By Laura (Abernathy) Huffman
The Population 91 team returned to the battlefield mid-morning of Sunday, September 24, 2017. At the entrance of Fort Davidson State Historic Site we turned the opposite direction, north, towards Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession at the corner of Pine and Ziegler streets in Pilot Knob.
August Gockel’s Dream
The frame building has been an Arcadia Valley landmark since 1864. In January of that year Pilot Knob Iron Company deeded lots 7 & 8 in Pilot Knob city block 17 to August Gockel, David Weiss, and William Schweider, as trustees, on condition that the land “be used forever and afterward as church property only.”
Gockel, a carpenter and cabinet maker, was one huge step closer to his vision of having a Lutheran church in his community. Three years prior Gockel had asked Johann Buenger, his former pastor in Saint Louis, to come preach in his adopted home community of Pilot Knob. The church was organized that same year, 1861, and the congregation grew quickly. Before the land gift from Pilot Knob Iron Company the church members had held services at members homes. After the land donation Gockel began designing and building the congregation’s permanent home. With war drifting around him he labored to complete his dream.
In September, shortly after the church was completed, the Civil War came closer to Pilot Knob and Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church than Gockel and the rest of the congregation probably could have ever imagined.
THE BATTLE OF PILOT KNOB
Confederate States of America General Sterling Price, a Missouri native and former Governor, had set his sights on capturing Jefferson City instead of Saint Louis. Fort Davidson’s ammunition and supplies, protected by less than a thousand Union soldiers was a temptation that Price couldn’t resist. A portion of his almost 10,000 men force were not battle tested. Fort Davidson, in theory, was easy pickings. In a battle that has been compared to Thermopylae because of the extreme unbalance of size of fighting forces, Price made his ill-fated move. In twenty minutes 1,000 officers and soldiers were killed or wounded scattered throughout the fort and on the battlefield. Eventually the Confederates withdrew and the Union evacuated the fort in the middle of the night, threading their way between two enemy camps towards safety.
The wounded still needed attention. The war came to the church’s front door. Literally.
After we entered the sanctuary of the church, docent Polly Hollie, the congregation’s oldest member, explained to us that in 1864, the church’s front doors, still new that September, had been taken from their hinges and used as operating tables while the building served as a battlefield hospital for the Union troops. The spry 93 year old continued relaying to us that the twelve pews, handcrafted by Gockel just months before the battle had been placed into each other to form makeshift hospital beds. Mrs. Hollie toured us through the sanctuary pointing out that the majority of furnishings were original and had been made by Gockel himself. The altar, also designed and constructed by Gockel is in two levels representing both the old and new testaments of the Bible. The white and gold trimmed pulpit itself is hexagonal and is reached by a short stairway ornamented with balusters. The church doors still use the original lock and key that was installed by Gockel in 1864.
THE POTATO BELL
While in the sanctuary Hollie pointed out the original brass chandeliers and wall sconces. My eyes were drawn to the thick coiled ropes that were gathered on both sides of the doors. Hollie explained that one rope is to ring the bell and the other is to toll the bell. She told us that her mother called the tolling bell the potato bell. A family member would stay at home during services to prepare the family’s meal. When the tolling bell was sounded the cooks knew that it was time to peel and boil the potatoes. Hollie graciously offered to let us have a turn at ringing the bell. I jumped at the offer. Christian Lancaster, one of the church’s caretakers, explained the correct technique as I struggled at first. The bell, invisible from the sanctuary, is heavy! It was manufactured by H. Stuckstede Company of Saint Louis and installed at the church in 1887.
Next, we were led to the two rooms that had originally served as the living quarters for the pastor and his family. Hollie explained to us that the rooms mainly served as sleeping quarters. The congregation’s families took turns feeding the pastor and his family. They would take their meals with the same family for a month and the month following a different congregation family would provide for the pastor’s family. My peaceful image of the pastor’s family sleeping soundly in the cozy room was startled when Hollie pointed out the dark spots on the wooden floor. She explained that the floor was stained by the blood of the soldiers who had been tended to after the Battle of Pilot Knob. She then had me lift a trap door in the corner of the room. The door was heavy and didn’t open easily. I peered down at the rock foundation and dirt floor of the church. Hollie told me the story of an African American who was injured during the battle being hid in this dark space. Although I am not claustrophobic, I broke out in a cold sweat imagining the terror that citizen soldier must have experienced.
Mrs. Hollie bowed out of the rest of our tour as the next destination involved a steep flight of narrow stairs. Lancaster, the caretaker that we had met in the sanctuary took over and led us up the steps into the schoolroom. The schoolroom, like the rest of the church building, is a time capsule. When you enter the room you can almost picture the students at their desks, dipping their pens into the inkwells, and tugging on ponytails in front of them when the teacher wasn’t looking. The windows still invite daydreaming. The classroom is still furnished with the original blackboard, books, and learning tools to improve math skills. Lancaster proudly showed us a surviving report card that he had carefully placed in a frame for protection. The grades were reported in a numerical fashion rather than the A, B, C format that is mainly used today.
Lancaster is the face of the next generation of caretakers of the church and its history. It could be a heavy weight or a burdensome trouble for most 34 year old men. Lancaster, however, speaks honestly, passionately, and knowledgeably about the church and its past. Its history intertwines with his own family history and the church and its congregation are an extended family. He fondly told a story of Polly Hollie pressing him into service as organist one Sunday and then followed it up by explaining that he still plays the organ at this church and at nearby Fredericktown.
THE 19TH CENTURY ORGANS
The organs at Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church may very well be Lancaster’s pride and joy. As we went back down the stairwell into the room that has served as pastor’s quarters and Sunday School and is now the museum, he pointed out the original reed organ. In the sanctuary is the organ, hand carved from oak, that the church acquired in 1889. This organ has been electrified but the hand pump is still operable. Christian showed us the chairs tucked in the corners behind the organ. Taking turns each service church boys would have stationed themselves in the chairs to pump the bellows at the organist’s cue. The organ is a beautiful piece of 19th century craftsmanship. The visible pipes are not pipes at all. They were each hand carved by a skilled woodworker and then painted to resemble pipes. This organ was purchased for $1,000 and traveled from Salem, Ohio to its new home in Pilot Knob. Lancaster explained that the organ is in need of repairs- repairs that will cost in the neighborhood of $10,000. He then described how the organ sounded in his youth. The moment must have transported him back to a wonderful memory. A smile and a serene look crossed his face when he described the tones and the beautiful music that the organ used to make. I sincerely hope that Lancaster and his generation aren’t the last to hear this beautiful instrument. A fund has been established to make the necessary repairs but the congregation is small.
Meeting Polly Hollie, Christian Lancaster, and getting to know the Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church and its enduring history and congregation was a highlight of our weekend in Arcadia Valley. Pieces of America’s history, places that matter, are tucked away in plain sight in our rural spaces, waiting for someone to “rediscover” them and to tell their story. This church and its people are a fine example of not so famous historical gems.
As we said our goodbyes I pressed a small donation for the repair of the organ into Lancaster’s hand. He was genuinely grateful. So was I.
See more of our images from Immanuel Lutheran Church at Pilot Knob, Missouri on our Facebook page.
Services are still held at Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession at Pilot Knob in Arcadia Valley at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings. Donations of any size for the repair of the 1889 organ can be mailed to 701 North Ziegler Street, Pilot Knob, MO 63663. The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
For more ideas on things to see and do in Arcadia Valley, including lodging and dining options visit Arcadia Valley Chamber of Commerce.