Sunday, October 19, 2014
I haven't made a trek into the rural corners of the Badger State in a long time, but yesterday was such a beautiful fall day that I decided to head back down to Trempealeau County to look for the abandoned Kongsberg Church and cemetery. I've been searching for it for about two years and after five hikes through the brush along a county road, I'd almost given up on it.
I had come across the name of the church in 2012 from a small history book in an antique shop. Already the name piqued my interest. I'm always keen on discovering cultural artifacts from the state's ethnic and immigrant past. Kongsberg is a Norwegian town southwest of Oslo, so, I thought, there must be a remnant pocket of old Norwegians in that area of Trempealeau County. I thought I'd find a old quaint rural Norwegian-American church to photograph… and I did:
But this isn't Kongsberg. It's the East Bennett Valley Church south of Eleva, another rural Norwegian-American church located in the adjoining valley to the Kongsberg Church. East Bennett Valley Church was built in 1896, around two decades after Kongsberg, so it gives us at least an inkling of what Kongsberg might look like, especially perched atop a picturesque hill as the Norwegians often did.
What we know about the Kongsberg Church is contained in the History of Trempealeau County volume, but unfortunately much of that information is listed with question marks. It belonged to the Norwegian synod and was organized in 1879 with sermons delivered by Pastor H.A. Heyer. Its congregation peaked in 1883 with 168 members. A year later the congregation at Kongsberg was gone.
It appears that the church was abandoned and torn down and the congregation dissolved following tragedy in the community. That tragedy and the ruins of this nineteenth century church remain hidden in the woods of the rural valley.
We hiked through the area with some directions from the historical society and finally stumbled upon the abandoned cemetery surrounded by tall lilac bushes:
Only a few tombstones remain, but it's certain that there are plenty more buried under the leaf litter. Some of the tombstones are written in Norwegian - giving us a glimpse into the rural isolation of these Norwegian immigrants from the English-speaking mainstream and the tenacity of language in religious domains. The stones also tell us about the plight of the nineteenth century immigrant to rural Wisconsin. They all record a death year of 1879 and they are all children.
From historical documents, we know that a major diphtheria epidemic swept through the congregation in 1879 taking many of the children. The sad story is recounted on the tombstones of the Hoff children ages 2, 4, 6, and 7. All died in September or October 1879. I couldn't imagine the loss that that family endured.
Diphtheria is an infectious disease and causes fever, sore throat, and swollen lymph nodes. Breathing is complicated and was a common cause of death in nineteenth century Wisconsin; we now have a vaccine against it. For the congregation at Kongsberg, the diphtheria epidemic was disastrous. Five years later the church closed its doors. All that remains are the few tombstones and some of the foundation stones giving an indication of where the church was located and its size.
It's a beautiful, meditative, quiet place in rural Wisconsin that has long been forgotten. 130 years later the forest is slowly reclaiming the marks of these pious pioneers, while remnants of their plight and sadness are still recognizable among the leaves and brush.