‘Little Brown Church in the Vale’ an Inspiration at 150 Years of Age
Truckers stop by to say a quick prayer, couples from as far away as Australia come to get married, and many visitors are so inspired that they belt out the song that made the “little brown church in the vale” famous.
After more than 72,000 weddings and visits from as many as 60,000 tourists annually, the Little Brown Church is celebrating its 150th year.
Festivities included the group renewal of marriage vows, an annual event that the Rev. Linda Myren says is “like a big old family reunion.”
She said 337 couples from 19 states signed the registry this year. Those married 55 years or more were allowed inside the church. The others stood outside, in a tent nestled in a grove of trees.
“This year, two of the past ministers were back ... and it was wonderful to see them talking to people they had married in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Myren said.
The church’s congregation was founded in 1855 as the First Congregational Ecclesiastical Society of Bradford. Traveling preachers led services in homes and behind storefronts.
William S. Pitts, a Wisconsin music teacher taking a stagecoach through the area to meet his fiancee in Fredericksburg in the 1850s, passed by the wooded glen along the Cedar River where the church now sits and was inspired to write the song “The Church in the Wildwood.”
Its opening lines:
There’s a church in the valley
by the wildwood,
No lovelier spot in the dale;
No place is so dear to my
As the little brown church
in the vale.
The congregation had never heard the song when it built its church on that very spot -- or when it chose to paint the little church brown. At the time, it was the simply the cheapest paint the worshipers could find.
Pitts, who moved to Iowa in 1862, learned of the church, and his song was performed at the dedication in 1864. The Weatherwax Brothers, a barbershop quartet, made the song popular in the early 1900s.
The tiny church, which seats about 150, still has many of its original features, including pews made of pine and walnut, brass lamps that once burned oil and a pump organ with a worn-out pedal and a missing ivory key.
Myren says her congregation today is 100 strong.
In 1947, there were 1,344 weddings at the church. Although that has declined in recent years to about 400 a year, couples still come from throughout the world to be married in the Little Brown Church.
A German couple wed at the church after finding the happiest married couple they knew and asking where they got married, Myren said.
“They said they wanted to start off right,” Myren said.
Some families consider being married at the church a tradition -- four generations of one family were married here, Myren said.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said that when he married his wife, Barbara, at the church in 1954 there were lines of couples waiting their turn.
Some of his guests arrived early and thought they were at the wrong church because they walked in on an earlier wedding.
“Barbara came to the church 15 minutes late and the pastor wanted to get going because people were waiting,” Grassley said.
Myren thinks the church’s popularity may be declining because the song that made it famous isn’t widely sung anymore.
“It’s gotten to be a song not a lot of people have heard,” she said.
Schools no longer teach it because it is thought to be a religious song and churches do not use it because it doesn’t mention God, Myren said.
In an attempt to keep the song alive, she has students learn it when they visit the church on field trips.
Newlyweds Jan and Alan Whitesell, of Apollo Beach, Fla., were married at the church in a 20-minute ceremony on a recent summer morning.
She had grown up singing about the church. He visited it with his family as a young boy growing up in Waterloo.
“This is special, very memorable,” she said. “This is where people come to get married.”
After the bride dried her eyes and a few photos were taken, the couple headed to the entrance of the church and, together, pulled the rope that rings the church bells, something every couple married there has done.
“You have to learn to pull together,” Myren told the newly married couple as the bells rang. “Through all the ups and downs you have to work together.”
Betsy Bugg, 66, of Louisville, Ky., was overcome with emotion when she walked into the church.
“This is an awesome place because I’ve sung about the ‘little brown church in the vale’ all my life,” Bugg said. “To be inside is wonderful.”
After slowly walking around, looking at old photos and taking some snapshots with friends, Bugg stood near the pulpit and began singing, “There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood ... “