If you left the Prairie Cemetery, take a trip back in your mind. Wander around the grounds looking for archeological clues—clues as to where the church building—Den Swenska Evangeliska Lutherska Gustafwa stood from 1885 to 1931.
Oh it was there alright at one time. Gustafva was one of two Swedish Lutheran churches the early Swedish pioneers built in Compton Township, Otter Tail County, Minnesota. There was a bit of a disagreement as to the whereabouts of the new church and that’s why the community ended up with two—Gustafva in section ten and Svenska Evangeliska Lutherska i Compton in section twenty.
Travel from section twenty, where a number of Swedish families were homesteading, up to section ten for church would have been by my calculations four to six miles. Now given that the roads were rough, the weather often bad, and South Bluff Creek had to be crossed the mere act of getting to church was most likely difficult most of time. Having a church nearby would be an eventual necessity for the section twenty families. Much easier to move one pastor between two churches than to move a whole group of people.
The Compton church dilemma reminds me of the story my friend Marilyn at the Carver County Historical Society told me about the East Union Lutheran Church and the West Union Lutheran Church. The congregations are a little over five miles apart but five miles during pioneer times was nothing like the bike ride it is now. No paved roads. No bridges. No snow removal. The early pioneers in West Union had trouble crossing Beven’s Creek when it was high. A group broke off from East Union to form a congregation closer and safer to home.
Back in Compton Township, early Scottish pioneer Mrs. James Strang writes about crossing Oak Creek from section ten to get into Wadena on Fourth of July some time in the 1870’s. She writes,
The country was flooded with so much rain. We had the oxen…when we got to the creek, it was up over the fields. We had to wade into the poles across the creek, the men carrying the children over first. The creek was rampant…the men tackled the oxen but they got caught by the horns of the second team and they had a hard time getting them out. The wagon was swept down the creek; lunches and all got wet through (page 180 Compton Township History).
Although Scottish, Mrs. Strang has a connection to Gustafva. According to her recollections, she and her husband arrived in Compton Township in June of 1873 staying their first night with Nels Rolen. Nels was a Swede and the man along with his wife Ingard who sold a bit of land –about two acres for $5 in 1880—for what would become the Gustafva church and cemetery.
Now also in 1880, a man of the Lutheran cloth, one J.P. Lundblad out of Parker’s Prairie, enters into the story. Hard to know what came first—the missionary or the land. But at some point Lundblad began a confirmation class in the Robb School House at the lower end of section 11 near section 14. The schoolhouse was built in 1877 on what looks like James Robb’s land but it could have been Thomas Robb’s land. At any rate, the Robbs came from Scotland too and were neighbors to the Strangs.
The Johnson twins down in section twenty, Swan and Peter, had a younger sister Emma who was confirmed in this first class with J.P. Lundblad. The next year Swan’s future wife and my great grandmother, Beda Anderson, was confirmed. Swan and Pete didn’t seem to make it into either class.
At any rate after Nels Rolen sold the land, the community needed it first for a cemetery times being what they were. So by the time Charles Veden of section four was keeping his church building dairy in 1885, the cemetery had sixteen graves in it. The cemetery alone appears on the 1884 Plat Map of Compton Township.
Veden writes, which in itself is interesting because most Swedes at this time did not, about the “very cold Northwest winds” he encountered during the early days of the church which makes the grove of trees in the cemetery sensible even if they look to be too young to have seen the early days of this place . At any rate, the church structure was 12 by 20 feet and made out of log and sat “along the current highway 29” (page 31 Compton Township History). I found a pole tarp on the internet measuring 12 by 20. It looked like something you might park your car or fishing boat under. Not a big structure by our standards by any means.
Charles Veden reports the first meeting at the church occurred on August 21, 1885 with a Pastor Olson preaching. Who knows how many Swedes squeezed into the church on a possibly hot and humid Minnesota August day. Twenty-six years later in April of 1911, the congregation (församling in Swedish) filed with the State of Minnesota to transfer the Gustafva property to the Compton church and the two congregations merged. The log church structure was moved in 1931 and no more is known about its history. What remains is the cemetery with all its secrets and stories and a primitive monument to the early Swedish pioneers.
Compton Township History Ottertail County Minnesota: 1875-2001.
U.S. Federal Census of 1880/Minnesota/OtterTail County/Compton Township. Accessed through Heritage Quest on April 15, 2015.
Kyrko Bok fon Svenska Evangeliska Lutherska Compton Forsamlingen. Swedish American Church Archives, 3-240.
U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records. www.glorecords.blm.gov. Assessed on April 1, 2015.