Little Brown Church in the Vale

2730 Cheyenne Avenue, Nashua, IA

The namesake church of the famous song The Little Brown Church in the Vale

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East Façade and Main Entrance

Photo taken by J.R. Manning in October 2012

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Come To The Church in the Wildwood 

Written by J.R. Manning

When you were a kid, did you sing a song about a little brown church in the wildwood? No? You must be under 50, but you've probably heard the song at one time or another, it is a very popular old standard.

As the story goes, William S. Pitts lived, and taught school, in Rock County, Wisconsin but had a fiancée in Iowa. On a stagecoach trip to Iowa in June of 1857, the stage stopped in Bradford. Pitts saw an idyllic setting that he thought would be an ideal spot for a church.

When he returned to Wisconsin, he wrote a poem that he titled Church in the Wildwood about a little brown church in the idyllic setting. He set it to music, then put it away and forgot about it.

In 1855, residents of Bradford were meeting as a congregation and by 1860, were getting serious about building a church after the arrival of a new minister. A parishioner donated the lot, limestone was quarried for a foundation, another parishioner donated logs and someone else donated sawyer operations. The start of the Civil War slowed construction but it never really came to a halt. By 1862, the structure was enclosed and by 1864, it was ready for dedication but needed paint. When it came time to paint the structure, the only paint available was Ohio Mineral Paint - available, affordable, and brown.

Pitts, meanwhile, had married and was still living in Wisconsin. The couple moved to Fredericksburg, Iowa to be closer to Mrs. Pitts' family. Imagine Mr. Pitts' surprise when he found a little brown church on the site he had envisioned it.

He dug out the song and sang it to the congregation. He took it to Chicago and had it published, the song was quite popular in the area. Mr. Pitts became Dr. Pitts and practiced medicine in Fredericksburg.

Meanwhile, times change and the changes were not kind to Bradford and the little brown church. The railroad moved to Nashua and industry followed. Bradford had been the Chickasaw County seat, but when Bradford dried up, county government moved, too.

In 1888, the church closed, but it continued to be used for Sunday School classes with occasional services. In the early 1900s, a society to preserve the church was founded and in 1914, it reopened and has been holding services ever since.

About that same time, the Weatherwax Quartet came through Iowa and adopted The Little Brown Church in the Wildwood as their theme song. Between about 1910 and 1921, they traveled throughout North America, singing the beloved song about the church and as a result, the song became very popular and the church became quite famous.

Over 73,000 weddings have been held here since 1918 (when they started keeping records of such things) and the church is still a Congregational Church, as it has been for almost 160 years, it is still brown, and people from Sunday School pupils to the Statler Brothers continue to sing about this little brown church.

Tags 

19th Century (36,287)
Built 1864 (213)
Built during 1860s (3,605)
Chickasaw County, Iowa (7)
Church (5,393)
In operation (1,787)
Iowa (2,455)
Place of worship (5,742)

Update Log 

  • October 7, 2012: Essay added by J.R. Manning

Sources 

Comments 

Little Brown Church in the Vale
Posted October 13, 2012, by J.R. Manning (thekitchenguy [at] sbcglobal [dot] net)

That's okay, Wes, most of us here are off just a little, probably half a bubble.

I love finding places like this! I always wonder about story songs, whether the song's story has any basis in fact (like this one) or if it's just pure fiction.

Actually, this one started out as fiction, the church was built after the song was written. Sometimes, life imitates art.

By the way, the Carter Family recorded the song in 1932. There's a copy of it on YouTube that inculdes an old photo of the church, well before the highway was widened.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wGjlK46a-A

Little Brown Church in the Vale
Posted October 8, 2012, by Wes Kinsler (webmaster [at] wkinsler [dot] com)

I was off just a little. See

http://victor.library.ucsb.edu/index.php/matrix/detail/700001092/B-16099-The_little_brown_church_in_the_vale

Recorded June 1915

Issued May 1916, ans was in the catalog until 1936

Library of Congress recording in the above link is same recording on the record.

Little Brown Church in the Vale
Posted October 8, 2012, by Wes Kinsler (webmaster [at] wkinsler [dot] com)

Here is the label from a circa 1918 Victor Record for the song.

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