Heart and Soul Live On
The view outside our kitchen window on the farm where I grew up was of the rolling Wisconsin fields, farmhouses and barns, interspersed with patches of woods. Most striking of all, on the horizon, was a stone country church with a tall steeple, an anchor of inspiration and rustic elegance. St. Martin’s was not our church, and I have never been inside, but I loved its presence and what it said about the persistence and confidence of the German immigrants who built it of limestone from the local quarry in the 1870s. It is in the township of Charlestown, a six-mile square area that is not a town, but a rural area of farms including the village of Hayton with an old mill and its powering river, the town hall, and a few residences. The sentinel church stands in the midst of farms at the crest of the hill above and to the east.
This past week I had an unexpected call from Kathy Reiser of Charlestown, who, it turns out, is as obsessed with history of St. Martin’s as I am with our local history. We had immediate rapport as she told me about the documents she has been bringing to light, including discovering that my great-grandparents were members of the church in 1872. She is active in a non-profit organization set up to manage and preserve St. Martin’s now that the Catholic diocese has divested its interest in the property. The bishop has consolidated all the country church congregations into one larger parish in the nearby town of Chilton.
How inspiring it is to hear how the immediate community came together to create a St. Martin’s heritage park, assuring the appropriate use of the building, and its continued existence as a focus for families in the surrounding area and beyond.
I have visited Chilton many times since my parents moved our family to Arizona when I was 16. Each time I return I am saddened by more losses to the historic features of the town—the steel canopied bridge, the brick grade school building, the bank built of stone on the corner, the old city hall (similar to the Orange County Courthouse) all gone. With Walmarts and strip malls on the outskirts and a deteriorating Main Street, the town exemplifies what has happened to many small communities across our country.
In that context, what is happening at St. Martin’s is even more impressive.
What makes it different? It was the heart and soul of this little corner of Wisconsin countryside, and the connection to the original builders through generations of the same families had to have made a difference. One family writes, “We have all had changes in our lives, but heading back to those grounds on the hill always makes you feel like ‘home’.”
Here in Laguna we have a focal point church, the Presbyterian, right downtown, but our “heart and soul” is more complex. It’s the art colony tradition, as expressed in the cottages and trees depicted by the early artists, the intimacy of the village atmosphere, the beauty and experience of the ocean and coastline, the mountains and greenbelt, the traditional downtown and community buildings, the feel of community and the evidence all around of the generations that have gone before, each making their own contributions to the Laguna we know today.
And in a sense our community is “home” to a much larger community—a touch of traditional small-scale hometown atmosphere for the thousands who live in the great beyond of recently constructed planned communities.
Our generation is just here for a short time, yet our decisions about all these aspects of Laguna determine the palette of our successors. If they never see that cottage that someone now chooses to tear down, their experience of living here will be less vibrant, their perspective less enlivened. Living among our hometown’s historical creations inspires heartfelt dedication to continue the humanistic activism that has been the Laguna tradition.
Former mayor Ann Christoph works as a landscape architect.