Story of a steeple

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The familiar steeple of Lands Lutheran Church shows signs of wear, again, in 2014.

By Heidi Magnuson

ZUMBROTA – Heading west out of Zumbrota on Highway 60 Boulevard, travelers encounter the stately steeple of Lands Lutheran Church. Drawing closer, the scene grows less appealing, as layers of peeling paint and worn cedar shingles come into view. It’s hard to see a church icon fall into such disrepair. Why was the steeple let go? More importantly, what plans, if any, are in place to renovate it?

Built and completed in 1912 as part of the Norwegian Lutheran congregation’s second church building, the 90-foot steeple first pointed heavenward the same year the Titanic sank, Woodrow Wilson beat both William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt for the U.S. Presidency, and Julia Gordon Lowe brought together 18 girls to hold the first-ever Girl Scout meeting. Mail addressed to the church bore a first-class postage stamp costing two cents. 

Lands’ steeple, like many others in America, reflects Gothic church architecture borrowed from Europe. Other features include altars, crosses, crucifixes, stained glass windows, and pointed arches. During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, many Catholic churches became Lutheran churches. Like Martin Luther, these congregations never questioned the use of Christian symbols, and so kept the existing architecture in place.

Zumbrotan Charles L. Grover served as the architect of the Lands church building. Plans for the square sanctuary included a chancel, or altar area, at one corner and the entrance to the church at the opposite corner. The steeple sits atop the original entrance to Lands. Other local churches share a similar design—including ELCA congregations United Redeemer, Stordahl, and Holden—and for good reason. Grover designed them and many other churches in the area, as well as Zumbrota’s National Guard Armory (now the Armory Apartments), State Theatre, and the stone entrance to the fairgrounds. His father Barker and brother James also hired him to design and build a garage, as their livery stable business had evolved into a car dealership. Grover Auto Company still sells new and used horseless carriages.

The steeple has been scraped and painted many times over the years. It required painting to preserve the original wood of the belfry and cedar shakes on the roof sections. The job invited risk. According to Lands member Lester Greseth, sometime between 1964 and 1984, one painter—accessing the steeple via a wood seat suspended from ropes—fell while working. Pastor Alton Larson, serving Lands at the time, found him on the ground, unhurt. Some questioned the painter’s state before his plunge. Many credit the Almighty for his miraculous landing. Whatever the circumstances, the story pointed to the dangers of working on the steeple.

A short way into the new millennium, Lands committed to making the church building accessible to people with disabilities. In 2002, the congregation voted to take out a loan to finance a new expansion. It included an elevator exiting into a new welcome center on the main floor and a new narthex on the floor above. Ten years later, the congregation paid off the loan—and promptly shifted attention to other projects. True to form, the 100-year-old steeple begged yet another paint job. 

As before, the original cedar shakes had swelled and shrunk in the weather, causing the paint to peel prematurely. Finding someone to do the repainting had become more difficult. The painter’s safety remained a concern. With better building materials now on the market, the focus switched from repainting to renovating. In 2013, the congregation voted to plow ahead with the project as well as update the inside of the Lands sanctuary.

A team of members researched options for the steeple. To preserve its appearance and Norwegian heritage, they opted to replace one type of shake with another. According to team member Keith Knutson, they settled on the Enviroshake roofing product, a composite shake made from 95% recycled and reclaimed materials—including natural wood fibers that lend the look and feel of real wood. Composite shakes resist heat, wind and moisture, all of which make cedar shingles rot, crack, and peel. Composite shakes withstand hail, flying debris, and wind speeds up to 180 mph. Mold, mildew and insects find no foothold, and ultraviolet inhibitors keep the shakes from discoloring. 

The team decided to have the open belfry clad with aluminum. The floor will be covered with durable rubber to eliminate the need for painting. That left one more decision to be made regarding the renovation: what to place on top of the steeple.

Betty Bailey, church historian at Lands, recalls reading minutes from congregational meetings held in the early years to discuss the church’s design. Sides were drawn as to how to top the new steeple. Some wanted nothing at all to keep expenses down. Others wanted a faith-based symbol that doubled as a lightning rod. In the end, the congregation voted to install a weather vane. Sadly, the original weather vane disappeared sometime in the 1990s. Many believe it blew off in a storm. No trace was ever found.

Renovation of the steeple renewed interest in reproducing the weather vane. At best, old photos showed only a fuzzy image at the top of the steeple. No detail could be discerned. Then a chance conversation led to a new discovery. A wedding photo of Mary and Denny Veiseth taken in 1992 shows a close-up of the steeple superimposed over the ceremony inside the church. Atop the steeple sits the simplest of weather vanes—a slender arrow mounted on an upright rod. The cash-strapped Norwegian congregation of 1912 managed to marry thrift and symbolism, as the weather vane also bore the shape of a cross. A cross barely discernable from the ground, given the height of the steeple.

This posed a dilemma. What could be done to retain the look and heritage of the original steeple and yet be easily seen by the naked eye? The ingenious solution traces back to Norway. The Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim (also known as “Nidaros”) was built by the Roman Catholic Church in 1070. It remained Catholic until the Protestant Reformation in 1537. At that time, the Lutheran Church took over the Gothic-style church building, which thereafter served as the cathedral of the Lutheran bishops of Trondheim. Many regard it as the birthplace of the Lutheran Church in Norway—the very denomination of Lands’ founding members. A replica of the more substantial cross topping the Nicaros steeple was chosen for the steeple of Lands Church.

Krause Konstruction of Coon Valley, Wisconsin, has been hired to handle renovation of the steeple. The company has specialized in exterior building repair and maintenance of churches and similar buildings for over 40 years. A long list of past clients confirms the fitting words at the top of the company’s website homepage: “We Do Steeples.” Lands takes confidence in their experience and track record. 

Work is slated to begin July 1. Travelers on Highway 60 can soon witness the renovation firsthand. Lands’ steeple will once again point heavenward in good repair, from a distance and up close. 

The Lands 125th Anniversary Committee—Betty Bailey, Gretha Loken, and the late Gaylord Hoven—produced the 1867-1992 history of Lands Congregation, which provided historical information for this article.



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