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Friday, 16 October 2015 09:19

Keeping the faith: Descendant of historic church works toward restoration

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Georgia Kestol-Bauer talks about some of the restoration work that’s taken place at Hart Prairie Methodist Episcopal Church in the town of Richmond. Her great-grandfather was among the original deed holders for the church. She is raising money and awareness to help preserve the 1850s structure. Georgia Kestol-Bauer talks about some of the restoration work that’s taken place at Hart Prairie Methodist Episcopal Church in the town of Richmond. Her great-grandfather was among the original deed holders for the church. She is raising money and awareness to help preserve the 1850s structure. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Georgia Kestol-Bauer wants to share her historic family heirloom of sorts with the community at large.

But she could use a little help in getting it back in shape.

Kestol-Bauer is keeper, in a real sense, of the Hart Prairie Methodist Episcopal Church, just off County Highway P, adjoining the East Richmond Cemetery in a wooded strip of land in the town of Richmond.

No steeple graces the roof of the church, and its white wooden walls are pockmarked, but it holds a local history that stretches back to before the Civil War.

The church was deeded to five men and their descendants by Christopher Steenson, a local resident who donated part of his farmland for it and a cemetery. One of the five men was Kestol-Bauer’s great-grandfather, Norwegian immigrant Peder Kjostolsen -- whose name was later shortened to Kestol.

The church was built in the mid-1850s, as was the cemetery, where the first person buried was Kestol-Bauer’s great-uncle, only 14 months old. The plots now hold a score of the church’s members and their descendants.

The area, known at one time as Hart Prairie, was settled by immigrants, including many Norwegians whose homeland’s official state religion was Lutheran.

Some of the newcomers still kept that faith and built Hart Prairie Lutheran, a little brick church near Whitewater.

“There were some Methodists sprinkled around here, too,” Kestol-Bauer said. “There was a circuit rider from Cambridge who came around and called on people in their homes to talk about the Methodists, trying to get a group together. That was just new for Scandinavians. All of my relatives thought, ‘Yeah, that sounds pretty good.’”

Cambridge is home to the oldest Scandinavian Methodist church in the world, Willerup United Methodist Church, founded in May 1851. The second oldest is Hart Prairie Methodist Episcopal.

Kestol-Bauer, who grew up in Janesville, moved into the family homestead farm her great-grandfather built, less than two miles from the church, several years ago. 

In the home she found a wealth of old materials kept by her family over generations: family photos of Civil War soldiers; stacks of letters from relatives describing everything from farm life to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; 19th-century Bibles; and the original record book of Hart Prairie church’s members -- births, weddings and burials -- written in ink on faded, lined pages.

Membership at the Hart Prairie church never reached 100, Kestol-Bauer said. Many of the Norwegian churchgoers moved to Iowa, dwindling the rolls even more.

She remembered seeing the building as a child. That was long after the church ended its regular services in the 1880s, but was still part of the community.

Her uncle, Joey Kestol, a Norwegian bachelor farmer who lived nearby, maintained the grounds. He told her memories of attending a box-lunch social at the church when he was a youngster, sometime in the late teens or early 1920s.

“Over the years, my family had re-roofed and painted the exterior of the church,” she said. “That’s why it kept standing. Otherwise it probably would have fallen down.”

In 1991, Kestol-Bauer’s relatives had a plaque made that gave a brief description of the church, but few people showed an interest in restoring it.

By 2006, the building had become a nighttime hangout for teens and vandals. It was so dilapidated, town of Richmond supervisors recommended its demolition.

“It was an absolute disaster in here,” Kestol-Bauer said. “There was graffiti on the wooden posts, boards torn up, windows broken. There were animals living here.”

She invited a restoration expert to look the building over in 2007.

“He said, ‘You’ve got to do something right away. It’s going to buckle. It needs to be stabilized and have tension wires put in the walls,’” she recalled.

That work led to putting in a new ceiling and floor, all done at her own expense.

Since then, she’s put in a raised platform for an altar built in the same spot where one had originally stood. She’s had the front doors repaired, she’s having glass put in all the windows and getting the wooden panes around them restored.

The window glass is being donated by Whitewater Glass, and the labor will be paid by families whose relatives were church members, like Evie and Pat McIntyre, sisters who still live nearby.

Evie McIntyre, who was planting hostas near the church on a recent sunny afternoon, said she enjoys volunteering her time at such a special place.  

“There are all the old souls here. I can feel it,” she said.

Kestol-Bauer welcomes what help she can get. Donations have ranged from an old organ donated by the Bethel Methodist Church near Elkhorn to a roll of vintage flat barbed wire that once ran across the fence surrounding the cemetery and is now on display.

But there’s still more work to do, and much of it is expensive: build and replace the pews -- whose shadowy outlines remain on the walls, put in an altar and railing and add period wallpaper to give a feeling of the way the church was.

She’s since started a website on the church in the hopes of raising donations and awareness.

A member of the Walworth County Cemetery Association, Kestol-Bauer held an annual meeting at the church. Last year, she held an open house for the general public, and just last month, she welcomed visitors to a church blessing service.

She talks about another former Methodist church about five miles away. One of its exterior walls is nearly gone and the structure was used to house farm machinery.

That’s not what she envisions for Hart Prairie Methodist Episcopal Church. Instead, she sees the church holding recitals, weddings, baptisms, funerals, even services for different faiths.

She also plans to put photos of the original church members on the walls to show people the community of real people who once populated the pews.

“I believe in historical preservation, but this has meaning besides that,” she said. “This is to honor the people who built this church and worshipped here. The people who came from Norway and the hardships they went through, coming to America for freedom of religion.

“I want future generations to know about this. Wisconsin had just become a state at the time. That’s the history of this area almost right from the beginning.”

For more information about the Hart Prairie church, visit the Norwegian American Methodist Episcopal Church online at namech.org.

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