By Joann M. Ringelstetter
Two years ago, on an autumn trip to Minnesota, Ruth and I visited the Portland Prairie Methodist Episcopal Church in Houston County.
In 1855, six years after Minnesota became a territory, Methodist settlers from the states of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, organized the church. At first, services were held in homes and then in the McNelly schoolhouse until the church was built in 1876 at a cost of $1,540.
The church was built in the Eastlake architectural style, which is part of the Queen Anne style of Victorian architecture. This style is known for its attention to detail and decorative wood trim.
The oldest known photo of the church shows a prairie-like setting with few trees. Now there are several large trees near the church, but it is still surrounded by farm fields, a reminder of the original agricultural community of Portland Prairie.
Behind the church is a simple, well-kept cemetery that is the final resting place of some of the original pioneer settlers. Many of them had traveled by train from Chicago to Rockford, Illinois; by stagecoach to Galena, Illinois; by riverboat to Lansing, Iowa; and then by ox team or on foot the last 20 miles to Portland Prairie. The oldest person buried in this cemetery was born in 1770 and died in 1857.
If you’re a faithful reader of these blog posts, you know that I always check the doors of old churches and schools to see if they are open. In this case, to my absolute delight, the doors were open and welcoming. Just inside the doors was a vestibule with a church bell rope hanging down from the bell tower and attached to the wall. It beckoned to be pulled, but Ruth and I resisted the temptation.
Beyond the vestibule, the doors led to rows of old wooden pews, with worn-out hymnals in every pew. An old-fashioned pump organ sat in the corner at the front of the church.
Instead of an altar in the front center of the church, a simple podium stood in front of an antique Victorian sofa.
In the early days of this church, Portland Prairie was a thriving community with 35 families belonging to the congregation. Services were provided by circuit riders who ministered to several rural churches. In the 1880s, pioneer families were devastated by crop failures and many moved on to the Dakotas and Nebraska.
Over the years, a total of 39 ministers have served in this simple, pioneer church. In 1932, regular services ended and the remaining families began transferring to the nearby Caledonia Methodist Church. Special services, such as weddings and baptisms are still held occasionally in the church. Also, there are two annual worship services – one on the last Sunday of July with a hymn sing prior to the service, and one on Christmas Eve.
The setting for the Christmas Eve service is rustic, with no heat or electricity and the church is dimly lit with candles and a few kerosene lamps. People say it reminds them of a cold stable and a lowly manger scene from a long, long time ago.