MARS HILL CHURCH

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MARS HILL CHURCH

OTTUMWA, IOWA

by Jody Bresch

The Mars Hill Church was laboriously constructed of hand hewn and fitted logs, believed to be of white oak and walnut, cut from the adjoining forest and hauled to the crest of the hill. It was fitted together by notches hand-carved to fit together, and then joined with wooden pins. There were no nails in the original structure. The building was 28 x 26 x 10 ft. Much white oak still exists in the forests surrounding Mars Hill. The church is the largest log building in Iowa.

"Mars HIll church had a positive life as a church that was important to the hard-working pioneers who made this place (Wapello County) livable," Donna Smithhart, a church trustee, said. It showed us how the pioneers lived, and how important worship was to them.

Local tradition has it that the Mars Hill Church was a station for the Underground Railroad at one point. Martha F. Thrall wrote for the Wapello County Historical Society, 'Mars Hill Church was used as one of the hiding places for escaped slaves during the Civil War. It was one of the stations on the underground railway system used by northerners to aid the Negroes in making their way North and (to) freedom. The Negroes were hidden in the timber by day, and then assembled at the church for further transportation. John Brown of Harper's Ferry fame is supposed to have hidden two wagonloads of slaves there during the war,' Thrall wrote. It was also said that abolitionist, John Brown, may have been a speaker at the church.

A document prepared for the National Park Service of Washington D.C., a division of the United States Department of the Interior, September 13, 1974, says 'local traditionhas it that the Mars Hill Church was used as a hiding place during the Civil War as part of the underground railroad.'

In 1862, when the Civil War began, thirty-five young men from the congregation left to serve their country. The church was closed for the duration.

The Mars Hill church, constructed between 1850 and 1856, was built by a group of Christians of the Baptist faith. Dr. Paul Smith, Executive Secretary fo the Baptist State Convention of Iowa, in 1963 said, "Mars HIll is the Mother Church of all Baptist Faiths West of the Mississippi."

What is out of the ordinary and particularly desirable about the Mars Hill Church is that, although it is off the beaten path, it still stands as it was originally built on the knoll of Mars Hill Ridge 150 years ago.

Mars Hill Church is an outstanding example, an original one-of-akind hand-hewn log building.

In 1969 the Iowa Chapter of the Duaghters of American colonists presented the church with a bronze plaque, honoring it as the "Oldest Log Church Still In Occupancy in the United States". the plaque was accepted on behalf of the Church by Mrs. Marie Hartwig. It is the oldest log church sitll in occupancy in the nation.

On September 13, 1974 Mars Hill Church was entered in the State of Iowa Register of Historic Places.

On September 24, 1974, Mars Hill Church was placed in the National Register of Historic Places.

A Congressional medal of Honor recipient is buried in the Mars Hill Cemetery. His name is John Donaldson and he earned his medal in Pennsylvania during the Civil War.

Under the charred planks of the church floor are additional hand-hewn logs, suggesting the floor was probably built on a foundation of hand-hewn logs. It had no nails in the original structure. It was secured together by wooden pins. Every log was hand-crafted and the logs werejoined together by notches whittled out on each individual log.

Charred logs of the church that survived the fire have been secured by wooden trusses and a tie rod has been put across the top of the structure to hold it steady. If the church is not restored, it will be lost to the community by a slow process of damage from natural causes.

Tourists visit Mars Hill Church from all over the world. Sightseers are at the site on a daily basis. Mars Hill Church is included on a tour of historic churches and cemeteries offered by the Wapello County Historical Museum. There has been discussion to include the Mars Hill Church and Cemetery on a Historic Trail through the area.

The Mars HIll Church is a local tourist attraction. It is also still used by appointment for weddings, funerals, public meetings, and for an area annual picnic. A worship service is still held there once a year in June that is well attended by the public, and there had been hopes of celebrating 150 years of services at the church that the board still hopes to be able to celebrate.

Mars Hill Church preservation is locally significant because it is one of Iowa's few remaining hand-hewn log structures that authentically represent the early pioneer beginnings of Iowa State history.

The Board is working on restoring and preserving the historic cemetery adjacent to the Mars HIll Church. Restoring the log cabin church to its original condition will enhance the work being done on the cemetery.


The Problem

On Thursday, March 9, 2006 an arson fire ravaged the historic Mars Hill Church. While portions of all four walls still stand, two walls are severely damaged, with significant portions of the native lumber used to build the hand-hewn log cabin church damaged beyond being salvageable. The roof is gone, and the plank floor is charred and crumbling. Oringinal estimates to begin restoration of the church started at $104,000.00. A restoration architect was contacted, and acting on his advice, the structure has been secured with wooden trusses and a tie rod across the center. To begin restoration, the building will have to be disassembled one log at a time by hand. Those logs will have to be labeled as to their location in the original structure. Then those logs will need to be lceaned, and the cement chinking removed. The floor cannot be saved and the foundaiton needs repaired. The church is going toneed a security system.

The Board's Proposed Solution

A community member offered the board a local two-story cabin made of hand-hewn logs similar to those used to build the Mars Hill Church. We contracted Glenn O'Dell to take down the cabin and transport it to the Mars Hill Church site. Although this building is smaller, these logs can be used to replace shorter logs that were in walls that had windows in them. The good thing about the damage to the plank floor is that it revealed additional hand-hewn logs in the sub-floor under the building that are not damaged. Hopefully these logs are long enough that they can replace 28 foot logs that were destroyed in the fire. With the salvaged logs from the donatedlog cabinhouse, the salvaged lumber from the Teresa Foster barn, and the salvageable logs from the Mars Hill Church itself, with local contracted labor and donations, we got a more recent bid from the Minnesota contractor at $34,455.85.

In place of those logs removed from the sub-floor, plans are to put in a concrete slab, which would also help secure the church from area wildlife that sometimes enteres the structure at the present time. That concrete slab would be faced with something authentic like hand-hewn logs or flagstone. One of the goals is to replace the original windows with plexiglass that cannot be broken, but is transparent and still allows sightseers to view the inside of the building. The building will have a security system.

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).

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