Blakjer Church/Cem History
BLAKJER CHURCH AND CEMETERY HISTORY
Posted By: Letty Hurlburt (email)
Date: 3/2/2003 at 18:32:52
HISTORY OF BLAKJER CHURCH
The story of Blakjer Church is a fascinating chapter of immigrant history in northern Iowa. Following the exodus of the Sioux Indians, European settlers began arriving. As late as 1870, Kossuth county was still a vast, unbroken prairie. There were only a few dirt wagon trails, no roads, no amenities, no towns, no doctors. The few people beginning to settle constructed sod houses. Into this environment, a covered wagon arrived from Wisconsin in 1870, bearing the Christian Olsen Fossum and the Peder W. Jensen families. They were later joined by other Norwegian settlers: Halvar Thorson, Hans Fossum, Ingebert Jacobsen, Hans Anderson, Lars Everson and the Ole Hansens. All had passed through Ellis Island and had, no doubt, been drawn to the Midwest by advertisements of land availability. Also, Old Norway had experienced an economic depression. Since resources were limited there (farms there were very small), the younger members of the families were actually encouraged to leave Norway. Faith and the energy of youth were necessary attributes which helped them adjust to a new country’s customs, language and geography. Most would never again see their families in Old Norway. However, they were ambitious and proud to be “Americans”. Surely, America was glad to welcome such high character, high-spirited immigrants, for they were made of the moral fiber that would build, cherish, and support our budding nation during the period of expansion and invention that followed the Civil War. Grateful for their new American homeland they were motivated to worship and have fellowship with other Norwegian settlers. In 1876, they chartered Blakjer congregation and began meeting for worship in a sod house in section 29 of Seneca Township, just north and west of where they would later…twenty years later…build the church. Occasionally, worship was held at the Center Country School at Seneca. The first pastor, Reverend M.Holseth walked and served many congregations. Sometimes, several weeks elapsed between services. The treasurer’s report from the first year attests to the precise and frugal nature of the pioneers. In 1876, seven families each paid 62˝ cents, totaling $4.37˝. Expenses of $3.72 left an excess of 65˝ cents. Eight men each paid yearly $3.12˝ for the $25.00 minister’s salary. The first new church members were the Olai Olsens, the Johan W. Jensens, and the Ole Andersons. The families that soon joined were: Wilbergs, Johannesens, Cherlands, Halversons, Thompsons, Mathesons, Osborns, Bergums, Knudsens, Helgasons, and others.
Rev. Holseth served these pioneers as best he could for a number of years. Other pastors who served during these early years were: Rev. R. Bull, Rev. N. Pedersen, Rev. J. Johansen, Rev. L.P. Jensen and Rev. J.C. Ingebrigtsen. The first confirmation class was confirmed on May 17, 1885 (Norwegian Independence Day), with confirmands being: Peter Thorson, Johan Jensen, Lise Jensen (Shauger), Regine Knudsen (Jennie Jensen), Clara Manlum and Karen Olsen. Also during these years, the first baptism was recorded in 1882 and the first recorded marriage April 1, 1883, uniting Hans Thorstensen and Randi Halverson.
These were challenging times. The farmlands were swampy, not yet tiled. The horse-drawn implements were limited and primitive. There were many infant deaths. Still, these pioneers cleared and tilled the land and worked tirelessly to establish family homes, gardens, barns and windmills. They helped their neighbors and together supported the growth of the little towns of Lone Rock, Fenton, Bancroft, Ringsted and Seneca where they “traded” their numerous farm commodities for the few things they could not make with their own hands. Wonderful country school houses…so famous throughout Iowa…were established every few miles to serve the large families. Teachers lived in the homes of the students.
In Kossuth County, only three other Norwegian churches were built at Algona, Wesley, and Lotts Creek. All have vanished. The early members of Blakjer Church were mostly farmers. By 1895, the building of Blakjer Church was underway. Many members sacrificed heavily to make this possible. Mortgaging farms for the church building fund was not uncommon. A young Martin Jensen mortgaged everything he owned, including his horse named “Bob” to meet his commitment. The church was completed in 1896 at a cost of just under $1500. The same year a parsonage was built for $500 north of the church, (presently the home of Eugene “Swede” Larson). The first minister to live in the community, and in the parsonage, was the Rev. T.G. Opsahl. The name “Blakjer”, roughly translated, means, “blue bush” or “blue haze”. There is an area, near Oslo, Norway, named “Blakjer” which has an old church of the same name. This name is unique, as the names of most American Scandinavian Churches are of Biblical derivation.
Blakjer Church was intended to be a simple country church. Seating consisted of backless benches. The exterior treatment was an understated Victorian Style, popular at that time. Architects have suggested that Blakjer is a “Prairie Gothic” style. A wonderful 880 pound bronze bell was custom-cast for Blakjer in 1898 in St.Louis. In raised Norwegian lettering it reads, “calling young and old to worship”. The focal point of the painted wood altar is a tender oil painting, signed: Sara Raugland, 1901. It was very unusual for a woman artist to have a successful commercial art business at that time. Selecting from Raugland’s catalog of Biblical scenes, the Blakjer Ladies Aid purchased the painting of Christ reaching to Peter for $35 plus $1 shipping.
In the early 1900’s, the uncomfortable benches were replaced with eighteen (2” thick) golden oak pews which comfortably seat less than a hundred worshippers. Kerosene lanterns warmly illuminated the parishioners and their Norwegian Bibles and hymnals. Stained glass soon replaced the clear glass originally used in the arched openings. Warm amber and ethereal blue glass create an ambience of transfused light. The windows feature a curvilinear design – geometric and void of religious subject matter. Blakjer’s diminutive size of 26’ x 54’ suggests an intimate feeling space. For many years, those pews were filled every Sunday, some families requiring several pews as the generations expanded. Confirmation and church services were held in the Norwegian language until about 1927. Then, for some time, once a month services were held in Norwegian. Blakjer is truly a “family” church, as many young people stayed to farm; some had met their marriage partner at Blakjer. A long barn, open to the east, existed southwest of the church for horses and buggies. An “outhouse” was in the southwest corner of the cemetery.
In its peaceful country setting, the cemetery reminds us of the tears of joy and tears of sadness that were shed on this little spot of prairie during events special in the lives of each Christian family. Many sent their sons to defend our country. Albin E. Nelson, Jr. was killed at age 23 while serving in Normandy in World War II. Diseases, such as diphtheria, took many infants. A special grave marker of a shepherd boy marks the short life (two months) of little Martin Luther Thompson. The family names on Blakjer’s graves are almost exclusively Norwegian.
In the church, four types of heating and three types of lighting were used over the years. A basement was added to the church in 1920. This became the fellowship hall and a place for church meals, Sunday School, Bible Study, Luther League and Ladies Aid.
Even though the church never acquired running water, lutefisk dinners were popular for many years, continuing on an annual basis until 1960 when the church basement could no longer accommodate the crowds. In 1961 and 62, the Seneca School gym was used for this event.
In 1949 the interior was covered with the present mauve-colored sound board. The ceiling features a large white cross pattern stenciled with gold paint. On the sacristy walls, the Christos symbol is stenciled in gold paint. In 1949, part of the steeple was removed and the roof was reshingled. In 1955 new exterior siding was installed, new carpeting came in 1956, and a new piano in 1957. Reshingling of the south half of the roof occurred in the late 1970’s.
Using his carpentry skills, Otto Jensen remodeled the basement in 1950, covering the ceiling and hollow tile block walls with knotty pine. The wide boards and battens were a warm, honey color. The flooring was three-inch wide fir. The kitchen was also remodeled, but a cast-iron hand pump remained to provide cistern water. The farmers often brought milk cans filled with water whenever needed for events.
Over the years, the agricultural scene changed – better equipment, larger farms, and smaller families. Economic factors and careers enticed many young people away from their family farms. In 1987, after 111 years, the dwindling membership forced the closing of the church.
Some private ceremonies and weddings occurred over the next fifteen years, but there was sadness and concern that the beauty of Blakjer could not be shared more often. It had become more difficult to secure and to maintain the building. Thieves stole six stained glass vent windows and other items.
Unsuccessful attempts were made to relocate Blakjer Church (at Ingham Bible Camp, Emmetsburg, Algona and Forest City). Then, in 2000 the city of Lone Rock offered their enthusiasm and an appropriate historical setting which already featured the 1899 Lone Rock Museum and the famous “lone” rock. Also, the Lone Rock Centennial Committee offered $5,000 toward the church’s preservation.
Three individuals with strong Blakjer ties (Larry Johannesen, Julian Cherland and Roger P. Jensen) formed the non-profit organization, Blakjer/Lone Rock Preservation Corp. in 2001. Together with Merwyn Hurlburt and Dennis Heerdt, who represented Lone Rock’s interest, these trustees led the preservation efforts for the church. Though there were several fund-raising events, the majority of preservation gifts came from former Blakjer members and their families. Sons of Norway, Lutheran fraternal organizations and friends and neighbors also offered support.
In the autumn of 2001, at Blakjer’s original site, the old shingles and sheeting were removed. New rafters were joined to the old rafters in preparation for new sheeting and the new steel roof which is molded to resemble shingles. The basement entrance was removed, taking the building back to its 1896 appearance. In preparation for the move, the heavy bell was removed by crane through the top of the steeple. In Lone Rock, a new concrete block foundation, including Blakjer’s original cornerstone, was built. On January 9, 2002, Ron Holland, Inc. of Forest City, Iowa. moved Blakjer gently to town in one and one-half hours. To keep the route at a minimum of electrical crossings, the church traveled the last mile across an open field west of Lone Rock. On this warm, balmy winter day, the Norwegian flag flew proudly and many spectators cheered the arrival of Blakjer to begin its “new” life. In the following months, building renovations began: replacing missing siding pieces, creating new steps, recreating missing parts of the steeple, painting trim, planning landscaping and the antique bronze bell display, rewiring the church, refabricating stained glass vent windows, refinishing and restoring surfaces.
The goal has been to retain as much as possible of Blakjer’s historical and architectural integrity. A separate listing of all Pastors and confirmands can be found in Blakjer’s Centennial (1976) book. The original cornerstone contents and other church memorabilia are on display at the church. The church’s record book shows baptisms, marriages and communion rosters. Blakjer Church and Cemetery are eligible for the National Registry of Historic Places. In 1969, the Blakjer Cemetery Corporation was formed. In 2001, it sold the Church to the Blakjer/Lone Rock Preservation Corporation. These corporations operate independently of one another.
Even though Blakjer Church was built so many generations ago, it continues to symbolize humility, determination, and sacrifice. Many of its pioneer families worked their way from poverty to owning hundreds of acres of farmland. Though their success was born of their own hands, they also acknowledged the hand of God. Another successful week of farming could only begin by driving their horse-drawn buggies to the cross on the prairie and humbling themselves at Blakjer’s altar. Blakjer stands to remind us always of those soft-spoken, hard-working immigrants who left the world a much better place…just the sight of Blakjer inspires us to do the same!
In its peaceful and secure setting in Lone Rock, Blakjer is available for community events, private ceremonies, Christian concerts, history tours and small weddings. Since the building’s relocation in 2002, it is desired that Blakjer Church shall be used as an historical and an ecumenical Church, available without discrimination for Christian, community fellowship. It has been saved for us and for future generations to experience a simple country church from a much simpler era. Though built by immigrants from another land, Blakjer symbolizes true American spirit. It exemplifies what can be accomplished when commitment, passion and vision prevail. This is OUR heritage! Whose life would not be better by imitating the gentle and honest Christian attributes of our ancestors?
Kossuth Documents maintained by Linda Ziemann.
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