The Little Brown Church in the Vale, built as America's bloody Civil War raged, is Iowa's most famous church. In fact, it may be one of the most notable and recognizable in the entire country. It's a real icon for our state and its meaning and value to literally tens of thousands (or more!) families is quite literally priceless.
On a recent Saturday, as I was making an adventurous swing through Northeast Iowa, I stopped outside of Nashua, IA in western Chickasaw County to spend some time inside this historic church and to explore the surrounding grounds.
Outside of visiting the church in 1997 with my parents and sister on a family vacation and driving by sporadically in 2008 when I worked on a political campaign, I only had a vague familiarity of the history and magnitude of the church's meaning. However, once you get in the church, take in the history, and then do a little bit more reading about it, you really do gain a significant appreciation for it.
I would encourage you to read more about the church and it's incredible history on the church's very nicely designed website. Painted brown because white paint was too expensive at the time of the Civil War, The Little Brown Church is famous because it inspired William Pitts' poem, "Church in the Wildwood", which later was put to music to create a famous song, "The Little Brown Church in the Vale".
According to their website, it's hosted over 74,000! weddings and it seems like just about everybody knows someone, at sometime, who was married here or at least attended a wedding ceremony. There is a tradition that the happy couple must ring the bell on their way out of the church.
It's also no doubt had it's share of happy baptisms and mournful funerals. It's clear that this church means a great deal to a lot of families.
The church has had it's up and downs but's it's survived wars, the industrial revolution, the Great Depression, the Farm Crisis, and even the advent of the Internet. At nearly 160 years old, she still looks as good as ever.
When I pulled up, around 4:30pm on a Saturday afternoon, I was surprised to find I was the only person visiting. There is, however, ample parking for cars and even tour buses next door and across the road.
The church is still active and remains, as it was founded, a Congregational Christian church. As I approached the building, I found several signs that let me know that I was indeed welcome and that the church was open.
Once inside, you find that the church's beautiful architectural elements - from the windows, lighting, and pews, to the pulpit, organ, and doors - have been lovingly preserved.
The above photo is a view from the pulpit. Clearly, nobody wanted to listen to my sermon.
There are a lot of pictures and plaques on the wall that help to give visitors a little better grasp about the history of the church as well who were some of the more influential individuals over time.
Though it is still an active church with weekly worship services, it is also a regularly visited tourist stop and they do their best to balance those things. There is a place where you can leave donations as well as buy souvenirs and pick up brochures to learn more. They have envelopes where you can make a contribution to the charitable trust that exists to preserve the church for the enjoyment of future generations.
Speaking of improvements, the church has added a new handicap accessible bathroom. Though you do have to go outside to get to it, it's kind of tucked under the back part of the church structure and it's very modern.
It appears to be a big improvement over the building they must have used previously.
Elsewhere on the grounds, I spotted a few wooden sculptures, a bell that belonged to the school that used to be affiliated with the church, and some picnic areas.
Next door to the church, is the Old Bradford Pioneer Village Museum. It appeared to be mostly closed, but I'll have to make a plan to stop by another time.
There also appears to be an operational roadside motel and restaurant next door to the museum as well.
Back in town, there's a small lake with a park and a veterans memorial as well as other military artifacts.
On the other side of town, I found a visitor center that is open 24 hours a day but I did not go in.
I hope to come back to Nashua again soon and do a bit more exploration and check out some of the other businesses, especially if some folks have some recommendations of places to enjoy. In the meantime, I hope you will check out The Little Brown Church in the Vale's Facebook page and give them a follow.