The end of the Civil War in 1865, coupled with the passage of the Homestead Act three years prior, meant a time of population growth for the western United States.
Rural Burt and Washington counties were no exception. When Nebraska was granted statehood in 1867, many European immigrants, as well as Civil War veterans, came to the area to take up homesteads and begin new communities.
One of these communities developed south of Craig and took the name Alder Grove. The name was chosen because of a large stand of alder trees growing there.
The influx of settlers also meant your neighbor was somebody you’d likely never met and maybe was from a different state than you—which could be an important consideration in the months and years after the Civil War. Church fellowship was seen as a way to develop confidence in each other.
In late 1868, a camp meeting was held that was attended by Methodists from all over Burt County.
Then in the spring of 1869, a congregation at Alder Grove was organized under the leadership of a Methodist preacher, Rev. Fletcher B. Pitzer. A history of the area compiled by Russell Lang says Pitzer rode 20 miles on horseback over largely unbroken prairie from his home in the Arizona community northeast of Tekamah to serve his new congregation. That church, Alder Grove United Methodist, is believed to be the oldest rural church in the state that has held services continuously since it was organized.
On Sept. 22, 2019, a special celebration will mark the church’s 150th anniversary. The regular church service will be held at 10 a.m. followed by a catered lunch. A program recognizing the last 150 years will begin at 1 p.m.
Organizers say anyone and everyone is welcome to attend any, or all, of the day’s activities. The church is located six miles south of Craig on County Road 21. Elkhorn Valley District Superintendent Rev. Chad Anglemyer will preach at the service. Reservations for lunch are appreciated and can be made by calling Mary Loftis at 402-377-2826; or e-mailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Loftis said the afternoon program will include a skit called, “How it Might Have Been,” regarding the beginnings of the church, a real history of the church, as well as greetings from former pastors, a variety of music and other attractions.
Pastor Gregg Gahan, who leads the flock, called the building a quaint country church.
What has kept the place alive for a century and a half, he said, is its “very committed congregation.”
When the church was founded, not all of its original congregants were Methodists. But since the church was organized by a Methodist minister, the church followed that denomination and their Christian neighbors joined them to worship together. Services generally were held in private homes until a church building was constructed in 1880. The building is still in use today. An addition for Sunday school classes was built on in 1936. In 1948, the kitchen from the Admah church in Washington County was purchased and added on the Alder Grove building. New pews were installed in 1955 and the floors in the sanctuary and the Sunday school were refinished.
Over the summer, the entryway was refurbished.
Longtime member Joan Price said windows in the belfry above the main entrance had “leaked for about 150 years.” Those windows were removed over the summer and the belfry enclosed.
Price called that kind of work typical for the church’s congregation who have worked together through the years to make the church a staple in people’s lives.
But declining membership as families moved off the surrounding farms led the church to make some structural changes.
In 1982, the Craig Methodist and Craig Presbyterian churches yoked with Alder Grove to share a pastor. The yoke remains in place—all three buildings are maintained and Sunday services are rotated monthly between the three churches.
Although the two church buildings inside the village enjoy more modern conveniences, conditions are a little more Spartan at Alder Grove. The church isn’t air conditioned and each of the rooms has its own heater.
Oh by the way, there is no running water. Parishioners bring any needed water with them and, in an image from the past, there’s an outhouse out back.
Price, who is now 88, said the place isn’t a lot different than when she was a little girl.
“I’ve spent my whole life in the that church,” she said last week.
She was baptized there, took Sunday school and Bible school classes there, and later taught those same classes as her four children were growing up.
As a young married mother, Price lived on a farm about 1.5 miles from the church.
“Bob (her husband) would milk the cows, then we’d all go to church,” she said. “It’s just what you did.”
Price said she got some important advice from Rose Wagner. The last of the early pioneers, Wagner died in 1979 at the age of 93.
“She told me your home church is where you raise your children,” Price said. “I’ve never forgotten that.”
Believed to be the most senior member of the church, Price now is looked upon for sage wisdom.
Now a resident at Oakland Heights, Price said she plans on attending the celebration.
“Oh yes,” she said. “We’re all looking forward to it.”