One website calls The Little Brown Church in the Vale a roadside oddity. I call it a surprising stop. Ruth & I were traveling up the The Avenue of the Saints between St. Louis and St. Paul when I noticed on a map that we were nearing the Iowa town of Nashua. The Little Brown Church in the Vale was on that old map too. I had never heard of it, but Ruth, who has a rural Christian background, began singing the song. We decided to check it out and found a rather charming story with a couple of coincidences as a result.
Nashua seemed to be just another small town of about 1,500 people that the modern world is rapidly bypassing. The little brown church was a couple of miles east of it. A storm was brewing. My second surprise in the church was the number of tourists who had signed its guest book. My first was that the church was opened.
Here’s the story of The Little Brown Church in the Vale. William Pitts was on his way from Wisconsin to Iowa to see his bride-to-be when his stagecoach passed through the little town that was to become Nashua. The 1st settlement in this area that wasn’t Native American, Nashua has had 3 names. Imagining a little church in this town, Pitts wrote a song called “The Church in the Wildwood”, put that song in a drawer, and forgot about it. While Abraham Lincoln was President, a minister in the town of Bradford, which was Nashua’s name at the time, began building a church. Because the Civil War was on and white paint was unavailable, The Reverend John Nutting had his church painted brown. When a school was to be added to the church, a music teacher was needed. William Pitts got the job and remembered his song in the drawer. At the church’s dedication, his song was sung for the 1st time and sold to a Chicago publisher for $25.
A few years later a local quartet known as the Weatherwax Brothers began using it as their theme song, the brown church began receiving visitors, and the song began to be sung regularly. Dolly Parton was among the famous singers who recorded it. Pitts song became frequently sung in church services, and it became associated with weddings. According to a brochure I found in the still-brown building, “by 2014, over 73,800 couples had repeated their wedding vows at the church”. It had become tradition for each couple to ring the church bell and another tradition began, annual marriage reunions in August. Weddings at the little brown church are another ongoing tradition.
While I looked around, teacher Ruth found an old Berenstain Bears book in which the family sings the song William Pitts composed. She sang it again for me, and we went outside to check out the garden, sculptures, and bell behind the church. As we headed back through Nashua, the storm finally broke over Cedar Lake. We had been lucky that it waited until we had seen the Little Brown Church in the Vale.