Return to the wildwood
By ANDREW MCGINN
It’s one of the few surviving examples of a “church in the wildwood,” like in the hymn, at a time when Wildwood sounds like it could be the name of a new housing development in Waukee.
Even still, it’s easy to talk about Pleasant Hill Church only in the past tense.
It was once such a robust church community it fielded its own baseball and basketball teams, had a YMCA and a YWCA, and in 1912 had a youth group 72 kids strong.
The chicken dinners were legendary.
Peg Semke thinks it’s time to start talking about Pleasant Hill again in the present tense.
“It needs to become part of the community again,” she explained recently, standing inside the church built by Methodists in the fall of 1881 about seven miles south of Jefferson near present-day Squirrel Hollow Park.
For decades — from the time the Methodist Church officially decreed Pleasant Hill “abandoned” in May 1966 — the only activity at the church has been the annual Pleasant Hill Homecoming and Memorial Service, and maybe a wedding or two each year.
“It’s a beautiful, wonderful place for Greene County,” said Semke, vice chair of Pleasant Hill Memorial Inc., the organization that has cared for the church for the past 51 years. “It has potential for the current generation to have as much fun as the older generation did.”
Pleasant Hill will begin sprouting back to life May 27-28, with plans to turn the annual Memorial Day service into something more grand called the Pleasant Hill Memorial Weekend Service and Art Festival.
A new partnership with the Greene County Historical Society will see painters and photographers led by Zack Jones, of Malvern, set up on the church grounds the afternoon of May 27 to begin working “en plein air.”
Jones will be painting his own picture of the church throughout the weekend, and he welcomes visitors.
Fellow artists are encouraged to join him as well, using the church building, its adjacent cemetery and the grounds as inspiration.
It’s hoped the weekend will serve as a catalyst for more regular events at Pleasant Hill.
“We’ve got a vested interest in this,” said Chuck Offenburger of the historical society, describing that organization’s desire to see Pleasant Hill become a vibrant place again.
Jones is the artist who painted the mural at the Greene County Medical Center as part of its recent expansion, incorporating Pleasant Hill Church into that work.
“Zack fell in love with this place,” Offenburger said.
The reasons are obvious.
“It’s one of the most historic places in the county,” Offenburger said. “It’s still in its original condition.”
That means there’s still no running water, and an outhouse still serves the needs of guests.
A parking lot was never added.
But beyond that, Pleasant Hill sits atop what’s arguably the cradle of modern civilization in Greene County.
Truman Davis, the area’s first white settler, chose an area not quite two miles from the future church to build his cabin in 1849.
The cemetery, which predates the church by 18 years, is the final resting place of Mrs. Nancy Tucker, the first white woman buried in Greene County.
A native of Virginia, Tucker lived through both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War before an illness, believed to be the plague, claimed her life in 1872 at the age of 104.
An Indian who helped care for her in sickness contracted the same illness and died three days later.
They were buried beside each other on the hillside.
Most haunting of all, though, are the grooved traces of a stagecoach trail still visible after a century and a half.
From 1850 to 1866, stagecoaches (mostly moving soldiers from fort to fort) passed through the churchyard en route from Des Moines to Sioux City.
Offenburger, who traveled the state extensively during his career as a columnist for the Des Moines Register, said there are virtually no country churches left in Iowa that are still active.
And once they go dormant, it doesn’t take long for them to disappear.
When they go, another part of Iowa history vanishes forever.
“You can’t get much more Iowa,” Offenburger said, “than a country Methodist church.”
It’s a testament to area families that Pleasant Hill is even still standing.
For years, the now-late Don Coon took it upon himself to ready the church for Memorial Day weekend, taking apart the upright piano to clean out mouse nests and repairing any vandalism.
“The doors are not locked,” Semke revealed. “It has never been locked.”
What will ensure the long-term protection of the church, though, is the realization by Pleasant Hill Memorial Inc. that it can’t do it alone any longer.
“It’s always just been operated by private labor and private giving,” Semke said. “It’s always been a community function to take care of this.”
In March, the 51-year-old organization finally became an IRS-approved nonprofit, meaning donations for repairs and upkeep are now tax deductible.
The group is even thinking about a campaign on the website GoFundMe, according to Semke.
The church’s stained glass windows — installed during a 1916 remodel — are in need of being releaded, she said.
The basement, also added in 1916, needs work as well.
Fresh paint is a priority.
“Structurally,” Semke said, “it’s very sound.”
It’s still every inch the church that sent 13 of its men off to World War I.
One active member of the Pleasant Hill community, Pvt. Harold Holloway, never returned from France, succumbing in October 1918 to the influenza he caught while fighting in the trenches.
The church hosted his memorial service in June 1919, but when his body eventually returned stateside in 1921 — the first of Greene County’s war dead to return home — he was buried in the Jefferson Cemetery.
By the time the Methodist Church initially decided to close the church in May 1952, the church rolls contained just 31 members, thanks to the onslaught of new roads, cars, rural school consolidation and larger farms.
Pleasant Hill continued on as a community chapel until 1966, when it was officially “abandoned.”
Wallace Teagarden, who grew up in the area and became an attorney in Ames, has served as president of Pleasant Hill Memorial Inc. since its inception 51 years ago.
Now 94, he remains a fixture at Pleasant Hill’s annual Memorial Day weekend service, reciting the preamble to the U.S. Constitution and the Gettysburg Address — both from memory.
“In this huge, booming voice,” said Mary Weaver, secretary-treasurer of Pleasant Hill Memorial Inc. “It almost scares kids.”
Teagarden provides a vital link to Pleasant Hill’s rich past, but it’s going to take people like Semke to bring it into the future.
A native of Des Moines who owns a land surveying business with her husband, Mike, Semke doesn’t have familial ties to the church.
Rather, she discovered Pleasant Hill in 1993 while scouting venues for her own wedding.
“It’s beautiful. And inviting. And old-fashioned,” said Semke, who now lives between Jefferson and Grand Junction. “It was affordable. The Coon family made it a pleasure to have a wedding here.”
As a member of the Town and Country Band, Semke occasionally returned to play “Taps” at the Memorial Day weekend service.
The Sunday before Memorial Day also is when Pleasant Hill Memorial Inc. holds its one and only meeting.
Last year, Semke played “Taps,” then decided to get involved.
“I just wandered into the meeting,” she said.
Semke now envisions a venue where activities take place year-round, from weddings to concerts.
And what would Pleasant Hill Church be without a potluck?
“It’s worth preserving,” she said.
How to go
What: Pleasant Hill Memorial Weekend Service and Art Festival, sponsored by Pleasant Hill Memorial Inc. and the Greene County Historical Society
When: May 27-28
Where: Pleasant Hill Church, 1822 Redwood Ave., south of Jefferson
The schedule of events
2 to 5 p.m. — Iowa artist Zack Jones sets up to do initial sketching and painting. He’ll be painting a picture of the church throughout the weekend.
Artists and photographers are encouraged to join him to work “en plein air.”
9:30 a.m. — Jones and the other artists continue their work.
Coffee, juice and homemade cinnamon rolls will be available.
11 a.m. — The service begins in the church with prayer by retired pastor Dale Hanaman, president of the historical society.
The service also includes a brief history of the church and its community from Chuck Offenburger, music, an oration by Wallace Teagarden and the singing of “The Church in the Wildwood.”
11:40 a.m. — The Rippey post of the American Legion performs a 21-gun salute in the churchyard.
11:45 a.m. — Visitors are invited to bring a picnic and linger into the early afternoon to watch Jones and other artists complete their work.