ASHTON – German farm wives in bonnets and floor-length dresses climb into horse-drawn wagons. The sound of galloping hooves, and the smell of dust, fills the air as they journey through rural Lee County with their families.
It is the Sabbath – time for church.
One and a half centuries later, families still travel every Sunday to the white church on Reynolds Road. However, they are more likely to arrive in trucks and wear jeans and T-shirts.
The Rev. Alan Meyer and his congregation plan an elaborate celebration next month to mark the 150th anniversary of Reynolds United Methodist Church.
Cindy Knight, 49, of Ashton, is chairwoman for events and fundraisers.
“This is a huge milestone for any church,” she said, “much less a small rural church like ours, located out in the country with no town or city population to support it.”
‘We’re going back in time’
The Civil War was raging when the church started in 1864.
The history of his church amazes Meyer, 62, who has pastored there for 7 years. He and his wife, Linda, live next door in a parsonage that is nearly as old as the church.
“So you think back, and you say, ‘Abraham Lincoln? Holy cow, we’re going back in time,’” he said. “It’s amazing to me to realize that from President Lincoln to today, all that we have seen in history has been phenomenal.”
Kathy Clark, 150th anniversary chairwoman, agreed. She has researched the period for the coming celebration.
“We can’t even imagine what was going on at that time,” the 67-year-old Franklin Grove woman said.
Meyer, Knight and Clark shared information about the history that they gleaned from records and stories passed down through generations. An article by Karen Holt also provided details from the website of the Genealogy Trails History Group.
Founders were members of the Evangelical Church – people of German descent. Circuit riders, or traveling preachers, conducted services entirely in German.
Meeting minutes from early church councils and trustees are difficult to understand, Meyer said. “Everything is written in German.”
In the 1800s, church was an all-day affair, Meyer said. Sermons alone lasted hours. Knight imagines that, in a time with no motor vehicles and few social activities, members wanted to make the trip “worth their while.”
They gathered at a schoolhouse called Weiner School. Construction began in 1871 to transform the building into Emmanuel Church.
Men and women used separate entrances, Meyer said. Women and children used a smaller side entrance, where a bathroom once existed, while men used the main entrance.
Men and women also sat separately in the sanctuary, Meyer said. Seating assignment labels, now ignored, remain on some pews.
“It was a whole different time,” Knight said.
‘One of the most beautiful structures’
The church has seen many changes throughout its history.
Leaders changed the name a couple of times after denominational mergers in the ’40s and ’60s. Before it was a United Methodist Church, it was Reynolds Evangelical United Brethren Church.
In addition, workers have renovated and added to the building over the years. However, the original foundation and many original features remain.
A wooden cabinet in the foyer displays two antique German Bibles that are no longer used. The yellowed page of one showed its publication date –1872.
Also inside are original offering plates, vases, handcrafted communion sets, and other memorabilia.
“It’s really exciting what they have saved over the years,” Clark said. “… It’s like living history.”
Members have maintained the sanctuary’s original hardwood floors, pews, and colorful stained-glass windows.
“The windows are absolutely magnificent,” Meyer observed.
One of his favorite artifacts hangs in the bell tower. Few have been inside, he said.
In April, he agreed to show it to a Sauk Valley Media reporter and photographer.
He opened a door in the ceiling and led the way up two ladders into the darkness. After a long, steep hike, he shined his cellphone on the large American bell with two clappers. He wiped away the dust to reveal the inscribed date – 1899.
Markings reveal that one of the clappers came from Germany. Meyer assumes the flywheel was crafted by a skilled wagon maker.
“It’s one of the most beautiful structures I’ve ever seen built for a bell,” he said.
The bell still rings every time a member of the congregation passes away.
The youth and family room, one of the oldest rooms in the building, shows how times have changed. Today, it houses a flat-screen television, Nintendo Wii, leather sofas, a popcorn popper, gaming tables, and other modern items.
‘A very warm and welcoming church’
People, however, do not go to Reynolds for its history. Meyer, Knight and Clark all agree – they come for one another.
“It’s a very warm and welcoming church,” Clark said.
Knight added, “People are willing to drive for that feeling these days.”
And they do.
Families come from all over – Ashton, Dixon, Franklin Grove, Chana, Rochelle, Lee, Creston, Paw Paw, Amboy, Steward, West Brooklyn, and other towns in Lee and Ogle counties.
Average attendance is 90 to 100 people on Sundays.
Knight has attended Reynolds since birth. She is among the third generation in her family to worship there.
“It’s very much home,” she said. “I’m just so thankful for the foundation I received there.”
Her children, Megan, 19, and Walter, 14, make up the fourth generation. Both were confirmed and baptized in the church.
Years ago, farm folk made up the congregation, Knight said, but the church is growing more diverse. While Reynolds still reaches the agricultural community, people from all walks of life attend.
Lately, more young families are coming, Meyer said. The church is full of children.
The congregation does not expect people to dress up for services. Farmers often come right out of the fields, Meyer said.
“Come as you are,” he said. “We don’t care. We’re just glad you’re here.”
Meyer, an Army veteran who served overseas, always plans patriotic services for Veterans Day and Memorial Day. Church members also send care packages and letters to three members of the congregation who serve.
The church offers many groups and ministries for children, youth, men, women, young adults, and older adults. And the members help people in need.
“As God has loved us and forgiven us, that’s what I want them to do,” Meyer said. “And they have really risen to the occasion.”
Celebration with music
The people of Reynolds UMC welcome everyone to their anniversary celebration.
The party will start at 4 p.m. June 21 at Centennial Farm, across the road from the church. The farm’s owners have attended Reynolds for more than 100 years.
Guests will enjoy grilled butterfly pork chop sandwiches provided by Lee County Pork Producers, homemade ice cream, and live music by Burn N’ Bush, a local acoustic band.
The church will sell tickets for the meal. People can buy them in advance or upon arrival. The cost has not been determined.
The Martins, a famous Grammy-nominated Christian group, will perform from 7 to 9 p.m.
“That’s huge,” Knight said. “Our pastor has really good connections.”
The church will collect an offering for the group.
The celebration also will include a “Kids Zone” with inflatables and other activities. The pastor will ride in on a horse, dressed as a circuit-riding preacher from the 1800s.
Cookbooks, memorial pavers, Christmas ornaments, and T-shirts will be sold. Shirts will promote the theme, “Our past has been golden, but our future’s so bright, we ‘gotta’ wear shades!” Church folk will hand out sunglasses to complete the look.
The celebration will continue with worship at 10 a.m. June 22, featuring The Martins once more. Lunch will be served after the service. Historical items will be displayed.
Meyer looks forward to celebrating with his community and congregation.
“I’m very humbled and very honored to be a part of their history,” he said. “They are remarkable, loving people.”
About the church
Worship services are at 10 a.m. Sundays at the church, 2496 Reynolds Road.
The youth and family room is open to the community, free of charge. To book a birthday party or event, call the church at 815-453-2513.
For more information about Reynolds United Methodist Church, go to reynoldsumc.net or find “Reynolds Church Ashton, IL” on Facebook.