He first heard about the LaFayette Church, located at W3466 Church Road on County Highway ES, from a friend, a We Energies technician who’d driven past the abandoned building for 15 years while working in the area.
Kulas remembers his first sight of the church’s aging wood siding, deteriorating front porch and sagging roof, topped by a simple cross.
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“It was doomed,” he said. “There was talk at one time that they were going to tear the building down and turn it into a crematorium.”
It would have been a sad end for a building that got its start as the First Congregational LaFayette Church on July 4, 1855, when it was indentured for $1 from landowner James Bishop. Generations of congregations worshipped at the church, and in 1955 held an anniversary rededication ceremony.
But by the early 1980s, services ended. In 1982, the building was under new ownership through the PIP Foundation a nonprofit overseen by William Wuehrmann Sr., of North Carolina, whose family, including his daughter, Kyle Reed, owner of Reed Furniture in Elkhorn, has longstanding ties to the area. Under the foundation, the building was used for weddings, Thanksgiving services and other occasional events for a few more years. Some basic maintenance continued, but the church more often than not stood empty.
Kulas and a fellow Sons of Union Veterans member thought the building would be an ideal meeting place for the group. They worked out a deal with Reed to lease the space in exchange for restoration work.
Surrounded by picturesque wooded farm fields, the church is adjacent to White Oak Cemetery, which dates back to 1848.
One day in late fall while working outside the church, Kulas spotted something dark in the ground in the cemetery. Investigating, he discovered a metal star-shaped grave marker of the Grand Army of the Republic, indicating a Civil War Union veteran. Kulas said he’s found other Civil War veterans buried there, and even someone born before the Revolutionary War.
The church’s simple interior retains many original details. Some of the pews have small shelves with holes -- to hold communion cups -- attached to their wooden backs. Narrow, winding stairs lead to the choir loft. In the sanctuary are carved wooden presiders’ chairs placed before a backdrop hand-painted with biblical scenes.
The chairs, Kulas said, were purchased for $7.35 from Reed Furniture in 1895 by some of the church’s original trustees, including Duncan Matheson, for whom Elkhorn’s library is named.
Downstairs, in a basement that was added after the church already had been built, is an oil furnace that dates back to 1947, and a small kitchen where over the years scores of women readied Sunday lunches after the service.
Over the last three years, Kulas has battled mice, raccoons and insects as he’s worked on restoring the building. He patched holes in the attic in 90-degree temperatures and in rainstorms. He cut part of his thumb while removing 157-year-old shingles from the roof to replace them with metal sheeting. He added linoleum flooring to the outhouse behind the church.
“There were times I was working 80 hours a week here,” he said.
A retired lithographer with the former Western Publishing Co. in Racine, Kulas lives in Racine County, a 76-mile round-trip from his home, he said.
He’s grateful for the help he’s gotten from others, including members of the women’s auxiliary of the Sons of Union Veterans group, who helped him replace the basement ceiling and kitchen floor. An East Troy veterans group donated materials for the metal roof. Trees on the property were donated by a nursery down the road. A local farmer gave him cream city bricks when the chimney needed to be repaired.
Then there were the six rippled glass windows that cost more than $500 each to replace.
“You couldn’t just go to Menards to get those,” Kulas said. “They had to be custom made.”
He ticked off the names of people who’ve donated money for them, including he and his wife, an East Troy veterans’ group, Dorothy Loveland and Dave and Pat Reick -- farmers who live across the road from the church. Kulas said the Reicks have done everything from cutting grass and hauling away wagons of old roofing shingles to setting up timer-operated electric candles in the church windows each December.
Pat Reick said her husband is the fourth generation of churchgoers at LaFayette.
“Historically, my in-laws and other family from my husband’s side were involved and buried here,” she said. “We say this all the time: The building was deteriorating until (Kulas) came along. I’m amazed at all he’s put into it. I know there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears involved.”
“In the beginning, the ladies of the auxiliary were pretty involved,” Kulas said. “Women with 3-inch brushes put polyurethane on all the pews. But then some of the ladies injured their knees. It’s tough for them. And the Sons of Veterans -- we’ve got guys in their 80s, and they’re not going to be climbing up on the roof.”
Pieces of the past
The restoration uncovered a trove of artifacts. Kulas found orders for kerosene, and even one of the kerosene church lamps itself, horse shoes and human shoes, milk cans, tickets for church plays, the gear from an old bell tower and an 1843 hand-painted map of the Holy Land. There were books for the church, which served as a local library.
With those artifacts and other items he located, like old photos of the church and buildings in the surrounding communities, Kulas created a mini-museum in the church basement, spread out on walls, tables and even a curio cabinet he rescued from a curbside garbage pickup. Though he keeps many of his Civil War items such as weapons off the site, he’s sometimes brought in collected pieces ranging from buttons and bullets to cannon balls. He’s got Civil War stories, too, like of the 28th Wisconsin unit, made up of Union soldiers from LaFayette and Lyons, known as the LaFayette Guard.
The LaFayette Church has been the site for Sons of Union Veterans meetings and events, but it’s been open to the public occasionally as well. In June 2011, the group held a history festival fundraiser, complete with cemetery and church tours, demonstrations and wagon rides. And Kulas is willing to give tours to groups who contact him and make an appointment.
Kulas has visions for the future, but he knows they come with a price tag. A plaque that would mark the building on the state historic register cost $300, and a 501(c)3 license costs $1,500 to file, he said. Meanwhile, there are routine maintenance expenses. A recent partial fill-up of fuel oil for the furnace cost over $300, he said.
He’s hoping more people will see the value in preserving the history of the church and be willing to donate or volunteer their time.
Pat Reick said she thinks of how important the church was to so many residents.
“You look at the photos and see the horse-drawn wagons and you realize people (here) didn’t go to church in East Troy or Elkhorn because this was what their radius was for traveling by horse,” she said. “This church became the community center. This was where they gathered.”