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Little Brown Church | Spring 2013 Out Here Magazine

the Little Brown Church located in Nashua, Iowa - Tractor Supply Co.
The song, "Church in the Wildwood", was inspired and written before the church was ever built.

'Church in the Wildwood' was immortalized in song even before it was built

By Noble Sprayberry

Photography by Matthew Putney

Simple verses of the hymn, Church in the Wildwood, invoke memories of small churches, sweet Sunday mornings, nostalgia of times gone by, and loved ones gone ahead.

Sung for generations around the world, heard on The Andy Griffith Show, and recorded by artists such as the Statler Brothers and Dolly Parton, the song became a staple of Christian music.

But, it's more than a song. The church is real, a little brown chapel in Nashua, Iowa. And, the story of the church and song continue to touch people.

"It's really remarkable to watch someone walk in here, because the church is unlocked during the day," says the Rev. James Mann, the church pastor. "They almost stop dead in their tracks, because it really has a special feel and ambiance."

The story begins with an empty plot of land and a young music teacher, William Pitts, traveling in the mid-1800s from Wisconsin to Iowa for a visit with his future bride.

Pitts decided to walk the streets of the fledgling town, waiting for a change of horses on the stagecoach. He noticed a vacant lot, a charming setting for a church. After returning home to Wisconsin, he used the scene as inspiration for a song, Church in the Wildwood, about a small church, painted brown. He put the completed piece in a drawer and forgot about it.

Meanwhile back in Iowa, members of the Puritan-Congregational Church grew tired of meeting in a lawyer's office, abandoned stores, and parishioners' homes. A family in the parish donated land — the same parcel spotted by Pitts — and a limestone foundation was laid in 1860.
One family eventually donated trees and another family contributed the labor to saw them into lumber. By 1862, the congregation had a new building.

The songwriter eventually moved to the area to be near his wife's aging parents, and he discovered the little church he once imagined for the song.

The church, however, needed paint, and the cheapest available was Ohio Mineral Paint, which was brown. The congregation went to work, painting their little brown church, never having heard Pitts' tune.

The songwriter eventually moved to the area to be near his wife's aging parents, and he discovered the little church he once imagined for the song.

The town eventually dried up and the church closed, but in the early 1900s the Society For The Preservation of The Little Brown Church kept the structure alive and services began again by 1914. With better roads after World War I, travelers began visiting the church and the song it inspired grew in popularity.

Today, the church's congregation has about 60 members, but visitors from around the world come to hear the weekly singing of Church in the Wildwood.

"We had a gentleman from Sri Lanka, who told us they sing the song," Mann says. "Someone wrote in the guest book that they're from Brazil, and they sing it in Portuguese."

The church, on 15 wooded acres and with room in the pews for about 110 people, also hosts about 200 weddings annually, a tradition often passed down within families.

Cindy Eisermann's parents, Mary and Norman Finger, married in the church in 1949. Last fall, she wed Frank Eisermann in a simple ceremony.
"When you walk up to the church, it's distinct," she says. "The song just ran through my head. It's just a small country church, and you walk in, and the Bible is right there."

Georgia writer Noble Sprayberry is a frequent contributor to Out Here.