A Visit to Wahoo

Last year's attempt to visit the Wahoo Museum was thwarted by the unfortunate occasion of a leaking roof, which prevented the posted Sunday hours from being observed by that facility. Our trip was not in vain, however, since we proceeded to find the immigrant Swedish churches of Malmo and Weston on that trip.

This year the museum was back in operation, and the trip was well rewarded. The fine collection itself was exceeded in interest to us by the personnel who were on duty that day. The Carlsons are members of the Swedeburg Covenant Church who live right on the road where the Grace Lutheran church still stands and where the Fridhem church orginally was located. The Hedlunds are members of Grace and farmed nearby also. How could we have been so fortunate?!

When they learned of my mission, both couples offered delightful information about the immigrant Swedish churches of the area, and the inevitable reckoning of mutual acquaintances which make up our "intertwining roots." Since Mrs. Marian Carlson was the official receptionist on duty, her husband, Kenneth was free to take me around to the church sites in Wahoo and this he generously volunteered to do.

On our earlier Wahoo visit, we did not locate a single relevant church site or Luther college. Now with a knowledgeable guide all was well. As is sometimes the case, the first site was a vacant lot, one on which till recently there stood a Presbyterian church. Not exactly Swedish, but significant just the same as we were to confirm with the help of historian Sandahl. He reports that the Augustana Bethlehem congregation of Wahoo began its life worshipping on alternate Sunday afternoons in the Presbyterian church!

1. Luther Academy (later College)
2. Bethlehem Augustana Lutheran church
3. Swedish Mission church
4. Swedish Baptist church
5. "R.P." Presbyterian church
(another Presbyterian church is across the street west of the Swedish Baptist church)

To begin with number one on our map, Luther College, our trusty historian C.F. Sandahl has much to say: Pastors Fogelstrom, Torell and Nordling are credited with first discussing the idea of a school for Nebraska. The context would be the motives of the "centralists" of Rock Island, Illinois (Augustana College and Seminary), and the "regionalists" of Minnesota's Norelius (Gustavus Adolphus College) and Olsson's Bethany College in Kansas. Among these parties there was little support for yet another school and Nebraska declared its independence from all of them and went ahead with a school. Torell was the pioneering pastor of Saronville, Oakland and long-time shepherd of the Swedeburg flock. He and Fogelstrom of Omaha Immanuel hospital fame were also responsible for the founding of the Wausa community, our home. Nordling was the beloved pastor of Swede Home in Polk county.

Fogelstrom, Torell, and Nordling

We begin with a bit of imagery which Sandahl admits may be more born of colorful fundraising sermons from Nebraska pulpits than dry history, but because he includes it we shall also. S.G. Larson and Nordling are strolling "over the prairies" of Saunders county as early as 1881 and with prophetic vision Nordling picks out "the approximate site of the school."

There may have been some prairies nearby, but Luther Academy was very close to and soon surrounded by the town of Wahoo, a place where no less than three railroads met. And we should point out that Luther was born not in that strangely-named town, but out on Carlsons' road at the venerable Swedeburg (Grace) Lutheran church which still stands though Luther College is gone.

At a "school meeting" there in 1883, Fogelstrom conducted the "subscription" of nearly two thousand dollars to get things started. Soon parties from Saronville and Stromsburg offered inducements to have the school located in their communities. Wahoo with an offer of ten acres and some thirty-four hundred dollars prevailed. (Stromsburg was later successful in attracting the Swedish Baptist seminary, but only for a few years.)

An early view of Luther Academy
The 1883 building in the foreground burned in 1917, the familiar 1903 building is to the rear

The financial struggles of school building are legendary in the Swedish denominations. Some of the most beloved pastors in each of the denominations had little formal training; neither they nor their parishes could be easily convinced that higher education warranted the expense. Appreciatively, Sandahl names pioneer farmers who mortgaged land and livestock to meet the financial needs of Luther. We notice that the farms secured up in Wausa by Fogelstrom and Torell have been deeded to the Wahoo school by 1920; they too evidently made sacrifices.

Reading "1883" and "75th" year, 1938, this marker and
the serene grounds are the only identifiable remains of Luther

The Edensburg congregation at Malmo should also be mentioned, their pastor J.P. Nyquist was on the first board of Luther college and he, as the former head of Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota was a candidate for a similar post at Luther. That distinction went to Dr. M. Noyd, who along with instructor Mrs. J.H. Flodman present names that are familiar to Stromsburg people; we are curious but uncertain about connections.

The president's house also remains
An arch once connected the pillars, a gift of "the class of 1941"

Noyd was soon succeeded by Dr. S.M. Hill who had a longer tenure. He felt the criticism of those mentioned earlier who questioned the value of higher education. It seems the notion of a co-educational setting and the natural exuberance of youth "away from home" provided grist for the mills of somber pietists. Hill did not want to run a "reform school" though even he might have thought his students qualified. His reported fascination with "Christian socialism" would not have been reassuring to the consitutents either. But Sandahl has this to say:

"Above all it can be said that all the work and activities at Luther College are permeated by the spirit and teachings of Christ. It has to this day maintained its true Christian principles, and the writer ventures to say that in this respect it stands highest today of all our denominational schools. Its Christian atmosphere is felt even by those paying a brief visit there. If in the early days the religious atmosphere was tinged to a certain degree by a gloomy pietism, it is now of a healthful as well as helpful evangelical type, with a brighter outlook upon temporal and spiritual things. That Luther College has been true to its mission is evidenced by the great number, almost a hundred, of its students who have become ministers and missionaries, and by the many Christian men and women who have been here trained for useful careers in all walks of life."

No better final word could be given. In postscript we will add that as the Augustana Synod made its admirable way into broader Lutheranism in America, Luther was merged with Midland Lutheran College in nearby Fremont, Nebraska, where we hope something of its spirit remains.

In the foreground is the Danish Lutheran church, formerly Reformed Presbyterian. Above and to the left is Bethlehem Augustana and Luther on the horizon

Linked with the story of Luther College is the Bethlehem congregation of Wahoo(number two on the map). It was begun in 1883 in the rented building of the Presbyterians and in very modest numbers but always with the committment of Luther's staff and students. From the outset as in Rev. M. Noyd's case, the president of the school was also pastor of Bethlehem. Responsibility for these pastors' salaries were divided between school and congregation, and conference support went to both.

Older view of Bethlehem's 1906 building

Bethlehem, founded in 1883 at the same time as Luther Academy (later College) was a relative latecomer to the region. Grace at Swedeburg, Edensburg at Malmo and Alma at Mead long predated it. These congregations became the foundation on which Bethlehem and Luther Academy were built, but not without growing pains as Sandahl reports. He is deeply interested in these matters, as he was an early student there, served as Pastor of the church, and was later president of the board of directors at Luther. We could have no better source. In fact he is also a prime source for the Covenant story as well. He reports that the same Presbyterian church was used on the alternate Sundays when Augustana was absent, by Rev. Andrew Hallner of the Swedeburg Fridhem Covenant church! He even hints that Hallner surreptitiously announced a meeting of the Covenanters on the Lutherans' day! Both congregations eventually built their own churches.

Bethlehem Lutheran resplendant today as in 1906

The Augustana historian has great fondness for this church, but must admit that the Lutheran faithful in Wahoo were few and what he calls "ultra pietist"...in other words inclined toward Rosenius and the revivalists. They objected to Noyd's use of the pericope and liturgy. Bethlehem had vacancies in its pulpit in its early years. But with Mead, Malmo and Swedeburg so close by they must have been in a somewhat awkward position. And when the financial difficulties of the school surfaced, it surely cast a shadow on Bethlehem as well. By 1906 it was possible to construct a fine edifice and parsonage which remain impressive. The writer remembers a comment from one of its members that it lost some of its young people by remaining with the Swedish language too long, but this is very often heard from descendants of the immigrant congregations.

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Four Churches on One Corner!

From the courthouse, looking northeast over downtown Wahoo

A Danish church historian called Wahoo's 7th Street "church street." This picture only partially indicates why. The two spires just beyond the main business district are on the corner where four churches stood. We surmise they are the Episcopal and Presbyterian, but the other two smaller ones we cannnot see are the Swedish Baptist and American Baptist. The American Congregational church one block north of this corner and the American Methodists one block east can also be seen. The Mission church is one block west, not discernable. That, with the Danish Lutheran two blocks west makes seven churches on seventh street!

The concentration of churches on Seventh Street circa 1886

Notice the "Swedish Bapt. Church" on the northeast corner of the intersection of 7th and Linden above. Till this map surfaced we had no idea where it stood and little liklihood of finding out. Credit the mapmaker with diligence in locating all of the churches however small. We also are fortunate to have Osbeck's story of this church which we attempt to tranlate below:

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C.R. Osbeck, Swedish Baptists in Nebraska: Wahoo 1919

"The Swedish Baptist congregation in Wahoo was organized October 7, 1883 under N. Hayland's leadership and was made up of nine members. This work was joined with Weston's congregation in that the same pastor served both these fields. The following pastors through the years have served in Wahoo: N. Hayland, K.S. Svedberg, Aug. Olson, David Oberg, H. Bergman (also at Arthur, IA -ed), A.B. Nordberg, J.O. Johnson, R.A. Clint, A. Berglund, Carl Berndtson, S. Hammarstrom and N.S. Miller.

Founding Pastor Hayland
He could "preach like Moody and sing like Sankey," said Baptists

In the spring of 1886, during brother Svedberg's service, they built a church for a cost of $1,000, not including the cost of the lot. They incurred a debt of $200 at this time. A Sunday school was organized in 1888, and within a year had sixty enrolled members. This was led for many years by brother Axel Hawkinson, who was ably assisted by his wife, and brothers C.O. Anderson, Wahlin and O. Mollerstrom among others.

A remarkable picture of Wahoo Swedish Baptists and their church
Was this the "unsuitable" first location?
Is that the shadow of the Presbyterian spire, or perhaps the American Baptists?

The site upon which the first church was built was soon found unsuitable, and in 1900 it was moved to a fine centrally located corner lot. At times it appeared to be a thriving work and we expected that many would be won for the Lord in this otherwise inaccessible field. In the last ten years the many members that have left has had its effect and the language question was the primary issue. These things plus other obstacles and unfavorable influences upon Swedish Baptist work have weakened such a small congregation.

Several of the best members joined with the American congregation and the work has been discontinued. The property has been signed over to the conference. With a good Swedish brother serving as pastor in the American Baptist congregation, the immediate needs of the present situation may be met."

A Delightful sepia-tone view of the American Baptist church on the south-west corner
At least they had a Swedish pastor, says Osbeck

* * *

The Wahoo Mission church

The Conference history of 1912 has only this to say about Wahoo (under Swedeburg section): "Teachers visit Wahoo regularly on Sunday afternoons, where a little mission congregation exists and now even has its own church." Thanks again to our map we know of its location, at least in 1886. And the Lutheran story fills in the earlier use of the Presbyterian building by this group, though we are not certain whether this was the Reformed Presbyterian or the regular one.

Perhaps the oldest survivor, but whose?

It has been suggested that the above building was the Mission church. It has survived in the form of a garage building a couple of blocks from its original site. The map indicates that at the approximate location of the survivor was the "Danish Luth" church building; that would have preceded their acquisition of the Reformed Presbyterian building by the courthouse. There are questions left to be answered. The Covenant congregation's existence had ended before the Swedish language died out, and the report was that Wahoo "helt och hallet gott ut" (left; lock, stock and barrel). It had enjoyed only one permanent pastor, one Knut Carlson who was studying at Lincoln. It is possible that the Rev. Knut Carlson who served the Denver church, again continuing studies there, is this same man.

Wahoo Mission Pastor Knut Carlson

As in the case of Bethlehem Lutheran, the Wahoo town church was somewhat subordinate to its surrounding, older and stronger congregations. This would be one of the few cases in which a Hallner-founded congregation did not flourish.

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Ceresco: Swedes to the South

Ceresco Mission Church

Only after the turn of the century (1900) did Swedish congregations emerge in Ceresco on the south edge of Saunders county. In both the case of the Lutheran and Mission churches, the persons who made up the charter membership of the Ceresco churches were in the larger part former members at Swedeburg. The Swedeburg Mission church contributed fifty members to Ceresco in 1906 and the Lutheran church seventy-five in 1919. This seemed to evolve in a quite natural way and though it surely weakened the Swedeburg numbers, all four churches survive intact to this day.

The early Mission Friends at Ceresco were few in number, but energetic. They met in the Presbyterian's building and managed to build their own church well ahead of the Lutherans. The well-known Mission pastor, P.F. Mostrom no doubt gave impetus to their beginnings by moving down from his former charge at Swedeburg to serve Ceresco. His name, along with Nelsons and Swansons figure in the leadership of that community up to the present time.

Swedeburg Mission Pastor P.F. Moström moved down to Ceresco

Both Lutheran and Mission groups in Ceresco began as outreaches of their older Swedeburg sisters. The Lutherans had in fact purchased property in Ceresco and considered the work a satellite of Swedeburg with Sunday afternoon and evening meetings a couple of times a month. The Swedeburg pastor shared this work at various times with men from Lincoln and with students from Luther Academy. The Lutheran's charter meeting was in the building of an American Synod but they were fortunate to receive the property Swedeburg had procured and soon built their own Immanuel church.

Swedeburg's Lutherans spawned Ceresco's Immanuel

It is noted that this was the first congregation in the Nebraska conference to keep its records from the outset in the English language. It is also noted that those who preferred to celebrate the sacrament in Swedish were welcome to do so at Swedeburg. This may have indicated that, on the margins, the language question may have pointed some in Ceresco's direction if they preferred English.

The Lutheran's altar at Ceresco endures

About ten miles west of Ceresco, the Lutherans had established a work called Ekeley, Valparaiso. It was also an outreach of Swedeburg and sometimes linked with Lincoln, but never reached viable numbers though it had its own building.

Though it belongs strictly to the Lancaster county story to the south, we mention a site just southeast of Ceresco called Asplund. From this small cemetery one can see Ceresco. Whether a Free Mission building occupied the site as well, we do not know. There was a congregation of some kind at this location and the markers indicate both Swedish and Danish surnames.

Asplund cemetary, but now we are into Lancaster county and a new story yet to come.

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