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Valley Grove Church, Wheeling Township

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Two Valley Grove churches

The two Valley Grove churches (built in 1862 and 1894, respectively), Nerstrand (Wheeling Township), Minnesota, 2019. Used with the permission of Rice County Historical Society.

In 1862, the Valley Grove Lutheran congregation erected a church made from local quarried limestone in Wheeling Township. By 1894, it had outgrown the original building and built a wooden Gothic Revival edifice seventy-five feet away. Although the congregation disbanded in 1973, the remaining picturesque site and its structures were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

Valley Grove Church traces its beginnings to the mid-1850s, when Norwegian immigrants in the Wheeling Township settlement of Tyske (or German) Grove (later called Valley Grove), Rice County, first held religious services in their log homes and in the open air. As early as 1860, meetings were held to discuss erecting a church three miles northwest of Nerstrand. The land’s owner, Fingal Fingalson, would not commit to selling. According to lore, “One day Ole Rudningen happened to meet him, so he asked him outright if the land was for sale or not. Fingalson said it was, so to close the deal then and there, Ole reached in his pocket and took out fifty cents—the only money he had, and paid it to close the deal.”

One of the limestone quarries near Hidden Falls, located in the Big Woods, provided the stone for the Valley Grove Church site, a short distance away. Construction was completed in 1862. Situated on a hilltop, facing west, the rectangular church with a gable roof measures fifty-five feet by thirty-five feet by twenty feet high and cost $1200. Simple in design, the building has four regularly spaced windows on the north and south walls. Originally, the cupola was painted Cottage Red and the shutters Essex Green.

From 1862 to 1867, Valley Grove operated as an independent congregation until joining the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or what was commonly known then as the Norwegian Synod. The following year the church was officially dedicated on October 18, 1868. In 1874, a church bell weighing 1,433 pounds was purchased for $568 from the Troy Bell Foundry, Troy, New York.

By 1894, the burgeoning congregation had outgrown the stone church. Members who lived in Nerstrand lobbied for a church to be built in the village limits. To appease the congregation, two identical white wood-frame churches with high steeples were erected; one in Nerstrand (later named Grace Lutheran Church) and the other, known as the Valley Grove “West” Lutheran Church, facing east, seventy-five feet away from the old stone church. In 1949, the two churches of the Valley Grove Congregation (town and country) officially divided and became independent of each other. Both churches remained in the same parish.

The juxtaposition of the old limestone church and the new church perched on the grassy knoll created a dramatic panorama. The total cost to build both the West Church and Grace Lutheran Church was $2,975. The former was dedicated on November 8, 1894. Its white clapboard, Gothic-inspired look boasted ornamental pinnacles and pointed arches. Again, local quarried rock was utilized for the foundation. Like the stone church, plumbing was not installed.

The bell was transferred from the stone church and placed in the steeple of the new church. The following year, in 1895, the former church was transformed into a guild hall managed by its Ladies’ Aid Society. The ceiling was lowered and a kitchen was built in the rear of the building.

By the early 1970s, the congregation’s numbers had declined considerably. The few remaining members made the hard decision on April 17, 1972, to disband the following year. In May 1975, the West Church and grounds were officially transferred to the Society for the Preservation of Valley Grove Church (later known as the Valley Grove Preservation Society). The old stone church and cemetery were transferred to the Valley Grove-Grace Cemetery Association. In 1982, the Valley Grove Church site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As of 2020, the Valley Grove Preservation Society seeks to maintain the two historic churches, a cemetery, and surrounding grounds, including restoration of a fifty-acre oak savanna. As a place to gather, Valley Grove continues to host weddings, funerals, an annual candlelight Christmas Eve service, and other social functions, such as the annual Valley Grove Country social held every fall.

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P0537 Congregations
Valley Grove Church papers (1859–2019)
Archives, Norwegian-American Historical Association, St. Olaf College, Northfield
Description: Six boxes of Valley Grove Lutheran Church records. Includes: minutes, deeds, cemetery, Ladies’ Aid records, financials, photographs, school registers, histories and anniversary programs, and Valley Grove Preservation Society materials.

Bloomberg, Britta. Valley Grove." Minnesota Historic Properties Inventory Form, February 1981.
https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/c4d6a617-dc3b-4397-9668-750e102b9639/

Bruce, G. M.“A Brief History.” Nerstrand: Valley Grove Lutheran Church, 1953.
https://valleygrovemn.org/resources/newspaper-articles/brief-history

Historic Structure Report for the Valley Grove Churches, Nerstrand, Minnesota. Prepared for the Valley Grove Preservation Society. Minneapolis: MacDonald & Mack Architects, LTD., September 30, 2013.

History of the Nerstrand Community. Nerstrand, MN: Nerstrand Women’s Club, 1949.

Nerstrand Bicentennial Committee. Nerstrand: A History. Nerstrand, MN: The Committee, 1976.

Rice County Families: Their History, Our Heritage. Faribault, MN: Rice County Historical Society, 1981.

Shaw, Joseph M. Bernt Julius Muus: Founder of St. Olaf College. Northfield, MN: Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1999.

“Valley Grove Church To Hold Anniversary.” Unknown publisher (clipping held at Rice County Historical Society, Faribault, Minnesota), October 2, 1952.

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Turning Point

In 1894, Valley Grove Lutheran Congregation outgrows its west-facing limestone church, built in 1862. An east-facing, white wood-frame church is erected seventy-five feet away. The juxtaposition of the two structures creates a dramatic panorama.

Chronology

1862

Wheeling Township’s Valley Grove Lutheran Church is constructed from local quarried limestone.

1868

The church building is officially dedicated on October 18.

1874

A church bell is purchased from the Troy Bell Foundry in Troy, New York, for $568.

1894

As the congregation grows, two identical white wood-frame churches are built; one in Nerstrand (later named Grace Lutheran Church) and the other (Valley Grove “West” Church), seventy-five feet away from the old stone church.

1895

The stone building is transformed into a guild hall and operated by its Ladies’ Aid Society.

1949

The two churches of the Valley Grove Lutheran Congregation (Grace Lutheran and Valley Grove West) officially divide and become independent of each other. Both churches remain in the same parish.

1972

On April 17, the few remaining members of the Valley Grove West Church make the hard decision to disband in the following year.

1973

The Valley Grove West Church and grounds are transferred to the Valley Grove Preservation Society. The old stone church and cemetery are transferred to the Valley Grove-Grace Cemetery Association.

1982

The Valley Grove Church site is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

2007

The Valley Grove Preservation Society obtains a fifty-year lease on the old stone church from the Valley Grove Grace Cemetery Association.