A beautiful historic park in Blue Mounds, Wis., and the community that fought for it
By Kelsey Larson
Several weeks ago, the Norwegian American Weekly ran a piece in its “Notable Norwegians” feature, by David Moe, about Hans Nilsen Hauge. This Norwegian layperson-turned-preacher traveled around Norway on foot, preaching the Gospel despite being persecuted by the bishops and authorities of the time. Today, he is seen as a great hero in Norway, both by the church and society.
There were those in rural Wisconsin who thought him a great man, as well: in the Town of Perry, Dane County, about 45 minutes from Madison and just a couple of miles off Hwy 78, along winding County Highway Z, a modest log church bears his name. The Hans Nilsen Hauge Log Church, built in the winter of 1852, was established by some of Hauge’s followers who had emigrated from Norway to this quiet part of Wisconsin. They built their church from oaken beams on a lovely little prairie outcropping from which they could enjoy the spectacular view of the Blue Mounds hills. The church was in use until 1887, when the congregation outgrew it and moved away. But they left behind an important legacy: this group of immigrants was the first to build a Norwegian Lutheran church in western Wisconsin, and their loved ones, buried in the peaceful cemetery that surrounds the church, remain a testament to their memory.
The church sat abandoned for nearly 40 years. Then, in 1926, it was proposed the church be moved to Vesterheim museum in Decorah, Iowa. However, strong community opposition soon developed, and the plan was abandoned. The church was instead restored by a dedicated group of people in the community: evidence that that the people of the Town of Perry have cared deeply about the structure for a long time. In fact, they hold a bit of a record to this end. In 1974, the church made the National Register of Historic Places, and was described thus by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin: “The Hauge Log Church is one of only three churches still on their original sites constructed in 1852 by members of the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America. Its restoration in 1927 makes it one of the early-restored structures in the state.”
Today, the church has a fresh coat of white paint and is surrounded by 33 acres of restored prairie landscape, which the Town of Perry has developed into the Hauge Log Church Historic District Park. These lands are open to the public to enjoy from sunrise to sunset year round, and are some of the best beloved and most frequently visited lands in the area. In 2006, the guestbook at the church showed that over 1,000 visitors had come, from 29 states and six foreign countries, including Norway. “How wonderful to be trusted with such a great piece of history,” one visitor wrote.
The area surrounding the serene little church is truly beautiful, with the rolling Blue Mounds stretching out in the distance, tall oaks and conifers swaying gently in the summer breeze, and even apple trees that blossom pink in the springtime. The prairie around the church is in the process of being restored, with native grasses such as June grass and little bluestem growing again, and purple and yellow coneflower adding a splash of color. The community enjoys and interacts with the space: weddings, baptisms and other special events are held here often.
The fact that the area is being restored to its former glory, and that is a free and open space for the community to enjoy, is not one to be taken for granted. It is all on account of a group of hard-working individuals who have not been willing to give up on this important piece of their Norwegian heritage. These are the same people who are continuing to fight the forces that still threaten the church and the site. The Town of Perry Board of Supervisors, Members of the Hauge Log Church Preservation Association, the Friends of the Parks of Perry Township and volunteers from the Madison Group, www.madisongroup.us, have been working hard to fight many difficult obstacles.
First of all, for over a decade, the beautiful view was purposefully obstructed by a wooden fence built by an adjacent land owner to the north of the church site. The fence finally came down after lengthy battle for the Town of Perry to take ownership of the land. But the fight is not over: far from it. If the Town of Perry loses its appeals in the two lawsuits that granted it the land, it will have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle the lawsuits. “The Town has been fighting this battle for almost 12 years now, and are unwavering in their determination to prevail in this fight,” says Mick Klein-Kennedy, President of The Friends of the Parks of Perry Township.
A powerful photo series on the Friends’ website, www.haugelogchurchpark.com, shows how the panoramic view was blocked by the fence, and what could have happened to the Log Church site had the Town of Perry not taken on this fight. The open view that the original congregation of the church enjoyed would have been compromised with the building of a large airplane hangar in the church’s backyard by the same landowner.
The Friends group, among others, have worked to stop this, and are working primarily through fundraising on their website and their printed newsletter. “We hope to have another edition of our Newsletter out soon, and would like to expand our mailing list and membership to include [Norwegian American Weekly] readers,” says Klein-Kennedy.
As the Friends group writes on their website: “The town of Perry has taken on the responsibility to exercise stewardship for this place and protect it for people from all over the world and for future generations. What happens here should not be decided by who has the most money and the fanciest lawyers. What happens here should not be decided by who goes broke first. What happens here should be decided by what is right.”
If you are interested in learning more about the Hauge Log Church site, visit www.haugelogchurch.org. If you are interested in learning firsthand what this battle is all about, visit www.haugelogchurchpark.com. If you would like to receive the Friends Newsletter, which will keep you updated on the situation, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also help the Friends group continue with its struggle to preserve and protect the church by sending your tax deductible donation to: The Friends of the Parks of Perry Township, P.O. Box 123, Blue Mounds, WI. 53517.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 17, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.