By Lee Epps
Part two of a series
Throughout the first century of settlement by those of European heritage in southeast Minnesota, the church was a site for community activity, both religious and secular. This was certainly true for rural residents, some distance from villages where there might be larger buildings, such as hotels.
Area historian David Beckman reflects on his experiences at South Ridge Church, a few miles west of La Crescent, during his childhood years until entering college in 1955. Each summer, he eagerly anticipated Vacation Bible School, where the youth were divided into classes by age, much like Sunday School. Most enjoyable were craft sessions, playing games and “lots of singing.”
Least enjoyable for Beckman was the memorization of Bible verses, not a skill he claimed to possess. But he managed well with some assignments, retaining some verses for decades. “The few things I can still recite (at age 85) are the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and few Bible verses – the 23rd Psalm, John 3:16 and the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35, ‘Jesus wept.’”
The major event each summer was the Fourth of July, “when farmers took time off from making first-cut hay to show their patriotism.” This was in the years during and soon after World War II. The church had a potluck picnic at Memorial Hall, a separate church building with a dining room. Water and blocks of ice were put into wash tubs along with free Spring Grove Pop, “making it super cold,” Beckman remembered vividly.
Harvey Boldt would go to Houston and La Crosse for ice cream that was kept cold, even on a hot summer day, inside thick insulated leather cases. It would be served by Boldt in a shady area just outside the door. “I liked to hang out with Harvey,” said Beckman. “To this day, there is still a fond spot in my heart for ice cream cones and Spring Grove Pop – especially the grape!”
Following the picnic, women organized games for the youngsters while the men headed over to a cut hayfield for a softball game. After a few children’s games, the women and children would drive over to watch the men playing softball. Beckman lamented that by the time he was old enough to participate in softball, the men were no longer taking time away from haying.
Another highlight was the annual ice cream social, a Youth Fellowship project, with a lot of help from the adults, especially the minister and his wife. Before ice cream and cake were enjoyed in the downstairs dining room of Memorial Hall, there was program performed by the youth in the upstairs hall.
Lois McElhenny reminisced about being part of an air band. “Elsie Kristie thought we were really playing. I had a clarinet solo and stood up and put on a good show. Afterwards, Elsie said she had no idea I could play so well.”
Beckman recalled being the tenor in a quartet along with lead singer Carlton Bauer, baritone Richard Boldt and bass Charles Evans. “Back in those days, I thought myself a pretty good singer, when in reality, I could barely sing between the lines,” admitted Beckman. “I was by far the smallest and stood on the end next to Carlton, who was at least 6 feet tall. We had decided to sway as we sang ‘Red River Valley.’ Every time the sway came my way, a gasp went through the audience.”
The Youth Fellowship met once a month in Memorial Hall with brief devotions, led by the minister and followed by a business meeting and finally an activity, usually games. Once, there was a progressive dinner party; another time, it was a scavenger hunt. “Can you imagine teenagers today being excited about going on a scavenger hunt,” quipped Beckman in 2022.
The largest events each summer were when three or more area Evangelical United Brethren (E.U.B.) youth groups would come together on a Sunday afternoon for a Youth Rally three or four times each summer. The host fellowship would present a program, which usually included a lot of singing, quite often songs that could be sung as a round. Then there would be a meal served by the women of the host church.
Once when South Ridge hosted a rally, Beckman was the master of ceremonies for the program. “I told a number of corny jokes and did a pantomime I called ‘My First Date,’ which went over quite well because, naturally, I acted like a nerd on his first date.”
During the Christmas season, the youth went caroling, driving to the homes of older people and shut-ins, regardless if they were church members. Most years, they would carol at hospitals in La Crosse. “One year, our car got separated from the others,” said Beckman. “We pulled up in front of the La Crosse hospital, and I hurried inside to see if the others were there.”
Beckman and his cousin Richard Boldt both had the popular storm coats with large fur collars. “As I burst into the entryway,” said Beckman, “I saw Richard in his storm coat bending over, taking off his overshoes. I slapped him on the back and shouted, ‘Richard, we finally found you!’ As he stood up, he said emphatically, ‘I am not Richard!’
“My singing experiences here at the church served me well when I got to high school,” concluded Beckman. “The choir always needed boys, so the call went out from Mr. Sanden. Even though I was playing football at the time, I figured I could make time to join the choir so went down to the music room for a tryout. He said he would press a key on the piano and I should hum the note.
“He pressed the first key and I went ‘ahhh!’ He pressed the second key and I went, ‘ahhh!’ He pressed the third key and I went, ‘ahhh!’ Mr. Sanden looked up at me and with a straight face said, ‘You’re in!’”
Editor’s note: Following denominational mergers, the church today is the South Ridge United Methodist Church.