One of the most beloved old hymns, evoking memories of little country churches scattered across the landscape, is “The Church in the Wildwood.” In hundreds of churches across Mississippi and elsewhere, this catchy and fun hymn has especially been a favorite at church homecomings and old-time singings. Yet few who have enjoyed singing about the “Little Brown Church in the Vale” realize the church in the song is a real place, and it’s a pretty long way from Mississippi.
The story about the real “Little Brown Church” and the song that made it famous starts in 1857. In that year, so the story goes, a schoolteacher from Wisconsin named William Savage Pitts (right) went to Iowa to visit his fiancée in Fredericksburg, Iowa. When the stagecoach he was on stopped in the little town of Bradford, some distance from Fredericksburg, he got out and walked around a bit and spotted a particularly beautiful lot in town. In Bradford’s imagination, he envisioned a church nestled under the cedars and oaks on the property. So powerful was the scene that he wrote down his vision in the form of a song once he returned to Wisconsin. Satisfied, he put the composition in a drawer and promptly forgot about it.
Pitts married Ann Elize Warren the next year and they lived in Wisconsin. In 1862, the couple moved to Fredericksburg, Iowa, where he had taught music classes in the area, including Bradford. Some accounts indicate that he moved back because he had secured a position at the Bradford Academy teaching music. However, the Bradford Academy did not open until 1865. Regardless, he returned to Bradford at some point and, much to his surprise, a church had since been constructed on the very spot of his vision! The little chapel (a Congregational church) was even the right color (brown) – presumably because brown paint was cheaper than the white paint the congregation really wanted. Construction of the church was initiated during the Civil War, when many of the men in Chickasaw County, Iowa, were away in the army. Among the soldiers from Bradford who enlisted to fight for the Union was Andrew Laird. One of ten children and a native of Canada, Laird did not enlist until January, 1864, but he joined the veteran 4th Iowa Cavalry, which saw extensive service in Mississippi, perhaps more than any other Federal regiment during the Civil War. Andrew served in Co. H along with two brothers, John and Hugh Laird, who had enlisted a month earlier. While his two brothers survived the war, eighteen year old Andrew was wounded on June 11, 1864, in Ripley, Mississippi, during what Col. Edward F. Winslow described as a “severe engagement” following the battle of Brice’s Cross Roads. Andrew died two days later and was buried in Guntown. His body was later moved to Corinth, where he rests today in the National Cemetery.
With most of the young men like Andrew Laird gone off to war, there was very little labor available and very little money on hand to build a church, so it took some time to complete the work. Much of the heaviest labor was done by the pastor himself, the Rev. J.K. Nutting. Nutting had established a congregation a few years earlier, but had to move around a bit, meeting in stores, houses and a school building that Nutting described as a “most uncomfortable place.” Finally, a decision was made to build a church, and the people of Bradford donated most of the wood and other materials used in its construction. In the spring of 1865, Rev. Nutting (right) traveled to Troy, N.Y. to purchase a bell for the church. By the time he returned to Bradford, he found the bell already installed in the belfry. As the bell made its way along the railroad, it “excited much attention, being rung by the crowd at Dunleith, Dubuque, and more or less at nearly every station along the line.” Before the bell arrived and before any furniture was installed, the church was dedicated. On that day, December 29, 1864, William Pitts sang the “Church in the Wildwood” in public for the first time.
Soon after the church was dedicated, Pitts moved to Chicago in order to attend the Rush Medical College, an prominent medical school established in 1837 and named for Dr. Benjamin Rush. To help pay his tuition, Pitts sold the rights to his hymn to the publishing firm of Hiram M. Higgins, publisher of many of the most popular wartime ballads and marching songs. For the rights to the “Church in the Wildwood,” Higgins paid Pitts a grand sum of $25. After some success, the song was soon forgotten. The little town of Bradford, Iowa, was nearly forgotten as well. In the 1880s, the railroad bypassed Bradford in favor of Nashua, Iowa, two miles further west. As often happens, Bradford’s business interests soon moved to Nashua and the population quickly declined. In 1888, little more than twenty years after it was completed, the church was closed, and was abandoned for almost twenty years.
Then, in 1914, interest in the picturesque church was rekindled, and the “Society for the Preservation of the Little Brown Church” was formed. Soon, regular services were again held in the church and with them, interest in the song was revived as well. Among those who appreciated and promoted “The Church in the Wildwood” were a couple of evangelists, J. Wilbur Chapman and Charles Alexander, who included the song in their international crusades. More importantly, a singing group known as the Weatherwax Brothers Quartet virtually adopted the hymn as their own. Composed of four brothers,* the Weatherwax Quartet hailed from Charles City, Iowa, located about fifteen miles from Bradford. In 1915, the Weatherwax Quartet was invited to sing before 23,000 men gathered for a revival led by evangelist Billy Sunday, also a native of Iowa, in Philadelphia. From that performance, the group toured extensively throughout Canada and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Weatherwax boys used as their trademark song “The Church in the Wildwood.” Promoted by the Quartet, the hymn’s popularity grew nationwide and is today considered a standard.
As for the church itself, the “Little Brown Church in the Vale” still holds regular services and is now a popular tourist destination, attracting thousands of visitors each year. The church is especially popular with wedding parties. Indeed, couples have come from as far away as Germany, Japan, South America, Africa, England, France, Norway, Australia, Canada, Mexico and from every state in the Union. In October 2009, Patricia Dierenfeld of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Jim Mangum, Jr. of Round Rock, Texas, became the 73,000th couple to be married in the Little Brown Church since 1918. The best man was from Gulfport, Mississippi.
* One of the brothers, Asa Weatherwax, no doubt made news in 1927 when his wife was granted a divorce on grounds of “cruel and inhuman treatment.” Soon thereafter, Asa left the area and moved to Wyoming.
Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Church in the Wildwood: http://www.radioiowa.com
(2) Pitts: http://www.chickasawcoia-geniesoc.org
(3) Laird: http://www.findagrave.com
(4) Little Brown Church: http://www.wellswooster.com/postcards/minnesota.html
(5) Nutter: http://www.chickasawcoia-geniesoc.org
(6) Weatherwax Quartet: http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu
(7) Little Brown Church (interior): http://rallenhillproject365.blogspot.com