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JUNE 8, 2008

by Jody Bresch

History abides in this people, this land, with bold, stately words, in the salt-ladened sweat of ancestors who conquered this sod, and molded it into a united country. Peace, freedom, liberty came with a price, sometimes with bodies littered on foreign shores. Bound together in pride to be the best, still, we toil to win. We have long been blessed from the soft green glitter of our spring fields to the white sandy beaches of our rambling borders. To fail goes again our very being. Each competitive test is fought fiercely lest we forget those who bought this soil for us with their lives. There is a national pride that surges through us, that tells us we are far from fulfilling our destiny yet. Fortunately, with forethought and insight, we may yet make a peace for our posterity.

Mars Hill Log Church is the oldest log cabin church west of the Mississippi that still has an annual service, still holds weddings and funerals, and still has an active church board governing it. It is listed on the Nation Register of Historic Places. Built of hand-hewn native lumber, it measures 26 feet by 28 feet. It was built by a Baptist congregation in as early as 1856, and it has stood at this site for 152 years. Barbara Clark deeded the parcel of land it stands on to the deacons of the congregation on the 16th of May in 1857.

I am happy to join with you today in commemoration of this restored, historic Mars Hill Log Church.

Two years ago, a place of Iowa history, in whose shadow we stand today, was devastated by an arson fire. This momentous occasion came as a great shock to the residents of Wapello and Davis counties who saw in those searing flames an outrageous injustice. What many of us had long revered as a monument to our earliest pioneers appeared to be lost.

But two years later all is not lost. Two years later that monument has risen from the ashes of fire, slightly charred by the inferno, and slightly scarred by the weathering of time, but once again whole. Two years later the Mars Hill church stands atop Mars Hill Ridge, a sentinel to the faith those early settlers who stopped here bore. Two years later, the testament to those who stepped out in faith to build this log cabin church one hundred and fifty years ago, that testament stands again. So we’ve come here today to commemorate this ‘Phoenix rising from the ashes.’

In a sense we’ve also come to this ridge to commemorate who we are. The restoration of this historic site is a testimony to our awareness, our sense of responsibility to what we fell heir to here. One hundred and fifty years ago a group of Baptist deacons promised Mrs. Barbara Clark, that if she would donate a plot of land for a cemetery where her young son, John, was buried, that they would build a church here. None of them could dream of the legacy they would leave to us, their descendants, because each of us who has stepped foot on this hallowed ground can sense the history that has happened here. Founders of the Mars Hill Church family, choosing to practice what they preached, took up the challenge promised in our constitution that all men would be guaranteed the “Unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” When the call to bear arms for this great nation came, the leaders of Mars Hill’s fledgling congregation chose to form a troop, the Seventh Iowa Calvary, and join forces against slavery in the 1861 Civil War.

The children, the heirs of these valiant men and women have shared with us, that John Brown, of Harpers Ferry fame, preached here at this church, rallied this congregation to action, hid runaway slaves here. Those descendants have shared with us that Mars Hill Church became one of the stops on the infamous underground railroad that lead captive slaves out of the bondage of slavery and to the north and to freedom.

We feel a fierce urgency to remind our community that this hallowed spot is our legacy of that proud history. We cannot afford the luxury of taking our inheritance for granted, of allowing the passing of time to dull the message, the mission of the Civil War, to dull the significance that history can weigh heavily on the present if we choose to bare its burden and listen to its song of brotherhood.

The urgency of their legacy does not change. We have asked our community if Mars Hill Church has a mission in the twenty-first century and we have heard a resounding ‘yes’ in the multitudes of generosity that have poured out toward us as we picked up the gauntlet to restore this historic site. When the restoration architect we hired told the Mars Hill Church Board that the sagging charred remains, the shored up log walls could be restored, that the church could still retain its historical integrity, the board chose to step forth in faith and begin restoration. Looking at those tilted, charred timbers and a meager handful of financial donations, our projected budget of one hundred and fourteen thousand dollars stood before us like an apex we might never attain.

But there is something I must say about the people of this community, many of who stand here today. The board did not walk alone. Donors joined our quest with what seemed like God-sent offers. In a sheltered valley near Mars Hill stood a two-story log cabin structure known as the Pilcher house. Concealed beneath twentieth century siding were vintage, hand-hewn logs identical to those used at Mars Hill. That had seemed like our most insurmountable problem, and it appeared to be solved. If we would salvage the logs ourselves, we could have them.

Theresa Foster had a vintage barn with pristine lumber we could salvage for the roof, the ceilings, the floor. These two gifts alone were worth thousands of dollars in donated materials and infused us with a marvelous shock of hope.

We never walked alone. And as we walked, you joined us with your pledges, vowing to help us march forward.

We never turned back.

We pledged to build a structure that would stand another one hundred and fifty years. Emily Dickinson said, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” I say, “Hope is friends who hope with you, and stir that hope with the deeds of their good hearts and hands.”

From the first day of the fire, Glen O’Dell was asking, “What can I do to help?” We eventually asked him to go to Minnesota and participate in a historic restoration of a log cabin house there. He and Ben Post agreed to take a hands-on course in log cabin restoration. The board then hired Glenn as our general contractor.

I am not unmindful of all those I cannot list here by name or the deeds they’ve done. They’ve come in a steady stream, like the waters of righteousness. If I named a few, I risk offending those I omitted, so I choose to call you friends, warriors of hope, and I thank you, the board thanks you, Wapello and Davis Counties thank you. Just know that your donations of heavy equipment, of expertise, your man hour labor, your materials at cost, your donated materials stirred into our pot of hope have served to season this moment of savoring with the sweet satisfaction of our shared harvest.

Let us celebrate this moment!

Even though we faced some staggering difficulties at that annual meeting in June of 2006, including the difficult task of forgiveness, we shared a dream. It was a dream rooted in the dreams of those early pioneers: the Clarks, the Smocks, the Monroes.

We had a dream that one day on Mars Hill Ridge a log cabin church would stand again, that it would be built with brotherhood, that it would stand as a symbol to our unity that binds us, more than our diversities that divide us.

We have a dream that our children will learn from what happened here, will take lessons from it, and pass those lessons on to their children, that we can learn from the mistakes we’ve made so we do not repeat them: Those lessons of the Civil War about personal freedoms, justice, character, the lessons of those early pioneers about dauntless pride, hard-working determination, tenacious resilience, those lessons learned here today that as a family of friends, we can climb mountains of adversity if we have a common goal, if we embrace hope and work to the common good.

We hope that our children will look for character in their fellow man rather than measure him or her by their appearance, social rank, financial status or the mistakes they may have made.

This board has struggled with our own personal adversities, our own rough places, our own life-changing adventures as we forged a future for Mars Hill Church. One board member missed the auction he personally spear-headed because he developed a life-threatening blood clot. Another board member had by-pass surgery. Two board members changed jobs and two moved into a retirement home. I, personally, have had a child undergo cancer treatment for an inoperable brain tumor this last winter, but I stand for all of us when I say our lives have been blessed as we took up this labor of love, this work for the Lord, and stepped out in faith to raised funds to restore this rustic church.

We’ve also struggled for dignity in the face of bitterness, for a sense of justice when we felt wronged, for the virtue of forgiveness to overcome the hurt, the sadness, the sense of betrayal we felt after the fire. We’ve learned, in order to rise above what happened and move forward, forgiveness is inextricably bound to that mighty step.

So there came a time when we sat down at a common table with one of the young people involved with the fire and discussed the redemptive processes of remorse, repentance and forgiveness, vital steps in the process of healing.

We’ve since worked side by side with this young person on the restoration of Mars Hill Church, and all of us have benefited in the experience. We can testify that there is something invigorating and liberating about forgiveness. Good things have been born from this tragedy and we embrace them.

We have been blessed by the astounding generosity of good will and financial support that have been an outpouring from this community. Originally, Mars Hill was built one hand-hewn log at a time by neighbors coming together here, and we have restored this church, basically, one dollar at a time from money, labor and materials our neighbors in this same community have donated to this project today.

Mars Hill, both physically and figuratively, needed a new foundation. It has that now. The dry rot has been replaced with strong wood that can withstand the storms of time. War has been waged on the termites, and the new cedar shingle roof should last another 50 years.

Those early pioneers, with great courage and determination, with faith that God would see them through, arrived here that spring when the Des Moines River flooded the basin under the bluff. They found a place on Mars Hill Ridge they could call home, and planted seeds towards the future, seeds of faith, that would bloom, flourish and grow. One hundred and fifty years later we still sow those seeds, tend, nourish and celebrate their harvest. We pray that the next generation understands the legacy we leave them, picks up those seeds and continues the ministry of those early pioneers here in a community that was founded on a faith in Father, Son and Holy Ghost.


The gravel road curved ‘round a ridge,
And there, wrapped in antiquity, it stood,
And feeling bewitched, I felt the music
And listened, rapt, to its symphonic history
Where it sang across the years at Mars Hill Woods.

Then I stepped into the musical score
Of one hundred and fifty years gone by
Because it was magic to walk through a door
Where history had walked on hardwood floors
Worn smooth by years of hard-worn lives.

And that mid-noon beside a country track
In a log-cabin church where shutters hung back,
I sniffed the scent of new-mown grass
Sheared short where it wrapped
Around tombstones, bent and cracked.

And later, I told this with a sigh
When all that stood was charcoal shell
Of the dreams these pioneers lived by.
When all seemed lost, a few of us chose to try
To rebuild those dreams in this country vale.

The path we chose took twists and turns
None of us expected. Friendship was one.
Generosity another. Then came family.
By the time the church had been rebuilt
We were sisters and brothers.

Jody Bresch

The Legend of Mars Hill

Mars Hill Church Burns (Ottumwa Courier, March 2006).

Mars Hills Auction A Success (Ottumwa Courier, March 2006).

Jody's Blog

Supervisors Put Support Behind Mars Hill Restoration Efforts (Ottumwa Courier, Wednesday, January 24, 2007).

Starting Work On Restoring Mars Hill Log Church (Ottumwa Courier, Friday, March 23, 2007).

Building and Rebuilding of Mars Hill Log Church (Ottumwa Courier, Monday, April 30, 2007).

Generosity Rebuilding Mars Hill Church (Ottumwa Courier, Friday, July 13, 2007).

Mars Hill Getting Ready to Reopen (Ottumwa Courier, Wednesday, May 28, 2008).

A New Start for Mars Hill Church (Ottumwa Courier, Monday, June 9, 2008).

Mars Hill Log Church Dedication Video (Ottumwa Courier, Sunday, June 8, 2008).

Mars Hill Church Home Page