A Memorial Day service at an old country church will stir your soul as much as it will fill your heart

JEFFERSON, Iowa, May 26, 2015 — If you participate in the Memorial Day weekend service at old Pleasant Hill Church — one of the most historic spots in our Greene County — you’ll find that the history, the tradition and the gratitude present there are all moving beyond words. 

Located on wooded hills about five miles southeast of Jefferson, the Pleasant Hill Church & Cemetery have roots to 1873 when Methodist classes were started.  The church structure was started in 1881, and it has been kept in more-or-less good repair ever since, even though there hasn’t been an active congregation using the church for decades.  The neighbors have formed a non-profit organization to sustain it. 

For 60 or 70 years, a service on Memorial Day weekend has been held.  There are prayers, reflections, hymn singing and, for at least 50 years, Greene County native Wallace Teagarden has stood to recite the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution and the Gettysburg Address.  He does that from memory, without notes, and he continues to do those with eloquence and passion rarely heard in public anymore.   For many years, the service was followed immediately by a fantastic potluck dinner, some of it prepared on-site, but as someone said Sunday, nobody really wants to work that hard nowadays.

This year, retired pastor Rev. Steven Harberts, who is married to one of the Coon sisters who grew up around Pleasant Hill Church, gave the invocation and benediction.  Another Coon cousin, Diane Stewart, played piano for the hymn sing.  Yet another Coon cousin, Dave Coon, was doorman.

And Gina Coon Harrington, one of those sisters, read a wonderful reflection about growing up in the Pleasant Hill Church community.  She allowed us to share it here. 

“The words of the poet Elizabeth Akers Allen seemed perfect for this day,” she began, and then recited this:

Backward, turn backward, O Time,
In Your flight,
Make me a child again,
Just for tonight!

“Memories of childhood come to life as soon as I walk through these doors,” Harrington said. “The excitement of the day – hoping for the day that I would be old enough to sit behind the table and host the guest book, like my sisters had all done; the old-time religious service with the wonderful resonating singing and piano; the old swing-gate banging shut at the top of the basement stairs; the throne-like chairs behind the altar; the burgeoning jars and vases of peonies, iris and ferns at the base of the altar, waiting to be carried by us children out to the solders’ graves, and Wallace Teagarden’s booming and foreboding voice that scared me, as he recited the Gettysburg Address.

“The pride of seeing my ancestor’s name on one of the stained-glass windows. I belonged. I grew up with Pleasant Hill in my life.”

She said her “Grandma Winnie Coon would host Pleasant Hill Ladies Aid at her house, and my sister and I would gleefully run there after school on that Thursday, to relish eating off a glass tray with the cut-glass cup of punch and some wonderful cake or dessert and – most wonderful of all – the essential, the mandatory, nut cup, filled with peanuts and butter mints and perhaps jelly beans or gum drops or, my least favorite, candy corn. The ladies would all be in dresses, a few wearing pretty little hats, perched on little folding chairs, their purses, then called ‘pocketbooks,’ at their sides, completely lining the walls, all the way around the room,, visiting and chatting with their own glass coffee trays upon their laps. This, I thought, was the kind of club to belong to.

“On Memorial Sunday at Pleasant Hill, I would see those same women working like a hive of bees, lugging great milk cans filled with water and tea to the basement for the enormous potluck dinner, and arranging the vast number of casseroles, roasters and dishes. It was a palate of colors and textures – something Rembrandt would have appreciated – slaws, fluffs, corn custards, homemade cottage cheese, ‘perfection salad’ (which to a small child seemed anything but perfect), grated carrots in orange Jello, bananas in strawberry Jello, pears in lime Jello, fruit cocktail in any kind of Jello, pea salad, sauerkraut salad, baked beans, meat loaves, meat balls, friend chicken, chicken and noodles, ham, scalloped potatoes, bread-and-butter, pickles, cream pies, fruit pies and cakes galore.

“I learned about women’s ingenuity and friendship. My Grandma Coon would make her signature custard pie with all yolks, giving all the egg whites to her best friend and neighbor, Bessie Teagarden, who would would make her signature angel food cake. Strong lifelong friendships were what kept this Pleasant Hill group vital. It wasn’t just coffee and parties. They rushed in and held each other up when sickness or tragedy struck; when a soldier didn’t come home. Without cell phones or Internet, these ladies were vigilant to one another’s needs, and the emergency kit they carried with them always, was their profound Christian faith, love and prayer.

“What a legacy of friendship, service and faith those women and my parents left me. I feel lucky to have had Pleasant Hill in my life.”

Amen.  You’ll catch more of the feeling of the day in the photos and captions below here.

1 People arrive for Memorial weekend service.JPG

People begin arriving at beautiful & historic Pleasant Hill Church, about five miles southeast of Jefferson, in west central Iowa. The church dates to 1881, but it no longer is an active Methodist Church. Nevertheless, folks from the neighborhood maintain the building and grounds, and they still have a Memorial Day weekend service there and decorate the graves in the adjacent cemetery that goes back to pioneer times.

2 Dave Coon hands out programs at Pleasant Hill Church.JPG

Dave Coon, who hails from the Pleasant Hill neighborhood, hands out programs for the church service.

3 Coon sisters at the service.JPG

The Coon sisters, who have roots several generations deep in the area around Pleasant Hill Church, were among the many who organized to carry on the tradition of the Memorial Day weekend service at the beautiful country church. Left to right, they are Gina Harrington, Denise Harberts, Marianne Carlson and Teresa Shahan.

4 Dave Coon rings bell at Pleasant Hill Church CROPPED.JPG

While the crowd in Pleasant Hill Church sang “Church in the Wildwood,” Dave Coon rang the church’s bell during the last verse and chorus.

5 Wallace Teagarden & Gina Harrington in Pledge of Allegiance.JPG

Wallace Teagarden, 92, a native Greene Countian who now lives in Ames, and Gina Coon Harrington, of Jefferson, lead the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. This was just after Teagarden once again did his amazing oration on the Gettysburg Address. He does it without notes — and flawlessly — bringing President Abraham Lincoln’s great speech alive again.

6 Wallace Teagarden at his desk in 2013.jpg

Here’s a better view of Wallace Teagarden, in his home office in Ames a couple years ago. He’s a little “old-school” at 92 — note that telephone and typewriter — but the retired attorney is amazing in his historic recall and appreciation, as well as his forward thinking. He is a major benefactor for good projects in his native Greene County, including the founding gift for the fantastic new Thomas Jefferson Gardens on the courthouse square in Jefferson.

7 A 21-gun salute by Rippey Legion Post.JPG

American Legion post members from nearby Rippey do a 21-gun salute to soldiers who gave their lives in service to the nation, during a Memorial Day weekend service at historic Pleasant Hill Church southeast of Jefferson.

8 Wayne Lautner plays Taps outside church.JPG

Wayne Lautner, of Jefferson, plays taps to conclude the Memorial Day weekend service on Sunday, May 24, at historic Pleasant Hill Church southeast of Jefferson.  To the left is the honor guard from the American Legion post in nearby RIppey.

9 Old stage coach crossing is marked at Pleasant Hill.JPG

The Pleasant Hill Church & Cemetery, southeast of Jefferson, were a landmark for the earliest pioneers coming to, or crossing, Greene County in west central Iowa. On the grounds, there are markers that help you see the stagecoach trail that connected Des Moines and Sioux City between 1850 and 1866. When you look into the woods adjacent to those markers, you can still see the partially-clear path that stagecoaches, wagons and riders used 165 years ago!

10 Grave of Lafayette Pickett, Civil War veteran, at Pleasant Hill Cemetery.JPG

After the Memorial Day weekend service, people decorate graves in Pleasant Hill Cemetery, like this one of Lafayette Pickett, a Civil War veteran who died in 1886.  You can see the star, to the right of the tombstone, that identifies him as a member of the “GAR,” or “Grand Army of the Republic.” That was the veterans organization that was founded after the Civil War by those who had served in the Union military forces.

You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.


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