they would like to buy as much as they can and place it in a preservation land trust. The park at some point would like to acquire some of the land and preserve it as well.

Valley Grove’s dwindling congregation disbanded in 1972, but the old churches have never been lonely: they host dozens of country weddings for the kind of folks who love the understated antique elegance of the place, don’t mind outhouses and appreciate fireflies. They recently hosted a Minnesota Historical Society forum on preserving historic barns. And next summer, they might host the national gathering of the Organ Historical Society, whose members congregate to enjoy music on the Valley Grove organ, which was hauled in by sleigh nearly a century ago.

I would cheerfully hock all our wedding gifts to save that valley, that quiet, that view, that slice of the past, because I have seen the future and it looks the same in every state: the silence and fragrance of farmland crushed and flattened by an appetite for sameness and noise and huge, charmless houses that rise high above the hills and fields and keep their lights on all night to announce, “Look what we can afford!”

Four dozen people met in the white church recently — some of us married there, others the children and grandchildren of those buried there. Outside a thunderstorm threatened; inside the room was heavy with Scandinavian melancholy, reticence and fatalism. We had little money, we feared the pliancy of zoning boards, the greed of big-city developers, the presumed indifference of owners. We decided to attempt a rescue anyway.

Next morning, a half dozen of us turned up in the zoning board office of the Faribault City Hall. To our relief and delight, we found that the real estate agent had done her graduate work in museum studies in Oslo and written her thesis on Norwegian Hardanger song. She was more than sympathetic: She told us that the Helleruds would give us the option to buy and preserve the historic site, that they were on our side. Time is not, particularly, on our side, however. We have just a few months to raise $294,000.

When I drive south from the Twin Cities to meetings at Valley Grove, the mauve-tipped orchard grass arches softly over the road, bats swoop, the darkness, sweet with hay and cows and creek, closes around me.

When I drove back north, I pass fields gone to long low mausoleum-like buildings labeled residential and commercial storage, malls, movie multiplexes and housing developments where homes sport vestigial wooden railings, a cupola or a porch — nostalgic nods to immigrant handcraft.

For less than the price of one such executive estate, the land around Valley Grove can be saved as it is forever. For very little, really, brides of the next century can look out those old windows and dream.