A church Norwegian immigrants built about 130 years ago in Allamakee County has become one of Iowa's most treasured historic buildings.
Built in 1892, the West Paint Creek Synod Evangelical Lutheran Church near Waterville, Iowa, has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Its historic significance is tied to its association with Norwegian and Norwegian-American architecture and social history.
"We're pleased the West Paint Creek Church has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, and we congratulate all the stakeholders who worked so hard on this successful nomination," State Historian Laura Sadowsky said. "This recognition marks an important milestone for Allamakee County as it continues to preserve the legacy of its past for future generations of Iowans to enjoy."
The first Norwegian immigrants came to Allamakee County as early as 1851, but many avoided the Upper Midwest during the U.S. Civil War. Before 1866, about 1,200 Norwegian immigrants had crossed the Atlantic and traveled inland to settlements in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. Around 1,400 immigrated in the late 1860s and another 1,400 in the 1880s. Most immigrants to central Allamakee County came from an area called Norde Land in the Norwegian county of Oppland, which extends into the mountains northwest of Oslo.
"Steerage passage on boats and ships was generally affordable for Norwegian families," the nomination form said. "The Erie Canal (provided) a navigable water route from New York City to the Great Lakes, (and) the Norwegian immigrant family could walk or use wooden ox-carts with oxen to reach settlements."
In the 1850s, many Norwegian immigrants struggled with pioneer life and spent most of their time working just to survive. For example, it took one full year to clear 100 acres of prairie land by hand and they made all their clothing and household goods. Traveling into town was an all-day ordeal, so most families planted gardens and harvested wildlife for food.
In the open prairie, many were forced to live first in their ox-cart wagons, or "kubberuller," as they were often known among Norwegian-Americans. Others dug holes in the coulee hills and lived in that type of housing until they could build a frame house. Norwegian immigrants were excellent carpenters using hand tools and native hardwoods.
Over the years, the church became the center of social life in West Paint Creek. It hosted a wide variety of activities – church services, Sunday school, vacation bible school, baptisms, communions, confirmations, weddings, and funerals – and Ladies Aid Society events for both unmarried and married ladies, men’s club meetings, community parties, and rehearsals and concerts for a choir known as “the singing Lutherans.”
"It was important to church members that their families could worship and socialize close to their homes and farms so that they could carry on the customs of their native church in Norway," the nomination form said.
In 1890, Peter Paulson and his wife, Sophia Ericksdatter (Bakkum) Paulson, deeded a little more than one acre of land to the congregation, which built the West Paint Creek Synod Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1892.
It features lancet arched windows, a gable-front roof, and strong vertical elements with the bell tower and spire. It's nestled in a picturesque, rural setting with tall white pine trees and arborvitae trees in the cemetery.
Today, the church retains the character-defining features, details, materials and workmanship associated with the Late Victorian Carpenter Gothic style of architecture. Along with its cemetery and 1938 shed, the entire property reflects the history of local Norwegian settlement and ethnicity.
Evidence of Norwegian immigrant carpentry skills can be found throughout the church, including the Dutch lap siding, frame construction, paneled doors, pews, and flooring. The interior woodwork surfaces – especially the altar, altar rail, chancel, pulpit and native pine wooden pews – are carved with great intricate detail, with an ornate cross on each side of the pews.
In addition, the altar features a painting by Herbjorn Nilsen Gausta called "Resurrection" that depicts Jesus with the angels and Roman centurion soldiers. Gausta was a popular, itinerant Norwegian immigrant artist, and Luther College holds nearly 60 of his paintings in its Fine Arts Collection.
Overall, the church and its cemetery are in good condition, but ongoing maintenance and repairs are needed. For example, the 1938 shed needs to be repaired and repainted, water stains dot the sanctuary, and the original single-hung windows need to be re-glazed.
In the future, the congregation would like to open the church for baptisms, weddings, funerals, reunions and more.
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The State Historic Preservation Office oversees the National Register of Historic Places program in Iowa in conjunction with the National Park Service. The State Historic Preservation Office is part of the State Historical Society of Iowa, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.
The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and its three divisions – the Iowa Arts Council, Produce Iowa - State Office of Media Production and the State Historical Society of Iowa – empower Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to the people, places and points of pride that define our state. The department’s work enables Iowa to be recognized as a state that fosters creativity and serves as a catalyst for innovation where the stories of Iowa are preserved and communicated to connect past, present and future generations.