The largest group of immigrants to relocate to Wisconsin during the 19th century came from Germany. Settlement was especially heavy in Wisconsin during the first wave of immigration around the middle of the century. Farmers came from the Mecklenburg region in northeast Germany to the Town of Middleton in Dane County.
In 1852, 14 of the families founded the German Lutheran Church of Middleton. After meeting for two years in the homes of Gustav Polkow and Friederich Niebuhr, the congregation built a log church in 1854 on land donated by Niebuhr. As membership grew, the congregation decided to build a new church on land donated by Polkow. Thirty-one families provided materials and gave $82 each (the equivalent of about $1,350 today) for construction. In May 1866, the church was dedicated.
That church, known today as First Lutheran Church, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. No longer part of any denomination, the “Little White Church on top of the hill,” actually not that little, is open to the public for weddings, memorial services, and other community events. Located at 711 N. Pleasant View Road, Middleton, the church can accommodate up to 250 people.
First Lutheran Church is a simple frame Greek Revival structure 32 feet wide by 90 feet long. One of the finest 19th century frame churches remaining in Dane County, First Lutheran has a gable roof slightly steeper than the standard Greek Revival. Surrounding the church on three sides is a cemetery where its founders and their descendants are buried. The gable end faces the street and is trimmed with returned eaves. The original cedar shingles on the roof are now covered with asphalt shingles.
A graceful square steeple over the main entrance has an octagonal spire with a simple weather vane atop. The belfry enclosing the church’s bell, which is still used, has pointed arched openings on all four sides and Italianate brackets above the arches. A sloping roof flares out from the base of the belfry and is trimmed on each side with carved Gothic arches and spindles on each corner.
The two sides of the church are nearly identical, with windows of the same design as the tall double-hung, six-over-six sash windows flanking each side of the front door. When the church was lengthened by 40 feet in 1885, windows were replicated in the addition, another entrance to the church was made on the south side, the outside steps under the bulkhead doors on the side and front of the church were removed, and the basement entrance sealed.
The church’s interior is flooded with light because of its windows and white-painted walls. The pews are simple pine seats that have been hand-grained to look like oak. The wood altar and pulpit, part of the 1885 remodeling, are painted white with gold trim. An elaborate Victorian chandelier, originally holding kerosene lamps but now electrified, hangs near the altar. Its mate hangs near the back of the church.
A pipe organ, built by a Milwaukee firm, was added in 1907. Unfortunately, today the organ is merely ornamental. An old church story recounts how a young member would sit behind the organ and pump the bellows. Once, a boy charged with this duty fell asleep waiting to pump it. The sermon most likely went long that day, and the closing hymn delayed until the source of the problem was discovered.
John Green, great grandson of founder Niebuhr, grew up in the area. He remembers relaxing in the cemetery surrounding First Lutheran Church when he took a break from working on his father’s and grandfather’s farm. His grandfather had married Niebuhr’s daughter and inherited 80 acres, half of Niebuhr’s land, when Niebuhr passed. “It was a magical place, lush with prairie flowers and big shade trees,” says John. “I grew up loving that cemetery without even realizing its history. For our family, the church has been the site of burials, baptisms, and a 25th wedding anniversary celebration. My wife and I also plan to be buried there. During the bicentennial celebration, on July 4, 1976, my daughter pulled the rope to ring the bell in celebration of two centuries of independence.”
Sandy Schwenn Reno, great, great granddaughter of Carl Schenck, the church’s founding pastor, has multiple connections to First Lutheran. She and her husband were married there. Her parents; grandparents; great grandparents; three sets of great, great grandparents; and favorite aunts and uncles are buried in the cemetery. “When I visit the church and its cemetery, I feel warmly welcomed by those who came before me,” she says. “Knowing their stories and the courage they showed in the face of so many challenges fills me with awe and respect for them.”
Until 1947, when First Lutheran Church closed its doors due to dwindling membership, services were still conducted in German. The building stood empty for many years. and it was only a matter of time before the Lutheran synod that First Lutheran belonged to didn’t want to care for the building and directed that it be burned. The late Beatrice Ersland, Niebuhr’s granddaughter, would have nothing of it. She was instrumental in saving the church along with a community of volunteers who raised money to restore it. Volunteers and a board of trustees, many of whom are descendants of the founders, still take care of the property. Funds are raised from building rentals, cemetery plot sales, and donations.
Bruce Michaelis is chair of the board. His roots at First Lutheran go back to great grandparents on both sides of his family. He welcomes volunteers interested in preserving the church who are willing to put in a few hours of work to care for it.
First Lutheran Church is a popular wedding venue even for couples who have no direct connection to its founders or past members. They can rent the church for $300. Ceremonies are limited to May through October because the church has neither heating nor air conditioning. True to its rustic nature, there are no restrooms on premises and no dressing room for the bride.
Sandy says, “The Little White Church on top of the hill will always provide an iconic setting and lends itself well to either a formal or informal event. Its beauty and charm will not change with the times. Couples and families will be able to return years later and find the church just as they left it.”
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.
An annual service, a tradition of First Lutheran halted by COVID-19, will most likely resume in September this year. Check historicfirstlutheranmiddleton.org for up-to-date information.