The Little Brown Church: An Iowa Tradition

In 1856 William Pitts traveled by stage coach from his home in Wisconsin to Fredericksburg, Iowa, to visit his fiancée. When the coach stopped in Bradford to change horses, Mr. Pitts disembarked to stretch his legs. He walked a little way down the street and stopped, captivated by the woodland scene before him. What a beautiful setting for a church, he thought.

After his return home, the incident inspired Mr. Pitts to write a poem he called “The Church in the Wildwood,” which he also set to music. The first few verses went like this:

There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood
No lovelier spot in the dale
No place is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.

Come to the church by the wildwood
Oh, come to the church in the vale
No spot is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.

How sweet on a clear Sabbath morning
To listen to the clear ringing bells
Its tones so sweetly are calling
Oh come to the church in the vale.

Come to the church by the wildwood
Oh, come to the church in the vale
No spot is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.

Having no immediate use for his composition, Mr. Pitts put it away and forgot about it. Not long after, he married his fiancée, and they settled in Wisconsin.

Meanwhile Bradford, Iowa, the town that inspired Mr. Pitts, was growing quickly. A flour mill opened on the river, and the Puritan-Congregational Church built a church on land donated by a parishioner. Being good stewards of their resources, they painted their new building brown, because brown paint was least expensive.

In 1862, Mr. Pitts relocated to Bradford to take a job as music master at the Bradford Academy. Imagine his surprise when he arrived and saw a little brown church just where he had imagined it years before! The church members were equally amazed to learn that Pitts had written a song about their church before it had even been built. He taught his song to his school choir, and in 1864 they sang it at the dedication of the little brown church.

The town of Bradford fell on hard times when the railroad bypassed it in favor of Nashua, a few miles away. The flour mill relocated, and residents began to move away. By 1888 the Little Brown Church was no longer used for services, but because of Pitts’ song, the church was never forgotten. Preservation efforts began in the early 1900’s, and in 1914 the church opened again for services. Its fame spread when a traveling act called the Weatherwax Quartet adopted The Church in the Wildwood as their theme song.

After World War I, the popularity of car travel brought many visitors to the Little Brown Church, and people began asking to be married there. After each marriage ceremony, the newlyweds were asked to ring the church bell to share their good news. By 2014, 74,000 couples had said “I do” in that charming setting.

Today the Little Brown Church is home to a local Christian congregation, and host to many weddings and vow renewals every year.

Sources:

Photo by Jo Hain. Used with permission.

http://littlebrownchurch.org

One comment on “The Little Brown Church: An Iowa Tradition

  1. What a wonderful story – I’ve always loved that song. Thanks for sharing the history !

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