Stone Church in Houston, Minnesota

This article first appeared in the May 1991 issues of Telesoga Vol. 11, No. 1
on the occasion of the Stone Church’s 125th anniversary.

The Stone Church is located 1 1⁄2 miles south of Houston on Highway 76.

The Spring of 1853 saw the arrival of the first small band of Norwegian immigrants from Vraadal and Fyresdal in West Telemark to an area five miles south of Houston, Minnesota, known as Badger Valley. The party consisted of Mikkel Mikkelson Sinnes and his wife Hage Halvorsdotter Bjornstad; Mikkel’s brother Aanund Mikkelson Sanden, his wife Anne Sveinsdotter and their children; and Mikkel’s sister Hage Mikkelsdotter and her husband Aanund Gjermundson Veum and their children.

The next year brought many more families from Telemark and it wasn’t long before the ridges and valleys surrounding Houston were filling up with settlers. Several of them were almost exclusively made up of Norwegian immigrants.

In the fall of 1854, Rev. U. V. Koren of Washington Prairie, a few miles south of Decorah, Iowa, made his first missionary trip to the southeastern corner of the Minnesota territory. While at Houston he baptized four children and administered the Sacraments of Holy Communion to forty-six people (one of them a Swede), on October 24. One year later a delegate was sent from the Houston and Norwegian Ridge (Spring Grove) Lutheran Congregations to the 2nd General Convention of the Norwegian Synod in Spring Prairie, Wisconsin. Thus, they became the first Minnesota congregations to be admitted to the Norwegian Synod (which had been organized in 1853).

During the early years, services were held intermittently in the members’ homes. The two listed in early church histories a being among the first to open their homes were Aanund Mikkelson Sanden and Jon Mattiason Sannes, both from Vraadal in Telemark. In 1859 Rev. N. E. S. Jenson left Norway in answer to a letter of call sent out by the Houston, Rushford, Highland Prairie and Elstad Congregations. He became the first resident pastor of these congregations living in the parsonage at Highland Prairie. Before too many years had passed the congregation decided it could no longer do without a church. Land was secured in 1863 from Tore Aadneson Lofto from Fyresdal and Anfin Anfinson from Numedal, who also donated the stone for the building of the church. Although the stone was donated by a Numedøl, the overseer and timekeeper, Ole Halvorson Skree, was from Fyresdal. He walked to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, purchased a large-sized wall clock, carried it back, and set it up in the quarry to keep track of the workers’ hours. The parishioners paid off their pledges in cash, labor, or a combination thereof.

The limestone was taken from a quarry on the brow of the hill just east of the church in 1864. The quarried stone was rolled down the hill and then hauled by oxen and stone boats to the building site.

In the summer of 1865 the congregation assisted “mur mester” (master stone mason) Gullick Halvorson dress the stone and lay up the walls. There was some concern about building the gable ends of stone because some thought the added weight might settle the ends and crack the walls, but it was decided in spite of that probable danger to build the entire wall of stone. There was also enough stone left over to build a stone fence in front of the church yard, which was later removed. (Those Norwegians weren’t about to get caught short on stone!)

Aad Evenson Aarbak, the “snikkar” (carpenter) who contracted the labor and material to complete work on the church was from Vraadal, Telemark. He purchased the necessary lumber in Black River Falls, Wisconsin and rafted the material down the Black River to the Mississippi River and thence into Target Lake below LaCrescent in early 1866. It was hauled to Houston on wagons drawn by oxen. The timbers used under the floor joists and in the tower were hewn here, being trimmed square with an ax.

The church was completed in the late summer of 1866 and by May, 1868 Mr. Aarbak was given the final payment of his $2,500 contract. They also agreed to pay $42.40 over that amount for some extra work that he had done. Since Mr. Aarbak made the altar and pulpit it is likely that the “extra work” must refer to these items. Treasurer Christof Evanson (from Vraadal) reported the total cost of the church building to be $4,385.58.

The interior of the church was decorated in 1871 and made ready for the dedication service. Perhaps one of the greatest festal services held within the walls of the Stone Church took place on November 16, 1871, when the building was consecrated.

The walnut baptismal font with its beautiful inlaid work was made by John Evenson Homme who also made the funeral spade dated 1871. John Homme was born in Skafsaa where he was a carpenter, and also lived in Fyresdal and Vraadal before coming to Houston in 1856. His son, the well known Norwegian Lutheran Minister, Rev. Even J. Homme, grew up 1 1⁄2 miles from the Stone Church, was confirmed in 1860 before the church was built, and ordained in 1867. He was a pastor in Winchester, Wisconsin and later built an orphanage and old peoples’ home in Wittenberg, Wisconsin and published a religious newspaper For Gammel og Ung.

The membership during the time of the building of the Stone Church reflects the Norwegian community in the Houston area at that time, in that it was largely made up of families that had immigrated from West Telemark. This pattern was followed rather consistently for the next one hundred years. Because the congregation remained almost completely Norwegian in its make-up, the Norwegian language was used in the records until 1929 and in services on and off through the thirties and occasionally into the forties.

When Torkel Oftelie, saga writer for the Telesoga, visited Houston in 1913 he stayed at the home of Ivar Vathing in Badger Valley. Ivar (whose parents were from Fyresdal) took him up through Badger Valley which was settled almost exclusively by people from Vraadal, and the next day he was given a tour of the Yucatan Valley which had been settled largely by immigrants from Fyresdal. (Unfortunately, few of these farms remain in the same families today.)

It is interesting to note that when Torkel wrote the story of his trip to Houston (which appeared as Volume 17 of Telesoga) he referred to Badger as “Vraadal” and called Yucatan “Fyresdal”. Torkel’s use of the names of these valleys in Telemark is not at all surprising when you consider his description of the Houston area in Telesoga: “I have not seen any other place in America that is more like the home “bygds”. All the valleys here are like a little Telemark in miniature. Here the wind is calm; almost never any cyclones. Here is good earth and plenty of fresh, running water and all kinds of trees in the woods. It is only natural that we fjellfolk (mountain people) will thrive better here than out on the endless plains, where everything is so wide open and monotonous.”

The area around Houston in western Houston county and Highland Prairie (often called Telemarksprærien in the early days) in eastern Fillmore County became a major Telemark settlement. It also served as an important departure point for subsequent migration farther west, especially to the Red River Valley and the Dakotas. Consequently, there are many Norwegian immigrant churches far from Houston whose membership has its roots in the Stone Church Congregation.

The Concordia Lutheran Church, which served the large Buffalo River Telemark Settlement near Moorhead, was organized almost exclusively by pioneers who had been members of the Stone Church before their long journey to Clay County.

Many of the aforementioned Houston emigrants have ancestors resting peacefully in the shadows of the Stone Church, the sturdy stone structure of which has been serving the needs of the Houston Congregation for 125 years. Compared to many of the churches in their native Norway, it would be considered a relatively new church, but here in this part of Minnesota, it goes back almost to the very beginnings of our existence, when our forefathers first arrived from the older Norwegian settlements to the east in Wisconsin. It is believed to be the oldest Norwegian Lutheran Church in Minnesota still standing and being used for services.

It is almost impossible to overestimate the contributions that our ancestors made to the quality of our lives today and to appreciate the sacrifices they made so their children might inherit the promise of America. During the Civil War period they not only built the Stone Church, but helped to build the parsonage at Highland Prairie, and also gave nearly $1,000 to the building of Luther College at Decorah, Iowa.

Stone Church: Evolution of the Cemetery

Produced by the Cross of Christ Archives, 2005: Houston, Minnesota

The Houston Norwegian Lutheran Church became a member of the two-year-old Norwegian Synod in October 1855, and as far as we know the first official act was to buy two acres of land from Anfin and Martha Anfinson for ten dollars in October 1856, to be used as a cemetery for the nascent congregation. This is now known as St. Peter’s Cemetery and can be seen if you look across the cornfields to the northeast, where the electrical sub-station is now located. The Anfinsons lived on the present John Beckman farm and owned all the land that you see between here and St. Peter’s and they had various other holdings as well.

Anfin was a well-to-do emigrant from Numedal, Norway and his home served as a way station for many a newly-arrived Norwegian in need of a place to stay for a while and earn some sorely needed peng (money) by working on Anfin’s large farm. When the decision was made to build a church in the early 1860s, that original piece of land was not suitable as a construction site, so the congregation bought another acre of land from the Anfinsons and one from Thore and Aasne Lofto, who lived where Ben and Linda Lind live now. The pioneers now had a nice level piece of land right next to the main road, and their new stone church was built so that the section line between Houston and Sheldon Townships runs right down the center aisle.

The oldest part of this cemetery, naturally, is the area behind the church and the earliest gravestones are found in the back portion of that area. The earliest death date on an existing gravestone is 1862, and those oldest stones are known as table stones. They are relatively thin slabs of stone with either straight or rounded tops and are often quite beautifully embellished. They resemble the most frequent biblical depictions of the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from the mountain on stone tablets. Since the stone was soft it was relatively easy to carve the names and dates deeply into the stone and to make elaborate artwork and border designs in high relief as well.

Some of the early markers were made of wood by the pioneers themselves, but none of these have survived to this day. Examples, however, can be seen at old churches in Norway and also at the Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

As far as we know there are stones for eleven people who were born in the 18th century in this cemetery. The earliest of them belongs to Torbjørg Aanundsdatter Sinnes (the wife of Ole Oleson Vraa), who was born in 1781 and died in 1873 at age 92. She is a great-great-grandmother of Laurel Oien, and following his burial that one lot will contain five generations of one family – a record for this cemetery!

The other old ones are Torbjørg’s sister, Jorund Aanundsdatter Vraa, born 1791; Targe Findreng, born 1789; Kittil Loftus, 1796; Knut Aanundson Lønnegrav, 1798; Ole Targeson Kragness, 1794; Anne Hansdatter Kragness, 1797; Ingebret Larsen Norem, 1795; Gunil Knutsdatter, 1789; Ole Vraalson, 1792; and Tone Halvorsdatter Vraalson, 1793.

After a few decades, table stones were largely replaced by a newer style which we refer to as “obelisk stones” because they resemble a truncated version of the long square obelisks made by the ancient Egyptians. As you can see, they are topped with turned finials, pyramid shapes, or intersecting arches and are almost universally gray in color. Instead of marking an individual grave, they more often mark a family plot and the family name was almost always inscribed on the base stone. Individual names and dates were inscribed on various sides of the upright stone, together with religious inscriptions and epitaphs in Norwegian. Since these stones were harder than table stones the carving is much shallower, as you can see, and is often somewhat hard to read.

Anfin Anfinson's obelisk Martha Anfinson's tablet
(and infant son, Anton)

At this same time small narrow slabs of stone were used as headstones and footstones to mark the individual grave places, and the deceased’s initials were usually carved into the top of them. Most of these small stones were removed with the advent of the lawn mower, but a few of them have survived. Prior to this time, the church custodian was required to cut the grass by hand with a scythe two or three times per year.

By the end of the 19th century the old portion of the cemetery was getting pretty much filled up and the new custom of selling eight-place family plots called for much more space. The cemetery therefore expanded quickly along each side of the church and more land to the north was purchased from Henry Abrahamson in 1907. In the early 1900s, a resolution was passed which stated that no one was to be buried less than 20 feet away from the church itself. This flew in the face of the Old World custom, whereby graves can be found all along the sides of the older churches and even under them, but it makes it a lot easier to work on the building, especially when it comes to putting on a new roof!

The turn of the century also brought an end to the “obelisk stones” with the introduction of highly polished granite markers, which were available in a variety of colors, sizes and styles. The new standard was to have a large stone bearing only the family surname, surrounded by much smaller stones in matching granite that marked each individual grave. This was the time of large families in need of large family plots, but they didn’t anticipate how migratory their offspring would become, so often times many of the plots remain unused.

With the advent of the granite stones in the first few decades of the 20th century there also arose a trend in which certain families would try to outdo each other in the elaborate design and size of their family markers. This was carried to an extreme in the Stone Church Cemetery as can be seen in the dark charcoal gray Myran stone just around the corner to the south, and the lighter gray K. T. Thompson stone a bit farther back behind the church. These two stones are identical in size and design and could almost be called “walls of stone” rather than monuments, and back in the 1920s, they cost $1000. Imagine what you’d have to pay for one today.

We have no idea how much these massive stones and their bases weigh, but the late Nordine Peterson told of delivering the Myran stone by himself as a young man. The stones arrived, as they all did then, by train to Houston. Nordine went down to the depot with his wagon and team of horses to pick them up. Heavy planks were set up between the wagon and the railroad car and strong pry bars and pinch bars were used to maneuver the stones. The main concern was not to tip the stones over! Things went well for Nordine until he got to the short hill which rises up from the bottoms to the Beckman farm. Since this was the farm of the aforementioned Anfin Anfinson in the old days, this small hill was referred to as Anfinsbakkje, or Anfin’s Hill, by the early settlers. Nordine had to stop and walk up the hill to borrow an extra team from “Big Roy” Anderson to help pull the heavy load up the hill. “Big Roy” lived on the Beckman farm at that time.

Once Nordine got to the cemetery, his troubles were still not over. The load was so heavy that the wheels sank into the sod, even though the ground was dry. He therefore had to use planking under the wagon wheels and keep moving them forward to drive on, as he slowly pulled the monument back into the cemetery to its future site just south of the church parlors. Wouldn’t it be great to have a video of that entire procedure to look at today?

In the second half of the last century, the trend went away from family lots back to individual or married couple burials and stones, as we can see in the newer part of the cemetery, and which are also interspersed throughout much of the rest of the cemetery as well.
At this time, there are well over 2,000 people buried in the Stone Church Cemetery. This is over twice the population of Houston and although it seems like a lot, we have a long way to go to catch up to our ancestral cemeteries in Norway, where they have been burying people for many centuries. It has been estimated that there are over 70,000 people buried in the small graveyard surrounding the old stone church in Kviteseid, Telemark, which was built around 1160. Of course, over there they used the graves over and over again and continue to do so to this day. The old expression was “Her ligg dei grav i grav” (Here they lay grave in grave).

Even today we are looking forward to further expansion of the cemetery, and only the Good Lord knows what the future will bring.