Time Machine: Ceres' Pioneer Rock Church
Pioneers built Luthern church in tiny northeast Iowa hamlet
When the residents of Clayton County’s Garnavillo township decided they wanted a church of their own, they conferred with their Garnavillo pastor, the Rev. Paul Stockfeld, and went about building a church that stands to this day, almost 160 years later.
The cornerstone of St. Peter’s German United Evangelical Lutheran Church was laid Oct. 25, 1858, in the tiny hamlet of Ceres, halfway between Garnavillo and Guttenberg in northeast Iowa.
It was built on five acres church members bought from Eli Carlan for $30 an acre. Parishioner Gerhard Bierbaum donated another acre, providing enough ground for a church and cemetery.
Teams of oxen pulled loads of limestone blocks quarried nearby for the two-and-a-half-story church, which cost less than $1,100 to build.
Mortar made of slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and sand held the blocks together. Pews, modeled after the ones in St. John’s church in Guttenberg, were fashioned by men in the Backhaus family for $2.50 each.
The pulpit and altar, designed and built by a Mr. Prior of Guttenberg, cost $68.
The church’s furnishings were painted white with walnut trim.
A big wood-burning stove with a large drum on top heated the building. The building was lit by chandeliers of kerosene lamps.
When finished, the building was 55-by-30 feet, with the back 12 feet of the church reserved for the pastor’s home.
CERES NEVER GREW
Among the founding members were Gerhard H. and Chris Bierbaum, Henry and Carl Backhaus, H. Wiegman, J.H. Abker, Gerhard Walke and John Mathias Hagensick.
At an early meeting, the group elected Abker as president and the Rev. Stockfeld as the congregation’s secretary.
Stockfeld, a native of Holland, not only served the new congregation as its pastor and secretary, but he was also a teacher and a physician.
Halfway between Guttenberg and Garnavillo on what is now Highway 52, the little hamlet of Ceres drew parishioners from both directions. But the village never grew beyond the church and a brick building that housed a store, with a post office on the first floor and a dance hall on the second floor.
Stockfeld served the little congregation for 10 years, leaving Ceres in 1868 for a job in Michigan.
A church organ was bought in 1874, a second one in 1890.
In 1882, the church was one of four in Garnavillo Township. The only one not in Garnavillo was in Ceres, which also had one of two post offices in the township.
The Rev. Ziemer was pastor in 1889 when the congregation raised $300 and put a wooden steeple/bell tower on the church. It was followed, appropriately, by the purchase of a bell for $111.
Services were conducted at the church for 70 years before dwindling membership and the loss of its pastor caused it to close in 1927.
When that happened, a group of the founders’ descendants banded together, calling themselves the Pioneer Rock Church Association, with the purpose of honoring the church’s founders. The members restored and reopened the church as a museum and a site for weddings. They cared for the grounds and the cemetery, and they renamed the building the Pioneer Rock Church.
The part of the church behind the altar that had been reserved for the pastor became a place to display family and church relics, some more than 200 years old.
A wayside park with a shelter and restrooms was built on adjoining land in the 1930s.
In October 1939, founder Hagensick’s granddaughter, Adelaide Gray, chose the church as the site for her wedding to lawyer Dale Carpenter. It was just big enough to hold the couple’s relatives and close friends.
When the venerable old church hit its 100th birthday in 1958, a July 6 celebration drew more than 1,500 people. They were treated to a dinner followed by a program featuring area pastors. When the church transitioned into a community site in 1927, the congregation’s last resident pastor, the Rev. G. Bunge, wrote a song called “The Pioneer Rock Church.” The Rev. Bunge was there for the centennial when the same quartet that sang the song in 1927 sang it again in 1958.
The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in December 1976.
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