SPRING GREEN – The blaze brought firefighters from around the region, created a spectacular early morning glow and destroyed a 147-year-old building on the west end of this village’s downtown.
On Thursday of last week, an excavator took down what was left of the historic structure at Monroe and North Lexington streets and pulled the charred, but intact, cast iron bell from its ruins. In fact, when Carl Oman gently lowered the bell to the ground, its striker struck and revealed that the bell had retained its sound.
Like the bell, made from a mold by the Cincinnati Bell Foundry decades ago, Cornerstone Church remains intact.
“It wasn’t just a building, it was a mold for us as a congregation,” said Derek Miller, the church’s pastor since 1999. “But that is not the church. When that is peeled away, you see what you have.”
And for that, Miller is thankful.
His congregation of about 65 people was stunned by the destruction from the fire Nov. 14 but has vowed to move forward, rebuild and continue to do God’s work that includes not only ministering to this Sauk County community of 1,900 but doing missionary work around the world in places like Haiti, Romania and Central America.
Services for the non-denominational church are temporarily being held at the nearby St. John The Evangelist Catholic Church.
“As a congregation, we’re of two minds. One, God’s always taken care of us and this is another opportunity to see his hand bring beauty out of ashes,” said John Crooks, a member who stopped by the church Thursday to take photos. “There’s also a historical value to the church. It’s not just us that’s mourning the loss of a possession. It’s the entire community.”
According to history documented in “The First Hundred Years, 1857-1957, Spring Green’s Official Centennial Booklet,” the church building was constructed in 1868 by the First Congregational Church, which formed the village’s first church in 1856.
The Welsh Congregational Church merged with the First Congregationalists in 1898 and in 1901, the Welsh church building, constructed in 1856, was moved to the First Congregational Church to create the church’s north wing. A basement was added to the entire church structure in 1924.
The Congregationalists, who also owned the historic “White School,” built next door in 1877, had considered removing the church and the school from the block to build a new church facility but instead chose to build in another location in the village. That opened the door for Cornerstone in 2003 to buy the church.
Eric Ferguson, a commercial photographer, bought the old school building for studio space and is in the process of creating a commercial kitchen in the building, which served as the community’s first high school and still has its original flooring and chalkboards.
“It’s a beautiful building,” Ferguson said of his historic structure that held its last classes in 1984. “I’m going to miss the one next door. They made a beautiful pair. It was just a pretty church.”
The investigation into the fire that caused between $600,000 and $900,000 in damage has not been completed but the blaze does not appear to be suspicious, said Kevin Wilkins, Spring Green’s police chief. Investigators have included those from the state Division of Criminal Investigation, Sauk County Sheriff’s Office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
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“Everyone in this community in some way, shape or form has had some sort of impact from this church,” Wilkins said. “It hurts, but the church will come back stronger.”
Unfortunately, Spring Green has had its share of church fires. The Cornerstone is the latest but two other churches burned on what is referred to as “the church block.”
On New Year’s Eve, just hours before the arrival of 1940, an overheated furnace led to a fire that destroyed the Methodist Church building, located behind what was then the First Congregational Church. The congregation chose not to rebuild and the land was sold a few years later to St. John The Evangelist Catholic Church, which built an elementary school on the property in 1949.
The school remains open but the neighboring Catholic church building was destroyed by fire in 1988. The church, which will celebrate 150 years in 2016, was founded on the block in 1866 in a small white chapel but a large brick church was constructed next door in 1900 for just over $8,000. After the fire, a new church facility opened in 1990 a block away on Daley Street.
But Cornerstone has no plans to leave the block and wants to rebuild. Ideally, Miller would like to break ground in the spring and hold the first service in the new church building by Thanksgiving 2016.
Miller, who grew up on a wheat farm in northeastern Montana, went to college at Michigan State University for a time before finishing his schooling at UW-Madison where he focused on religious studies.
Miller, 53, did not go to a seminary and lived in Madison after college where he worked in the computer industry and had his consulting business. In 2013, he took a job with Madison Gas & Electric where he is an analyst.
In 1999, Miller, who had been involved with a now-defunct Cornerstone Church in Madison, began planting the church in Spring Green with initial meetings held in the library and other spaces throughout the community.
Eight months later, after selling his house in Madison, Miller and his family moved to Spring Green.
In addition to his day job and church work, Miller is the assistant chief of Spring Green EMS and is busy with rehearsals with the River Valley Players for the upcoming production of “Christmas in the Valley” in which he sings bass.
“He’s probably the most charismatic leader in this community,” said Linda Schwanke, editor of the Home News, Spring Green’s weekly newspaper. “He’s just pure goodness.”
When the fire broke out Nov. 14 at his church, Miller and his wife, Debra, were staying with friends in Dousman, south of Oconomowoc, and they did not get to bed until after midnight. Miller’s phone began to buzz at about 2:30 a.m.
“I thought I was having a horrible dream,” Miller said. “I was horrified.”
By the time they arrived in Spring Green around 4:30 a.m., the fire was mostly extinguished, the building was destroyed but no one was injured. Days after the fire, Miller has found strength and encouragement from his faith.
“We need to say thank you to the Lord for what He gave us here and we need to walk forward, we need to go toward what He has for us in the future,” Miller said. “He is faithful and His purposes are not lost and not harmed in anyway.”