WINFIELD RUDNINGEN drove three hours from Brainerd to see the graves of his great grandparents, Ole Syverson Rudningen and Gunneld Andersdatter.
They are buried in Valley Grove Cemetery, next to two historic Norwegian immigrant churches that sit atop a hill overlooking the picturesque countryside just northwest of Nerstrand.
Before Winfield arrives, my husband turns our car onto the gravel drive leading up to the churches. “I don’t think they want us in there,” Randy says as he observes the fence surrounding the church yard.
But I don’t hesitate. I throw open the car door and walk over to a double gate, lift the latch, swing open the gate and walk inside. It is that easy.
I am ecstatic that we can wander the church grounds and cemetery on this dreary Sunday afternoon, when gray skies loom heavy and occasional drizzles of rain force me to periodically cover my camera lens.
We are here only a few minutes when Winfield, his wife and two friends pull up to the church. Shortly thereafter, another car zooms up the gravel drive toward us. Valley Grove Preservation Society member Ken Sahlin has come to open the churches for a couple planning to be married here.
We cannot believe our good fortune, or rather, given the locale, the blessing of Ken’s arrival. If anyone knows the history of this place, it’s Ken.
First we enter the 1894 white clapboard church which closed in 1973 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Words cannot adequately describe the simplistic beauty of this sanctuary with its wooden pews, plain arched windows topped with points of color, the beautifully-restored organ, the alcove that shelters the white altar enhanced by a painting of the glorious, risen Lord.
As I tread almost reverently upon the burgundy aisle carpet that covers the wooden plank floor, I step upon rose petals left here from a wedding on Saturday. This church is a popular wedding site for couples seeking a place of history and of beauty. Tradition calls for the newlyweds to ring the church bell after the ceremony.
Then I climb the steep wooden stairs to the balcony. A sense of profound sadness sweeps over me. This could be the Lutheran church I attended as a child, the church now converted into apartments.
At least the folks around Valley Grove had the foresight to save this 1894 sanctuary and the next door 1862 stone church by forming a non-profit in 1974. In 2000, the Preservation Society stopped a planned housing development by acquiring 52 acres of land around the churches. Since then, 150 trees have been planted on the property and walking trails developed.
When Ken tells me about the trees and the Forest Legacy Program, I ask about the perfectly-shaped, sprawling oak tree in the southwest corner of the cemetery. It is, he says, 350 years old and hollow inside. Chains keep limbs secure. Yet, there are no plans to remove the oak under which a Norwegian pastor baptized 52 children in 1859.
At every turn, Valley Grove sings with history. I hear it when Randy pulls on the thick, twisted rope that moves the bell. The sound resonates across this land of prairie and of oak savanna. How many times has this bell tolled in sadness at a funeral, in celebration at a wedding?
I hear more history from Ken, who talks of old pews and steeples and railings and the Society’s efforts to restore both churches. The recession has temporarily halted restoration because of a lack of funding.
And then I hear history in the voice of Winfield, who has come here to pay respects to his great grandparents. I stand beside him near Ole and Gunneld’s gravestone. How, I ask, do you pronounce Gunneld Andersdatter? He hesitates. I joke that I can’t pronounce the name because I am German, not Norwegian, like him.
Winfield bends close to touch the cold tombstone. His fingertips linger upon the letters. He tells me then that he cannot see the words because he suffers from macular degeneration.
Yet this great grandson has come all the way from Brainerd on a Sunday afternoon to see something which he truly cannot see. I nearly weep at the joy and sadness of it all, right here on this land where Ole and Gunneld lie buried.
For more information, go to www.valleygrovemn.com. Watch for another blog with more photos from Valley Grove.
© Copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling