By Ruth A Ringelstetter
Joann and I love the rolling countryside of southwest Wisconsin. On one of our fall trips to the area in 2002, we stumbled on an old church quietly deteriorating along the roadside. The name on the front proclaimed it to be Bethel Chapel with a year of 1880.
The steeple was already leaning, and the brush was slowly taking over. We knew it was something special, so we marked it in the gazetteer. The description we wrote said simply “Bethel Chapel.” In those early years, we weren’t very good about noting which road we had found something on, thinking that our sharp memories and the notation in the gazetteer would be enough.
In 2008, we were in the area, and I mentioned to Joann that we were near the Bethel Chapel location. She excitedly asked if we could go there again. I said, “Of course,” and navigated us to where I thought the notation in the gazetteer indicated. What we found was an empty space. We were crestfallen. It had been 6 years since our first visit and now our beautiful old chapel was gone.
When we got home, something was nagging at me about that chapel. Was it really gone, or had we not been in the correct location? I looked back in the photography logs and found that after transferring our numbers from one gazetteer to another, the location had moved slightly, and we had not been in the right place after all. I called Joann to tell her that all was not lost, and we decided to make another trip to the area and try to find the chapel again.
Several weeks later we went back to the same area and this time we drove the road that our earlier logs said the chapel was on. And we found it! The steeple was still leaning, but didn’t seem to be leaning much further. We took a lot of photos knowing that once a building gets to this point, too much snow on the roof one winter, or too strong of a wind, and the building may become a pile of boards along the roadside.
In 2010, we made another trip to Bethel Chapel. The steeple still leaned, and the church had many vines and shrubs around it. And yet we couldn’t help but take some more photos. The setting is so quiet and peaceful and the church is so beautiful in its abandonment that we just can’t help it.
Then, in late winter of 2010, we were told that the church had burned to the ground. We didn’t want to believe it. As Joann mulled that possibility over in her mind, she decided that we had to go past the location again just to see if it was true. Besides, we had never taken the church in any season but fall. If we went in early spring, maybe more of the church would be visible before the shrubbery took over.
In mid-May of this year, after our slow start to spring, we finally set out to visit the old chapel. We made several stops that morning before we came to the road for the chapel. It got very quiet in the car as we drove along the road toward the chapel location. What if it was gone?
We traveled over several hills and around a few curves, and finally we were there. The chapel was still standing and didn’t look much worse for the wear. Joann could hardly contain herself and couldn’t wait to have the car parked before she jumped out and grabbed her camera and tripod.
So much more of the church is visible in the spring than in the fall, and we could really tell what a lovely church it was before it was abandoned. As we discussed writing about the church, I tried in several places to find some history of the church and couldn’t find any.
Maybe someday we’ll find someone who knows about the church -- who built it and how it came to be abandoned. In the meantime, we’ll wait to make a winter visit and see how it looks sitting in the snow of Wisconsin’s countryside.
When you’re out shunpiking, if you find a location that really moves you, make a good note about its location so that, if you want to return, you can!