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Wis. man's family has deep roots in Goodhue County

"I've learned that people come up here to meditate and be alone with God. And that's just fine with me," says Orland Chandler, the great-great grandson of Samuel Poole Chandler, who helped build the Chapel Hill church in Belle Creek in 1871.

BELLE CREEK — Orland Chandler went in search of his family's history and ended up buying a church.

Chandler, of Wauwatosa, Wis., was researching his great-great grandfather, Samuel Poole Chandler, when he discovered that Samuel not only farmed two 80-acre plots in Belle Creek Township but also was a circuit pastor.

When Chandler came to Belle Creek in 1984, hoping to find his great-great grandfather's tombstone, he was surprised to learn that a church Samuel had helped build was still standing. The church, located south of Belle Creek on Goodhue County Road 8, was built in 1871 and dedicated in 1873.

Samuel preached to area Methodist congregations, including those at Hader and Kenyon. Since his church was the only one in the area at the time, Samuel welcomed Catholic and Lutheran pioneers to worship there as well.

Stone house


In addition to the church, Chandler discovered that the house Samuel had built and lived in with his wife, Martha, also still was standing. Martha became ill during the winter of 1855 shortly after they moved in. She died in the spring of 1856.

Samuel's second wife, Betsy, a widow who was introduced to him while he attended a Methodist ministers' convention, moved into the home with her six children, along with Samuel and his six children. The couple had seven more children.

The stone house was built in 1855 by Chandler and is the oldest standing house in Goodhue County. It has been renovated by a couple from the Twin Cities, who are using it as a summer home.

"I looked at that house, and I loved what I saw," Chandler said. "And my head swelled with pride when I learned that Samuel had built the church and cemetery."

When Chandler climbed the long, steep hill to the church for the first time, the grounds were so overgrown with trees and brush that he couldn't see the church or cemetery. A fire had been set inside the church, and vandals had broken the doors and windows. There also were holes in the roof where raccoons had chewed their way in.

Despite the condition of the building, Chandler said a sense of peace settled over him during that first visit

"Kids built a fire in there and left," Chandler said. "It burned a huge hole in the old wooden floor, but amazingly it went out. Tell me if that wasn't divine intervention!"

'His presence is in this place'


He decided that someday he would own the church and the land surrounding it. Renovating it would be a way to honor his great-great grandfather, and it could become a place where others could visit and find the same serenity he experienced.

"God doesn't need a presentation from me. Everything here witnesses to his existence — the animals, the birds and the trees," Chandler said. "His presence is in this place."

Chandler learned that Samuel's family was of Puritan descent and had come to the United States from Sweden. They settled in Maine and later moved to Illinois before moving to the Minnesota Territory. Samuel was a Methodist minister for 20 years, but he had a political falling out with the church's hierarchy. He attained schooling to become an Episcopal minister, and eventually became an Episcopal priest.

When he developed heart problems in 1888, Samuel deeded the church to the Episcopal Church. The building was not to be sold after his death, or used for anything other than a church. Samuel died on Oct. 11, 1888. In 1951, the last burial took place in the church cemetery and it ceased to be a regular operating church. Seven civil war soldiers, including Samuel's stepson, James Schwieger, are buried there.

Sometime in the 1960s, the church was sold and the furniture moved to a new church in South St. Paul.

After his first visit, Chandler tracked down the church's owners and asked to purchase it. The couple lived in the Twin Cities and were not willing to sell it. Each year, Chandler contacted them by letter and made an offer.

Ten years passed. The man died, and Chandler visited his wife. She finally agreed to sell the church and land for a minimal price. The church was set up as a nonprofit, historical, educational trust.

Several years later, Chandler's wife bought the hill in front of the church as an anniversary present for him. Each summer, he lives in a camper and works at the church site. He has cleared the church yard of brush, repainted the building and installed a new roof. The lawn is mowed and the cemetery is accessible to the public. Flags fly on the Civil War soldiers' graves. New pews, fashioned after an original pew that was left at the church, were built by the late Donald Benrud, of Goodhue. Chandler attained the original bishop's chair, his great-great grandfather's chair, the pump organ, and the hymn number rack when the South St. Paul church disbanded.


Pioneer Day

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

How much: Free.

What: Commemoration for the Civil War soldiers buried at the site, spinning and weaving demonstrations, candle making, rope making, a log preparation demonstration, people dressed in historical costumes who will discuss the church’s history, and paintings by Gayle Dahl, of Byron. The day will conclude with a hymn sing at 4 p.m.

Getting there

From U.S. Highway 52, turn east onto County Road 9. Then turn north onto County Road 8 to 370th Street. The church is on the right hand side.


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