MID-SEPTEMBER AIR HUNG HEAVY with humidity, more summer-like than autumn on this Sunday afternoon at two country churches in southeastern Minnesota.
But, inside the sanctuary, Randy and I sat near a window cracked open to the cemetery, wind fanning a breeze, and at one time a wasp.
I shifted, trying to find comfort on the hard wooden pew inside the 1894 church at Valley Grove, one of two built on a hilltop offering sweeping views of the countryside, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park next door and the small town of Nerstrand just miles to the southeast. Both church buildings remain, preserved, sanctuary doors opening to one another across a short swatch of lawn.
We joined others here for the Valley Grove Country Social, an annual autumn event that celebrates this place. On this day, noted Minnesota photographer Doug Ohman blessed us with his storytelling and photo presentation on selected historic churches of Minnesota. “Valley Grove,” he said, “is one of my favorite spots in all of Minnesota. You can feel the history.”
And that’s saying something. Ohman has photographed 3,000 plus Minnesota churches, many featured in his book Churches of Minnesota published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press as part of the Minnesota Byway series that also covers barns, courthouses, schoolhouses, cabins and libraries.
As Ohman talked of the early immigrants, like the Norwegians who founded Valley Grove, he noted “…communities were being knit together in the shadow of the church.”
A strong sense of history certainly exists at Valley Grove. Although I have no personal connection to these historic churches, I appreciate them. Like Ohman. “The church,” he said, “is a symbol of our heritage.” I agree.
This photographer not only documents with his camera, but he gathers stories, too. Ohman is a master storyteller. He regaled us with humorous and poignant stories—of retrieving a church key from an outhouse, of stringing 600 feet of extension cords from a farm to Lenora United Methodist Church so he would have electrical power to present, of a $70,000 check gifted to a central Minnesota bible camp to relocate Marble Lutheran Church 100 miles…
He personalized, as did Jon Rondestvedt, another storyteller who shared cemetery stories following Ohman’s talk. Rondestvedt spoke of Oscar and Clara Bonde, a couple buried in the cemetery adjacent to the two churches. Clara, he noted, was a teacher within the Normal School system before her marriage to Oscar. She loved raspberries, hated moles. She was known for her green thumb skill of growing African violets. And Oscar, well, he was known as a cookie thief, a tag that caused us to burst into laughter.
Such stories reinforce Rondestvedt’s opening statement that tombstones are “testimonies to people who lived, breathed and mattered.” I like that word choice, mattered. “It’s up to us to remember them,” this storyteller said.
Later he moved from the shade of a sprawling burr oak to the sun-drenched plots of the Hellerud family. There he explained how husbands sometimes chose to honor their wives via only the woman’s name engraved on a large tombstone, the man’s grave marker nearby, a simple flat stone laid flush to the ground. “She was seen as a treasure by her husband,” Rondestvedt said. This was a new piece of information I will take with me now in my stops at country cemeteries.
I left Valley Grove, too, with a desire to read Giants of the Earth, a classic by O.E. Rolvaag about Norwegian immigrants settling in America. Rondestvedt read selected passages at the burial sites of the Helleruds, the wind ruffling pages of the aged novel.
Shortly thereafter we gathered around the grave marker of Hannah Stenbakken Hellerud, a school teacher so beloved by a young boy that he said she was the first person he wanted to see in heaven. A monarch butterfly dipped and rose, circling our group. The butterfly seemed a symbolic ending to the afternoon, coming full circle to my first stop upon arriving at the Valley Grove Country Social. I’d stopped initially to check out a booth about monarchs. I left with a packet of swamp milkweed seeds which I will seed near the common milkweed already growing in my yard.
It is up to us to preserve—a population of threatened butterflies, country churches atop a hill, stories from churches and cemeteries…all that which holds our history, our heritage.
And it is up to us also to celebrate that which has been preserved.
© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling