Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Whispers of history & heritage at Valley Grove March 29, 2022

Valley Grove churches rise over the hill as I follow the prairie path back to the church grounds. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

ATOP THIS HILL, here on the edge of the Big Woods among acres of fields near Nerstrand, I hear the whispers. Wrapping around the two historic churches. Rising from the cemetery. Sweeping through the tall prairie grasses.

The cemetery sits next to the churches, then rings the old stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

This is Valley Grove, overlooking the countryside, the place where Norwegian immigrants came. Here they crafted their first church from stone in 1862, then built a second, of wood, in 1894. Both still stand.

The Valley Grove Preservation Society cares about the land, too, with restoration and preservation. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
I spotted swirls of prairie grass alongside a trail. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Dried hydrangea alongside the wooden church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

The churches, cemetery and surrounding 50 acres are today owned, preserved and managed by the Valley Grove Preservation Society. They are a favorite nearby rural destination for me. I appreciate the natural beauty, the history, the country quiet and more. Even the wind.

A view from the parking lot, outside the fenced grounds. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

On a recent March Sunday afternoon I walked the prairie paths, wound among aged tombstones, admired the sturdy churches. And while I’ve wandered these grounds many times and attended community celebrations inside and outside the church buildings, each visit brings new discoveries and reminders of why I love this place so much.

Atop the steeple of the old stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I value the rural-ness. On this afternoon, the shrill crow of a rooster, the sharp crack of gunshots and the barks of two dogs running loose broke the silence. In the context of location, the sounds fit. Not that I like gunshots echoing or strange canines circling me. But they did no harm as I continued along the stomped, sometimes soggy grass trail back toward the Valley Grove Cemetery and churches.

Land and sky define the prairie path. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

When following the prairie paths under a wide sky, I hear whispers of the past. Of wheels creaking under the weight of wagons crammed with an immigrant family’s belongings. Of a young mother bent over her baby, singing a soothing song from the Old Country. Of a weary farmer sighing after a long day of breaking the land.

The roofline and steeple of the simple 1862 stone church rise above the rural landscape. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

If this place could speak, it would whisper the stories of all those Norwegian immigrants who settled in and around Valley Grove and then gathered on this hilltop location to worship, socialize, celebrate, mourn.

The 1894 church closeup. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
The bell in the wooden church still rings for special occasions. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

On this winter day, the church doors are locked. But I’ve been inside both buildings. They are basic. Simple. Mostly unadorned. The wooden church is still used today for special worship services like weddings. The old stone church serves primarily as a social gathering room. Both are well preserved. Valued.

In the foreground, the back of the old stone church, which sits near the wooden church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Soon four tapestries, woven in the Norwegian billedvev tradition, will grace the walls of the stone church. Minneapolis weaver Robbie LaFleur was commissioned by the Valley Grove Preservation Society to create the art. It features the plants, animals, land, immigrants and churches of Valley Grove. A grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places funded the project. LaFleur’s tapestries will be showcased during a Syttende Mail celebration from 2-4 pm Sunday, May 15.

One of many Oles buried at Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Much art already exists at Valley Grove, within the cemetery. I consider tombstones to be works of art, documentations of lives. The stone markers are many, from aged to recent. Names engraved thereon reflect the primarily Norwegian heritage. Ole. Erik. Einar. Inger. If these tombstones among the oaks could speak, oh, the stories they would tell. Of life in the Old Country. And of life in the New World, of this place, this Valley Grove.

FYI: Please check back for a post about the Valley Grove Cemetery.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

14 Responses to “Whispers of history & heritage at Valley Grove”

  1. beth Says:

    how wonderful that all of this is being cared for and preserved. it is for the benefit of all

  2. Tom Bosshardt Says:

    I grew up in wheeling Township and as a kid the bells of Valley Grove church and St. John UCC Wheeling would ring on Saturday evenings to remind people to go to church on Sunday. The bells sound the same. It was said that both bells were casted by the same company and sounded the same. So when they rang on Sunday or Saturday it sounded like they were answering each other or echo. Whether this fact not sure but sure made sense to a kid in the 1950’s.

  3. How peaceful and beautiful. A wonderful piece.

  4. Valerie Says:

    Valley Grove is a very special place. I, too, would love to hear the stories the oaks could tell. Although I miss the big, old oak tree that sheltered one section of the cemetery.

  5. Jeff Sauve Says:

    Thanks Audrey for your beautiful reflections and photographs regarding Valley Grove Church. Please come to my talk on April 28, 2022 at 7pm, Rice County Historical Society in Faribault.

    Here’s the official blurb: Join local historian and author Jeff Sauve as he presents interesting stories from his latest publication: History and Highlights: Valley Grove Preservation Society, est. 1973. For over fifty years, the non-profit organization has maintained the two historic churches located three miles north of Nerstrand, as well as managing the surrounding 50-acre oak savanna restoration. A book signing follows the presentation. To learn more about Valley Grove, see https://valleygrovemn.org/ This program is $3.00/person or free for RCHS and Valley Grove Preservation Society Members For more information call the museum at 507-332-2121

    Thanks,
    Jeff Sauve
    Northfield

  6. Jackie Hemmer Says:

    I have been to these two churchs and cemetery a few years ago. Such beautiful churches!

  7. This is beautiful! I love it every time you share pictures of these churches. Your words remind me of walks that I have taken through our Norwegian cemetery. Four generations resting in peace there.


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