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Kinnickinnic Church

Phil Pfuehler
Kinnickinnic Church

The little clapboard church in Kinnickinnic went up shortly after the Civil War when Ulysses S. Grant was president. Built for $2,000, it opened in December 1868 and was shared by the area’s Methodists and Congregationalists for services on alternate Sundays.

The Methodist design included pews with a divider down the middle keeping men and women on opposite sides. A bell in the tower was reportedly given by a Mississippi steamboat captain.

As Methodist numbers declined, Congregationalists bought the building in 1895. They used it as their church until 1951. Then it stood empty for 11 years. On rare occasions, vagrants caught living inside were chased out.

Finally the Congregationalists found a buyer who planned to convert the building to a house. Concerned about the loss of the pioneer-era church, some 50 people assembled at Kinnickinnic Town Hall to oppose the sale. They wanted the vacant church preserved as a historical monument. In 1962 they formed what became the Kinnickinnic Historical Association.

After meetings and negotiations with Congregationalist officials, KHA bought the little church for $600. The rest is history — or, rather, part of the evolving history of this group and building that has lived on for generations.

Today, Kinnickinnic Church, east of Hwy. 65 on County Road J and about halfway between River Falls and Roberts, is maintained by KHA. In another six years Kinnickinnic Church will reach a milestone — 2018 will mark its sesquicentennial. Meanwhile, the church’s caretaker group, KHA, turns 50 this year.

As it does every first Sunday in August to highlight the church’s existence and historical value, KHA will hold an ice cream social from 2-6 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 5. The fundraiser will have homemade cakes, pies, ice cream and root beer floats for sale, as well as postcards and stationery with various church images. Tables and chairs will be set up on the lawn outside. A tent will also be erected for those seeking relief from the heat or rain. Live music will be performed.

Those attending can stroll through the church aisles to experience its largely unchanged interior with tall windows, arched ceiling, potbelly stoves, chandeliers, ornate pulpit and functioning pump organ.

“I find it very peaceful sitting here,” says Amy Thurston, KHA president. “It’s comforting. I seem to breathe differently. Being here allows me to decompress.”

Unlike many Kinnickinnic families and their children who still remember attending services in the old church, Thurston doesn’t even live in Kinnickinnic. She’s from North Hudson and teachers 8th grade language arts at Hudson Middle School. Thurston was curious and drawn to a KHA ice cream social 20 years ago. Now she heads the group and is a passionate church advocate.

“By maintaining this building we are not only honoring the historical significance of the church, but also the memory of the people who started and kept it up long ago,” said Thurston, adding: “I love historical things and the people who are associated with them.”

Mary Murphy, KHA treasurer with long-established family ties to Kinnickinnic, says: “We do this for a sense of community and simply as a way to preserve part of our past that is very old.”

While no longer a place for religious services, Kinnickinnic Church is sometimes used between the months of May and October. For $200 a day, it can be rented for weddings, family reunions, anniversaries and other special events. There’s no running water, electricity or heat.

Upkeep for the 144-year-old church building is constant and costly. KHA recently spent close to $14,000 to have the outside walls and trim repainted white and to have the windows re-glazed. New outer stairs made of maintenance-free composite materials were installed. Eight years ago a new roof was added.

Thurston and Murphy say a repainting and fix-up of the interior is the next big project — one that must be done before the church’s sesquicentennial. KHA takes in money for this work from group membership dues, donations and the annual ice cream social. No public funds have ever been tapped. In 2000 KHA members went to Madison to show why Kinnickinnic Church merited historic designation.

Today there’s a U.S. Department of Interior plaque mounted at the entrance proclaiming the church’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places. A similar listing is found on the state’s registry.

But for church’s historical banner to carry on, KHA needs an uptick of new, active members. “Those of us who have tried hard over the years to keep the church going are getting older,” Murphy said. “We need new blood, younger people who appreciate history and who value historical places. So, if you enjoy local history, come join us and get involved.
“And you don’t have to live in the town of Kinnickinnic to be a member and support the maintenance of this old church.”

As someone from outside Kinnickinnic, Thurston can only agree.

“What I like about our historical association is that there is a Mayberry-like sense for what we’re doing and how things get done,” she said. “There’s no drama. People help each other. It’s a plain, community effort that’s refreshing — like a step back in time.”

For those with questions about joining KHA or booking Kinnickinnic Church for an event, call Murphy at 715-425-6174, Thurston at 715-386-8379, or KHA Trustee Margel Johnson at 715-425-5181.

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