Valley Grove Historical Site

By Karin Winegar
for The Conservation Alliance Newsletter

Two historic churches and the rolling fields and oaks and creek that surround them on a hilltop in a farm valley near Nerstrand, Minnesota are imperiled by potential development.

Valley Grove Churches, a stone building dating from 1862 and a wooden building from 1894 and their surrounding pioneer cemetery, are one of 22 sites in the state of Minnesota on the National Register of Historic Sites.

Recently, the 118 acres of farm land that surrounds Valley Grove were put up for sale. Supporters have obtained an option to buy (by January 2, 2001) and have outlined a plan of action to protect the land which otherwise will almost certainly become part of the housing sprawl creeping south from nearby Northfield.

The Society for the Preservation of Valley Grove Church hopes to raise $316,000 to purchase the parcel and preserve the land as agriculture and prairie. At a future date, the DNR may purchase part of the land that abuts Nerstrand/Big Woods State Park and is home to the endangered dwarf trout lily. As a scientific and natural area, portions of the Valley Grove land are enjoyed by local college students; Carleton biology professor Gary Wagenbach leads classes there on field studies.

Norwegian settlers built both churches amid the prairie and bur oaks; Rev. B.J. I. Muus of Norway, one of the first pastors, went on to help found St. Olaf College, and the cemetery is the resting place of members of the family of internationally known economist Thorstein Veblen, a graduate of Carleton College who wrote “The Theory of the Leisure Class” and coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption.” The cemetery is also the site of graves for the Kvi family, ancestors of former Minnesota state governor Al Quie. The bell in the white church is said to be the second oldest church bell still ringing west of the Mississippi.

Since the dwindling church congregations moved out in the early 1970’s, Valley Grove Churches have been used for concerts (the pipe organ dates from 1911 and was hauled in on a sleigh), weddings, meetings and church services by neighboring congregations. The Minnesota Historical Society recently held an historic barn preservation workshop at Valley Grove.

The funds will be used not only to acquire and preserve the surrounding natural areas and landscape in their largely 19th century condition, but to repair and restore the 1894 building. The steeple of the white clapboard church is in need of restoration as are its roof and windows.