Clark County Press, Neillsville, WI
October 23, 1996, Page 32
Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.
Index of "Oldies" Articles
Good Old Days
By Dee Zimmerman
Our Churches customs through the years
The last century has been one with many changes in our country, including our places of worship.
Church structures of the late 1800’s, early 1900’s, were built with tall steeples that sheltered one or more bells and some with clocks on each side. The bells rang at different times of the day; preceding worship services, reminder of noon hour and supper hour, before the town sirens were installed. The death toll was rung as an announcement of some parishioner’s death and reminder to pray for the bereaving family. During worship service, the bell was tolled while the congregation prayed the Lord’s Prayer.
The early churches were built with ornately carved hardwood altars that were usually centered with a statue of Jesus. The pews, pulpit and communion railing were made of the same hardwood.
Beautiful stained glass windows graced the worship area with three, four or five windows on each of the two sides. The impressive artwork of the stained glass has been enjoyed by those of us who appreciate their beauty. My favorite stained glass window was a scene of Jesus as the Shepherd, amongst others depicting Jesus ministry on earth. The artist/artisan had so designed the setting that Jesus seemed to be looking down at each of those seated in the pews in front of the window. A feeling of comfort and peace was relayed through the artistry. Familiar Bible teachings come to mind such as: “The Lord is My Shepherd….” “He will feed His flock”… “Like a shepherd, He will gather the lambs in His arms”…. “Fear not little flock”….
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, little communities were made up of different nationalities. Immigrants of central Europe came to settle on the developing land in the upper Midwestern United States. Our area had settlements of German, Norwegian, Bohemian, Danish, etc. As they built their places of worship, they wanted to be ministered to by someone who spoke their native language. The German and Norwegian Lutheran Churches held services in those languages.
After the immigrants learned the English language and their children became fluent in speaking it, the church services were held with one service in the home land language and one in English. By the early 40’s, most services were conducted in English.
Various customs were introduced here by the immigrants, such as seating arrangements in the German Lutheran Churches. The men sat in the pews on the right hand side of the church while the women and children sat on the left hand side. The boys had to sit with their ma’s until they were old enough to wear long pants, at age 12, or after they were confirmed – then they could sit with pa in the right-hand side pews. Before age 12, all boys wore knee-pants.
The children were given strict orders, “You sit still in church with ma, or else….” Some boys and even girls had a difficult time not wiggling around. If one did get squirmy, ma would whisper, “What’s mit you? Do you have ants in your pants, or bumble bees in your britches?” That was a clue…sit still or else…. You might glance over toward pa and your eyes would be met by a “firm look” that instantly calmed your wiggles for a while. Then, you might ponder on what the “or else” would be. What if pa got up from the pew and would motion for you to follow him down the aisle toward the door with all the pas and grandpas looking at you? They’d likely be thinking, “Der Dominick’s.” That would be the most embarrassing thing to fall upon you, pa and the rest of the family. The other alternative could be, you’d have to contend with the “or else” after you got home. So, you tried to sit still in the pew.
The Segregated seating arrangement changed within this area sometime in the 30’s. A young couple came home to visit his parents on a weekend. They attended church at his home congregation on that weekend. Recently married, he wanted to introduce his wife to the church family. As they entered the church and looked for a place to sit, there, as in most congregations, the pews filled up from back to front, the only empty pews were up at the front. So, they walked down the aisle together and together sat in a right-hand pew.
Every man who witnessed that, sat with a look of disbelief at what he was seeing. We can imagine what some wives said on the way home from church that Sunday, statements such as, “It would be nice to sit together as a family in church during Sunday worship.” That young couple brought about change in the seating arrangements within the congregation, as from then on, families started sitting together in the same pew when attending services.
During the early 1900’s, everyone dressed up in their very best clothes to attend worship services on Sunday. The men wore their three piece suits with a pocket watch placed in the special pocket on their vest. Each man wore a hat that was promptly removed at entering the church door. The women and girls wore their dressy dresses and hats. Unless they lived on a farm, all remained dressed up for the entire day, as it was a day of rest from their labors.
It was also the times of inviting the minister and his family as guests for Sunday dinner. Families of the congregation took turns with the invitations as it was “hard-times,” money was short, so you could help out by sharing an occasional dinner. As a kid you looked forward to guests for the day. You knew ma would cook a most delicious meal such as when you saw her go out to the chicken coop and pick out a non-laying hen for stewing. That meant creamed chicken with dumplings, mashed potatoes, cooked vegetables, sweet-sour pickles, home-baked beans and bread, all topped off with home canned peaches or pears and yummy chocolate cake.
There have been some humorous moments to remember, a friend chuckles about a family experience when he was a teen-ager. On a hot August Sunday, pa hurriedly came into their farm house announcing that chores were done so everyone should get ready to go to church. The two teenage sons dressed quickly in their “Sunday best.” Ma was in the middle of canning peaches; fruit was ripe and couldn’t set another day. Pa went to the cook stove, lifted off a kettle of boiling liquid, which he thought, was water, poured some in the wash basin, to be used for shaving off his whiskers. Shaved and cleaned-up pa and the two drove to church, arriving on time. Pa strolled down the aisle, sitting in a middle pew. The boys went up the stairs with a cousin to sit in the balcony. In the middle of the sermon, as they looked below, they saw pa waving a hand, first on one side of his face and then on the other side. The windows and doors of the church were open, to allow air to circulate over the congregation. The flies had come in and were pestering pa. One son leaned over to whisper to his cousin and brother, “Look at pa, I’ll bet he poured out some of that sugar water, that ma was boiling for the peaches, to use for shaving, that’s why the flies are after him.” Well, they say boys don’t giggle, but those three sure did snicker the rest of the sermon.
In the early 50’s, after living in the city for a few years, a young lady married and moved to live in her husband’s home town, where she became a member of his church. The first time they took communion together and as they were returning to their pew, the other ladies were looking at the newly wed lady with shocked expressions. What were they staring at, a tear in a dress seam, or? After the young couple sat down, a loud whisper from an elderly woman, a couple of pews back was heard to say “She took communion and isn’t wearing a hat!” A look around the congregation revealed that all other women present, were wearing hats. The trend in the city congregation “no hats” apparently hadn’t reached this small town, as the new bride came to realize. A year later, the “no hats trend” could be seen through out the congregation except for a few elderly women who continued to abide by the old tradition.
Church picnics were an event that started in the late 1900’s, soon after congregations were formed. An old cook stove or two were set up in the woods behind the church. The food was prepared on those stoves for the noon hour picnic. An afternoon service was held in addition to the morning service. After most families had gotten cars, in the late 20’s, a farm family would host the picnic. Games were planned for the children; horseshoe and softball games were played by the teen-agers and adults.
In September there were Fall Festivals or the October Mission Fests were planned to raise money for missions. The festivals were popular events in the 40’s and 50’s. The Fall Festivals were hosted by all the churches in the fall months, scheduling dates so as not to conflict with each other. By then, every church had installed a kitchen and dining area in the basement or additions to be able to prepare and serve dinners. Bounteous meals were put forth with a large attendance. Many people made it a point to attend every area church’s festival as they couldn’t resist all that “home cooking.” Gradually, women stated working at jobs outside the home, so the cooks weren’t free to work and make festival preparations.
Churches have weathered the various changes; the members are drawn by faith to worship and the need to join other Christians in fellowship.
If you play poker with the devil there ain’t no limit.
The stakes are high when you gamble with your soul.
Always know where you’re from ‘cause
You might not always know where you are going.
Never forget your roots or your raising.
Compiled by T. Bubba Bowdean
The Congregational Church, built in 1893 on the corner of West and Fifth Street in Neillsville, served as a place of worship for many years. George Trogner and McGill presented a construction proposal in 1892 whereas they would furnish all materials including steel roofing and brick for exterior, a finished structure for a sum of $2,375. It was completed, except for lath and plaster, at the estimated figure. The structure was razed in 1972-74 to make way for the New Neillsville Bank building, now the Mid-Wisconsin Bank.
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