Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Part III from Wanamingo: The connection to a beloved hymn March 23, 2016

The Lars Larson log cabin sits next to the water tower in Wanamingo. The information center can be seen to the right

The Lars Larson log cabin sits next to the water tower in Wanamingo. The blue grey structure to the right is the information center.

IN THE UNLIKELIEST OF PLACES, beneath an aged water tower and next to an historic log cabin, an unexpected bit of Wanamingo’s history is revealed. It is typed on sheets of paper sandwiched under Plexiglas in a handcrafted case labeled Information Center.

The song: It Is Well With My Soul.

The song: It Is Well With My Soul. The writer and composer’s names are highlighted in blue.

It is the story of the beloved hymn, It Is Well With My Soul, and its link to this Southeastern Minnesota farming community of nearly 1,100.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.

My lips move in silence as I read the familiar words, the familiar melody chorusing comfort. It is well, it is well with my soul.

The story of the Spaffords and the hymn, along with images, is posted.

The story of the Spaffords and the hymn, along with images, is posted.

I’d never considered the story behind the words. But now that I’m reading about Horatio and Anna Spafford’s personal tragedy, I am deeply moved. The couple lost their four oldest daughters at sea when the Ville du Haure collided with an English sailing ship en route to Europe in 1873. Only Anna survived, cabling her husband, who remained back home on business, with two words: Saved Alone.

During his voyage to see his grieving wife, Horatio penned It Is Well With My Soul. Three years later, Philip Bliss composed the accompanying music.

This sign marks the log cabin.

This sign marks the log cabin.

But what does any of this have to do with Wanamingo? The connection begins about two decades earlier when 14-year-old Anna Larson journeys to Wanamingo Township from Chicago to be with her ill father. Lars E. Larson moved to Minnesota the year prior in hopes farming would improve his health. He died in the spring of 1857, within a year of Anna’s arrival. That same year, Anna, 15, met her Sunday School teacher, 29-year-old Horatio Spafford. In 1861, she married Horatio, a then successful Chicago attorney.

Within 10 years, the Spaffords have four daughters. And then those girls are dead, drowned at sea. Their mother, Anna, survives, kept afloat by a plank until she is rescued.

How many people drive by this log cabin on Main Street in Wanamingo and never stop? We were tipped off by a local to the story I've shared here, thus my husband and I stopped.

How many people drive by this log cabin on Main Street in Wanamingo and never stop? I was tipped off by a local to the story I’ve shared here, thus I stopped.

Having read this story behind the familiar hymn while standing in the shadow of the Wanamingo water tower next to the Larson log cabin, I am moved. I am moved by the faith of Horatio Spafford who, in sorrow rolling like sea billows, penned such profound and comforting words. It is well, it is well with my soul.

FYI: Check back tomorrow for another post in my “from Wanamingo” series. I will take you inside Trinity Lutheran Church.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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16 Responses to “Part III from Wanamingo: The connection to a beloved hymn”

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    I knew the story of this song but not the connection to this town so I learned something new today. Yay!

  2. Aaron Says:

    Now I feel like I need to read the words to that song a couple time. I had a similar moment at the titanic museum, in the music room they had a piano that was the same as the titanic with the sheet music to “closer to thy God” the old man in there talked about each musician as if he knew them then explained that this was the last song they played as the ship went down. A lady sat down and played a couple bars and it was beautiful, then she stopped and tears flowed from her eyes, the old man, and mine.

  3. Jackie Says:

    I did know the story to this hymn but like Beth Ann didn’t know the connection. This is one of my favorite songs and have made it know to my husband and children that I want it played at my funeral, for all to know, It is well with my soul!

  4. Norma Says:

    I also had heard the story of this song. Whenever we sing this at church, it always brings tears to my eyes. It is well with my soul.

  5. This song will be sung at the funeral I am conducting for a devoted Christian man this Saturday. It will be sung by his three grand daughters.

  6. Sue Ready Says:

    Audrey what a touching and moving tribute to the family who endured such losses? Did you happen to uncover if they had any more children? And what happened to Anna and her husband after? Did they remain in Wanimingo?

  7. Beautiful little home but such a sad story.

  8. Melissa Stark Becker Says:

    A few years ago while researching family history my mom said to call her sister because she had heard about a log cabin as part of a museum in Minnesota. By then I knew about my 3rd Great-Grandfather Edward Larson who is the brother of Anna Larson Spafford. So like you all I read Anna’s story and was crushed to learn of the death of her daughters. I then read on about Horatio penning the hymn. I was already in tears about my cousins untimely death and then to read that their father wrote the hymn that my mother has told me for over twenty years that she wants played at her funeral. Who knew that our uncle wrote It is Well With My Soul.

    Just a side note Anna and Horatio lost almost all of there investments after the Chicago Fire. A few years later they moved to Jerusalem and started the Jerusalem Colony which started as an orphanage and today is a hotel. They had a son, Horatio Spafford Jr, but he died by the age of four. They also had a daughter Bertha Spafford and some of her descendants are still a part of the hotel.

    • Melissa, thank you for adding this family history to the comments section. It’s always interesting to learn details like this. I was aware of the Jerusalem Colony as I found that in my quick online research. But thank you also for adding that. It Is Well With My Soul is such a lovely and comforting hymn. I think it’s a perfect selection for your mom’s funeral.


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