Mars Hill Church: A Local Legacy

By Jody Bresch - Mars Hill Church lies off the beaten path seven miles southeast of Ottumwa on a forested ridge near the Des Moines River.

However, 145 years ago when the old log church was built in 1856, it was on one of the main thoroughfares through south central Iowa. That gravel road that passes in front of Mars Hill Church is today the dividing line between Wapello and Davis Counties. The church building and cemetery were built on the Wapello County side of that line on property donated to the Baptist Church by a Mrs. Barbara Clark.

Thomas and Barbara Clark arrived in south central Iowa in 1846. They traveled with their eight children by riverboat up the Mississippi to Burlington, and then by covered wagon to the Des Moines River. When they arrived, the river valley was under spring floodwaters, so they were attracted to the rock bluff above the surging currents. They paid $63.50 for 50 acres and a fraction of land. Unfortunately, John Clark, the youngest of the Clark's eight children, died shortly after they arrived. In 1846 there was no cemetery, so Barbara Clark donated a plot of land to the Baptists with the provision that the Baptists build a church and cemetery on it. That is why the church was built in 1856, but the land wasn't deeded over until May 22, 1857.

Reva Rupe, the custodian of the property, is the great-granddaughter of Abraham Smock, the first minister at Mars Hills Church. Reva says that 35 members of the congregation formed the 7th Iowa Calvary in 1862 and left to serve in the Civil War. The church was closed at that time, and did not reopen until after the war.

Margaret Thrall wrote about the church in documents prepared for the Wapello County Historical Society: It (Mars Hill Church) 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 Civil War.

On September 13, 1974, Mars Hill was entered in the State of Iowa Register of Historic Places. A document sent to the National Park Service of Washington D.C., a division of the United States Department of the Interior said, local tradition has it that the Mars Hill Church was used as a hiding place during the Civil War as part of the Underground Railroad.

In the late 1970s, occult activities surfaced in south central Iowa, and unfortunately, Mars Hill Church was the site of some of it. In June of 1985, Reva Rupe found a mutilated black cat hanging over the church altar. Satanic crosses and symbols had been painted in blood on the walls. Historic tombstones were broken off. Pews were stacked and set on fire inside the church. Later, vandals drug the remaining pews out into the lawn in front of the church, stacked them and set them on fire. Fortunately the church itself didn't burn as a result of either of these incidences While application was made to the National Parks Service to have Mars Hill Church listed on the National Parks Service's Trail of Stations on the Underground Railroad in the spring of 2001, so far the application has been rejected. Oral tradition is an important part of any community's history, but the committee is looking for written documentation, Bible entries, personal diaries, or letters that describe specific incidences of Underground Railroad Activity.

Edited Thursday, March 9, 2006.

Mars Hill Church Burns

Mars Hill would have been 150 years old in 2007. It was the oldest log cabin church west of the Mississippi to still hold an annual service each year. It was made of hand hewn logs, and was held together with wooden pegs. It was a site on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War.

It was a place of magic for me. I heard stories for years about there being ghosts there, about it being haunted, about it being a place that witches held covens at.

However, all I ever embraced there was the positive energy of brave pioneers who forged an exciting life there on what was then a new frontier. It was true, there was a sense there of history taking place. There was some kind of palpable energy there, but it was certainly never of any evil spirits.

The only evil that ever came to Mars Hill was the evil that was brought there by evil people who were very much alive. We cannot go back and recapture what we have lost. But people in the community are talking of a way to preserve what we still have left which is a rustic ridge with two charred walls still standing and a cemetary still intact.

One of the kids who was questioned in regard to the fire said, "What's the big deal. It was only an old building." The sheriff told him, "You have no idea what you have done. You destroyed 150 years of the history of this community, and that can't be undone."

I hope we can salvage something of the magic of Mars Hill for future generations, but it can't ever again be the magic I found there that first time I saw it shining boldly in the afternoon sun. I had a flat tire on the gravel road in front of the church and I should have been raving mad. Instead I was enchanted as if I had found a lost treasure.

Mars Hill Church Official Web Site Ottumwa, Iowa

The Legend of Mars Hill