Prairie Gem Church: A Community of Neighborly Love and Fellowship
Other Worship Centers rise up in the county like a Friend in Need!
Hamilton County homesteaders - armed with nerves of steel and plenty of longsuffering patience -- arrived in covered wagons determined to make a go of the exciting new life on the harsh Nebraska prairie. Faith in the Creator God reigned uppermost in pioneer life with its accompanying hardships of sickness, deaths, droughts, or grasshoppers.
For us today it seems a mystery how the pioneers found their way across the central prairies considering there were no roads, bridges, or signs pointing them to their land claim. They had to cross the Missouri River by ferry at Falls City in the southeast corner of the new state. Can you imagine trying to calm spooky horses enough to keep them on the ferry?
As newcomers arrived in Hamilton County, established settlers were anxious to invite them to meals in their primitive lodging, whether a sod house, log cabin, or dug-out. Besides a sense of hospitality, the settlers considered it entertainment to have guests to talk to and to learn the latest news the travelers heard.
The settlers also offered their guests sleeping space in their own cramped quarters until new shelter could be set up. 'Twas a proper prairie welcome . . . and the neighborly thing to do.
Homesteaders in the early 1870s in Hamilton County focused on family traditions as practiced "back home" - whether it was Scotland, Germany, England, or even Russia.
As more homesteaders arrived, families would also meet at homes, in barns, or under a tree for potlucks, often times with freshly roasted buffalo or deer. They also met for informal worship services. They'd sing and read the Bible in different languages -- with or without sermons until an itinerant preacher stopped by. The Rev. Henry Giltner (1827-1903) was an early circuit rider who traveled from Stockham to Bromfield (Giltner) preaching and marrying and burying.
Somehow, the Good Lord Provides
As steeples began popping up across the county, the farmers met to worship at a community church down the road. They thanked God whether or not they got good crops because they learned by faith that somehow the Good Lord provides.
Words of thanks also crossed their lips in years without a harvest when rain clouds went on vacation, or like the blizzard of 1888 when animals were frozen. Other times, swarms of grasshoppers would darken the sky and mow down the crops - plus the hoppers would eat anything hanging on the clothes line. They'd even invited themselves into the homes for more food.
Country churches were the heartbeat of the farming communities as homesteaders fanned out in the 1870s from Orville and Stockham - the first areas claimed in the county under the Homestead Act of 1862 signed by President Lincoln.
The population of Hamilton County in the 1870 Census was 130, with the majority in the southeast corner. Nebraska had only been a state for three years then.
Many of those settling near Stockham were from Scotland, but some first stopped off in Dane County, Wisconsin -- a place to catch their breath and try out their new American wings.
One of the first churches in Hamilton County was the Verona Presbyterian Church at Stockham. The members arrived from Verona, Wisconsin, so they felt at home with the name -- hence they had the Verona church, the Verona School Dist. #5, and the Verona Literary Society. My great grandfather Alexander Franklin Salmon (born in Dundee, Scotland) and his wife Jean (born in Verona, Wis.) were charter members of this Verona Church, along with his two homesteading cousins - John R. and Alex Salmon, who arrived a year before A. F. in 1868.
Glance over my shoulder and peek in on the church scene as the 1800s ended in Hamilton County. This is what I've been told and read.
Prosperous families would roll onto the church grounds by horse and buggy, but some farmers would arrive by team and wagon. Often these wagons were still wafting with the fresh silage fed to cattle hours before.
The neighing could be an Amen
The horses were tethered around the church at hitching posts. The sounds from the horses appeared that they were communing by stomping their feet and issuing a few neighs -- as if voicing an Amen! The horses snorted and eyeballed each other, maybe noticing soiled work harnesses scattered amid the few fancy leather Sunday-go-meetin' buggies with folding tops. As years passed, the horses adjusted socially to the arrival of fancy horseless carriages as more sputtered onto the scene around 1910.
Worshipping and socializing were neighborly ties that continued as automobiles opened up the world to speed. Horses walked about 3 mph while horseless carriages zoomed by neighbors at 20 mph. Yes sir, the world was speeding by, but the neighborly church was still at the center. A car gave the farmer a speedy trip to church . . . and maybe a little more shut-eye, even with the limited Sunday farm chores.
To arrive at church on time, farmers would have to hitch up Ol' Dobbin and Mack an hour or more before church services began. My Grandpa Tom Salmon and his sibs attended Sunday Eve services even though they lived 5.5 miles west of the Verona Church. They made the same trip earlier for Sunday Morn services, spending over four hours on the road.
Sometimes the family would be invited to Sunday dinner by a fellow worshipper - as Great Grandma Jean Salmon described in a letter to a sister in Dundee. Cousin Norma Rennau Anderson has the original copy of letter written by Grandma Jean, but we're not sure the letter was ever sent to Scotland. If so, what are the odds of the letter arriving back in Stockham?
When the homesteaders first arrived at Stockham, the closest post office was in Lincoln, so maybe the mail was picked once year during a trip to pick up supplies like salt and medicines. It took a year or longer to mail a letter and get a reply from Scotland - or any other European country. Now you can understand the saying: The only thing slower than rust was the mail service.
Let's back up a bit so I can tell you about Prairie Gem -- the church that I attended with my family five miles southwest of Aurora. It was a worship center, plus also a social center for fabulous salmagundi dinners, drama productions with a spiritual twist, and distribution center with a food pantry and a closet of nice out-grown clothes. A "new" suit or dress was guaranteed to garner smiles from those in need.
Enter the sanctuary through double doors
Here's looking at the front view of Prairie Gem: White clapboard siding surrounded the building, even up to the steeple. The stoop had 3-sided concrete steps leading up to the double doors, which opened into a small foyer, and beyond was a set of double swinging doors. In the foyer, there was also a door on the left leading to the basement, plus you could also enter the basement from a side door out front.
Stepping into the sanctuary, you see a 25-foot vaulted ceiling, and a rubber treaded runway dividing the two rows of about 15 pews. On a raised two-step platform in front you find the pulpit on the left and the piano on the right. For heating, a large iron grill on the floor at the front heated the sanctuary, but for air conditioning at other times, the eight windows were opened a foot or so. As I think back, I appreciated the warm church in the winter, but I never did find out who arrived hours before to stoke the furnace. God Bless 'em.
The outhouse, which was about 50 feet behind the church, had a cob and coal bin door separating the Boys and Girls signs. (No, we had toilet paper!)
Within a very short period after Nebraska became a state in 1867, Hamilton County churches of various denominations could be found springing up about every five miles. The Mennonites, the Lutherans of different synods, the Swedes and the Danes join the ranks of Methodists, the Brethren, the Baptists, the Christian (The Disciples), and the Congregational churches in providing worship centers for the farming communities.
There were probably other churches, but this young farm lad knew only of those in the area southwest from Aurora where he lived. He heard years later that the Lutherans northeast of Aurora and Hampton had churches, schools, and cemeteries at the same location. Most country churches had cemeteries but not schools.
Schools were often found within a few miles of churches, so kids would meet classmates on Sunday. Farmers would also meet their neighbors and discuss the weather, crops, or politics after Sunday Services or when dropping their kids off at school on weekdays.
In rainy or snowy weather, a famer would drive his kids to school by team and wagon. Fathers would make sure the wagons had plenty of fresh oat straw for the kids to dig down and keep warm in sub-freezing weather. Wheat straw has barbs and it itched so wasn't kid friendly.
On nice days the kids walked the maybe two-miles. (No the roads weren't uphill both ways.) As the county filled up, there were 99 public school districts in Hamilton County, plus about 25 private schools.
School teacher taught and was the janitor
Check out a morning scene at the one-room schools: Weekdays in the winter, farmers would chat and wait to make sure the teacher - often a gal 18 years old fresh out of summer normal schools -- got the stove fired up. Schools had wood and coal burners in the beginning, but with progress came a heating stove burning fuel oil piped in from a tank at the rear of the building. Contracts for teachers also included their being the janitor for the classroom and the toilets.
One such school was Dist. 13 -- a half mile north of Prairie Gem on the east side of the road, just beyond the river. My grandmother, Lizzie Hannah Detamore Miller Salmon, went to elementary school there in the 1890s along with her siblings Addie, Ellie, Lottie, Elsie, and Roy.
Their parents, who were among the founding members of Prairie Gem, lived on a farm one mile east of the church and half a mile south on the west side back in the field. (Today in 2012 that farm home is in Aurora living a new life on 13th Street at Highway 34 across the street from the Pump n' Pantry. There's a little cupola on it.)
The country churches and their facilities were important to the neighborhoods. If you had company coming and needed five more chairs? Stop at the church and borrow what you need, then return the wooden folding chairs in time for the next Sunday service.
Everyone had a key to the church? Nope! No key needed. Prairie Gem was always open year-round for anyone to stop in for prayer, or for a quiet time with the Creator. Or maybe to practice a song for a worship special next Sunday.
For many years churches didn't have electricity, but for night use they did have hanging lanterns and wall-mounted lamps with reflectors. They cast enough light to read the Bible or song book if you had good enough eyesight.
Prairie Gem Church was where my family attended in the 1940s and 50s. The neighbors who built this country church considered it to be the Gem of the Prairie, hence the name Prairie Gem Church. The church association began with a German heritage as the United Brethren Church in Christ in Pennsylvania in 1800, then the association joined with the Evangelical Church in 1946 to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church. In 1963, the EUB joined with The Methodist Church to form the United Methodist Church.
Prairie Gem's 3-story steeple beckoned worshipers miles away from the 1890s to Christmas Eve 1961 when this church became history. For sure, the building became ashes, but great memories of fellowship remain today.
Children grew up here, were married here, and their children were baptized here. Members were even buried in the Prairie Gem Cemetery in back of the church until the mid-40s. Most have been relocated to the Aurora Cemetery.
Prairie Gem burned on Christmas Eve
So, what caused the fire at Prairie Gem after a Christmas Eve service? Raccoons in the steeple seeking shelter from the winter cold got the blame. The coons chewing on old tar-paper-covered electric wires could have ignited the sparks - and wiping out the chosen coon -- but only God knows for sure what happened.
It was sad to learn that the country church that I grew up in was gone. It was just another part of my childhood disappearing. The buildings on two different farms within two miles of Prairie Gem where my family lived would be burned or torn down to expand crop land - and to avoid county taxes for buildings.
So, what remains of Prairie Gem today? This once bustling community worship center is remembered with a large upright granite marker near the driveway, plus about a dozen historic tombstones holding forth in the cemetery outback.
Insurance for Prairie Gem couldn't cover the cost of rebuilding, so members voted to join with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in Aurora. Distance from farm to church didn't matter anymore with automobiles long replacing horse and buggy.
Hold your horses, Rex. Back 'em up a bit. How did Prairie Gem get built and how was the site chosen?
About 1890 when Nebraska was less than 25 years old, homesteaders got around to building a worship center in this farming community. The Prairie Gem community got its name from the church, rather than the church named after the neighborhood.
In Hamilton County's three newspapers from the turn of the century, there was social news about Prairie Gem community written by housewives for around 50 years. You know . . . upbeat news like who grew the largest watermelon or turnip, or who had whom over for supper, or a weiner or marshmallow roast. Maybe it was news of new foal or calf? Or who was sick or it was news of an upcoming bee?
What's a bee? There was much buzz about bees, but we're not referring to insects. A bee is when famers gather to help a disabled farmer get his crops planted, cultivated, or harvested - just for the love of being neighborly. There's a photo taken at Stockham area where about 30 teams were plowing in one field, making true the saying: Many horse feet make quick field work. OK, so I made it up!
Organizing a farm took time as homesteaders did first things first. Their primary consideration in claiming their land grants was shelter for their animals and themselves. The homes were sometimes dugouts, sometimes soddies, but if there were trees nearby, log cabins were in order.
At first they met for worship and schooling in homes, but when funds were raised for school buildings, they also became worship centers on Sundays until a church building could be constructed.
The Salmon Family moved from Blue River
This young farm lad first entered Prairie Gem Church in the spring of 1943. My parents, A F and Luella Salmon, moved up from his father's Blue River farm five miles south, which was lost due to a barn fire and crops drying up.
The land on which the church was built - along with a fenced cemetery - was donated by homesteader Carl Huenefeld, who was the father of another Carl and the grandfather of Wesley and Charles Huenefeld. Wes was very instrumental in preserving Hamilton County history at the Plainsman Museum in Aurora - including the construction of a log cabin and sod house inside the museum.
Other contributions to build Prairie Gem came from neighbors dropping egg-and-cream money in the offering plate each Sunday. But when good wheat or corn crops came in, the building funds expanded quickly with generous offerings at Sunday worship.
Eggs brought the farmer's wife 5 cents or so a dozen sold in Aurora at produce stations like at Douglas' or Shaneyfelt's. The cityfolk would then pay 10 cents or so a dozen for fresh eggs. The wives also sold old hens who couldn't pay their way - that is, they ate the laying mash, but couldn't lay eggs. The old hens might also become the feature of a Sunday dinner with neighbors - you know chicken and dumplings or homemade big slurpy noodles.
How did these country churches get built? Well, I haven't rightly learned, but the architectural plans could have been mail ordered for a few dollars, just like farmers could buy house plans out of the Sears and Roebuck catalog. They could even buy houses with all the boards cut to size, ready to piece A to A, B to B, etc. They'd order the house by mail, but the lumber kits would come by rail to nearest village and then hauled by horse and wagon to the building site.
Prairie Gem probably came about like the rest of the county churches. The architect's name has been lost, but the labor came from the area farmers in their down time. Once the crops were planted or harvested, the famers found time to help with construction between their morning and evening chores.
Winter brought a lot of free time, except for February when corn picking was in full swing. The ears dried on the stocks and farmers walked down each row husking the corn and tossing the ears again the bang board on the wagon pulled by horses.
Listen for the bang board while picking corn
I remember husking corn in 1945 with my brother Steve and dad - A F Salmon - as he directed the horses by voice signals. The reins would be tied to the grain wagon which had extra-high boards on one side to direct the ears into the wagon. If I didn't hear the bang board singing out, I knew that I'd missed the wagon and had to go find the errant ear. Twenty bushels an acre was a good crop.
Corn shelling was another joyous time when farmers gathered to help each other when Johnny Reardon made his rounds with his corn sheller. What a racket it made, but that's another story for another day.
My great grandparents, Albert and Myra Thayer Detamore, were in the list of founders and volunteers at Prairie Gem. I mentioned earlier they lived a mile east of the church across the section.
Here's a family hand-me-down: My Great Aunt Elsie Detamore told me in 1965 at her home in Modesto, Calif., about one time the family was late getting to church. It was way before they got their first automobile, which was a 1910 Buick with the steering wheel on the right side.
Upon arriving at church, she said her dad took the team to the back of the lot by the toilets and tied the horses to a post. When the family entered the worship service, they saw that the only empty pew was in the front row, so they headed there.
Aunt Elsie said they heard chuckling and wondered what was happening as they walked the aisle. When the family sat down, they discovered their dog had followed them from home and had jumped up and was sitting on the pew. She took the dog back down the aisle and out to the wagon. The singing resumed.
Rex, can you name some of the people who attended the church in the Prairie Gem Community?
Well, yes, here are some that this lad remembers: The Harters (Leon, Frances George, Janis, Kenneth, and Sharon). The Baynes (Marion, Molly Schmidt, Robert, Donald, and Gary). The Arnolds (Bruce, Velma Emken, Deryl, Doris, and Larry). The Mersches (Fred and Katie Emken, Alma, and Roma). The Huenefelds (Wesley and Beth Stilgebauer, Ann, Bill, Patsy, Lynn, and Arthur Halouska). The Jensens (Irvie and Mabel Salmon). The Huenefelds (Carl and Grace Davis). The Huenefelds (Charles, Monetha Newman, Caroline, Dan, Jeanette, and Kathy). The Nusses (Nate and daughter Mary Ann). The Nusses (Eddie and Eva Salmon, and Marie Lois). The Caulkins (Lester and Frances). The Hunzekers (Elmer and Viola Schmidt, Joanie, and Joey). The Holloways (Roy and Valetta Marvel, Myrtle, Robert, William, and Mamie). The Salmons (Marion and Thelma Lewis, James, Kathryn, Virginia, Douglas, Roger, and Rebecca). The Salmons (A F and Luella Delano, Steve, Rex, Pauline, Alvin, Danny, Alfred, LuAnne, and Venida). The Kroekers (Charlie and Marie, Kenneth and Phillip). The Hopkins (Leroy and Helen Foster and sons Frank, Bob, Larry, Jim, Ron, Rick, Bill, and Greg). The Foster siblings (Luella and Don), The Magers (Vernon and Doris Salmon, with nephew Wayne Rennau in the summer). The Salmons (Royal and Lettie Magers, Irene, Bud, Charlene, Jim, and Jo Ellen). The Tuckers (Melvin and Alice Huenefeld, Geraldine, and Edgar). The Boelts (Roland "Cap" and Hazel, Cecil, Janice, Richard, and Mary Ann).
There's one song that made this lad's heart sing
My Sunday school teachers were Molly Bayne and Frances Harter in lower grades and then in high school, I had Doris Salmon Magers, whose class met behind pulled curtains in the southeast corner of the sanctuary. The adults had Sunday School class in the pews on the north side, so we had to be quiet because the curtain didn't cut out much noise. Of course, I was an angel and kept my mouth shut. (Oh, you've never seen my wings?)
The young ones met in the basement for Sunday School. Before we divided up into age groups - up through the 8th grade -- we met in a corner on pews for opening exercises which included singing of songs.
Frances George Harter pumped and played the organ, which gave her a good leg workout. One song I remember especially was "No One Ever Cared For Me Like Jesus." I can still see Joanie Hunzeker saying those words with her cute little lips and delightful face.
I must admit I had a little crush on her. She was 8 and I was 9. I'd watch her lips move to the words "No one ever cared for me like Jesus" and I was thinking, "Oh, baby, you don't know. I care for you."
In a year or so she was gone, moving to Sutton area I believe. And I never saw her again - that was in 1948! She was right. Jesus cared more for her than I.
Watching her sing happened 65 years ago. I smile now and think how brash this little farm lad was. But, you know, I still think of her today when I sing that song, or hear it sung. If I were to meet her on the street, I wouldn't even recognize her. And, for sure, Joanie wouldn't recognize this once-handsome farm lad - now in his mid-70s in San Diego.
Since Prairie Gem was a country church, it meant that we had country animals who visited the building when humans were not around. Raccoons were the No 1 problem, being so inquisitive. They would pry and chew boards seeking shelter - or maybe they were just having fun!
The basement windows had four drop-down wooden weather doors, and somehow the creatures would get under them for protection against the weather, or maybe for a birthing chamber. Skunks would spray in the window sills and then the aroma would permeate the basement, which was damp to start with.
Oh, we held our noses when we opened the basement door and walked in. The smell took our attention, so I'm thinking now that we didn't learn much from the teachers that day.
Sharon Harter wins Bible for memorize verses
I was even given a position as teacher of 8th graders at Prairie Gem when I was a senior at Aurora Hi in 1954. Besides the class work, I gave the kids Bible verses to memorize. Sharon Harter was the winner of a Bible with her name on it. About 40 years later we met by chance on the courthouse lawn for the 100th anniversary of the 1895 monument. "I still have that Bible," Sharon proudly informed me. God Bless Sharon, and the other kids. My mind fails me trying to think of the other four or five in the class. Sorry, kids. Oh, yes, Jo Ellen Salmon and Kathryn Salmon, but my memory fades. Sorry, kids.
The pastors for Prairie Gem were supplied by York College, which was founded in 1890 on 50 acres on the east side of York, Nebraska. If a local pastor couldn't be found, the college would send out professors to preach. I remember Professor Knoll, a biology professor, preaching when we first went to the church. I have a baptism certificated that he signed. Some family would have him over for Sunday Dinner and then he'd head back to York for Monday's classes. At one period, a pastor would preach at Prairie Gem and scoot up to the Marquette EUB for his 2nd service of the day. Somehow, there was always a pastor for worship.
I also have pleasant memories of another church five miles to the northwest of Prairie Gem. It was the Pleasant View Mennonite Church where my siblings and I attend DVBS - Daily Vacation Bible School. -- for two weeks each summer starting in 1945 and ending in 1950 for me when I reached the top class.
Prairie Gem didn't have that program then but in about 1952 my mother started a DVBS for 1st through 8th graders. I was too old to go then because I was a freshman at Aurora High.
Some of my best memories at Pleasant View included my teachers whom I greatly admired: Alice Troyer Kremer, Wylda Springer Wilson, and Fern Oyer Roszhart, the wife of Pastor Herb Roszhart, Sr.
In 1945 Fern taught how futile it is to build one's house (life) on sinking sand. Instead select the Rock (Jesus) for a firm foundation. Of course we had to learn "The Sinking Sand" song and our class presented it to the congregation at the close at a Sunday night service. Fern and Herb operated the Christian Book and Gift Shop in Aurora for many years. The shop first opened in the last original wooden building to survive around the square -- just north of Jackson's Barbershop on the west side.
In the summer of 1948 my teacher was Alice Kremer, husband of Maurice Kremer who would later be a state senator from the 34th District. She taught on King Agrippa's statement of "Almost Persuaded" as told by Paul in the Bible, and we learned about early methods keeping time until the clock was invented. One was a burning rope with knots tied in the strand. Forget exactly how time was measured but it had to do with counting the knots left.
In 1948, we Salmons - who lived at the county fairgrounds then -- rode to VDBS with Alice Kremer in their tan Chevrolet - a 1939 sedan I recall. I got to ride shotgun because I was the eldest at 10 and she called me her assistant, sort of a right-hand man -- an important job I figured! The radiator leaked, so when the motor started heating up, I got out and added water in the six-mile trip. (It wasn't long after that Maurice bought a new 1949 white four-door Buick. So I never saw the Chevy again.) Alice also drove us in 1949.
In 1950 my sibs and I rode with Wylda Wilson because we lived on one of their farms that she and her husband DeRoy owned southeast of Giltner. She was my teacher but for the life of me, I can't remember the theme of the class but we did learn a lot of Bible verses.
Wylda's class met in the balcony of the church and the one memory which plagues me to this day is the smell of Wrigley's spearmint gum. Some girl was chewing it and the aroma kept wafting over to me. I must have had a queasy stomach because the smell about did me in. I don't remember the girl's name and I was too bashful to say anything.
Spearmint is still enough to keep me away
I covered my nose and held my breath to keep everything kosher, so to speak. You know what? To this day I can't stand the smell of spearmint gum. My mind heads back to that balcony and I regain that queasy feeling.
Another important part of my life at age 12 was the Giltner Bible Club. It was early 1950 when two Navy officers originally from Giltner came home to hold revival meetings at the Giltner Methodist Church. They were members of the Navigators, a Christian outreach group. If you know their names, please inform me. I think one was a Hayes??
The Giltner Bible Club was the result of the week-long church revival. The non-membership club involved 40-50 teens jamming into homes each Thursday night for a song fest, Bible study, and prayer time. Maurice Kremer was the leader for many years. Eventually, it seems that the original students graduated and left Giltner, but weren't replaced by others, so it finally dissolved after 4 years or so. But in the meantime, the Giltner Bible Club was the place to be on Thursday nights.
My father worked for DeRoy Wilson and we lived in the old Torgerson homestead in 1950. His son Don took my siblings Steve, Pauline, Alvin, and me to the meetings. Maurice was important to me because he was my spiritual father, meaning he lead me to accept Jesus as my savior for eternal salvation.
I'm sure there is much more that can be written about Prairie Gem, Pleasant View, or Giltner Bible Club. If someone has something to add to my recollection, please write.
I last attended Prairie Gem EUB in January 1956 when I left Aurora to enlist in the Marine Corps on February 7, 1956, at Fort Omaha. My dog tags had EUB stamped on them, so I had Prairie Gem hanging around my neck on a chain for three years - 24 hours a day.
I dedicate my memories of Prairie Gem to little Joanie Hunzeker - if she'll ever let me again hear her sing "No One Ever Cared for Me like Jesus." Life as a farm lad in the 1940s will then be worth the living again - even with Prairie Gem EUB Church a pile of memory dust since 1961.
©, 2012 : Rex L. Salmon - Exrayfish@cox.net