It's like a movie, a set piece from a show like The Music Man, set right here in Iowa. Pioneer days, 1865: a steam engine belching a plume so thick you can hike on it pulls a string of cars through eastern Iowa's rolling hills. Aboard a flat car sits a church bell, sturdily strapped to prevent carnage.
That bell attracts a crowd, so whenever the engine blasts out a warning to a town down the pike, people gather to gawk--and listen. A whole crowd of rubber-neckers have heard about that bell, so it's rung in every hamlet.
People say that bell rang all the way along to a destination that's no longer there, a village called Bradford, a town just then departing, as so many had to--when the railroad determined to stop in a nearby place, a village named Nashua.
That church bell finally came home to the people who'd bought it, the pioneer members of a little brown church in the vale.
Yes, that "little brown church in the vale," the one that would be mythical if you couldn't, yet this afternoon, drive by and stop for a wedding. Four weddings went on the afternoon I stopped. Someone's always getting hitched within those four brown walls.
And why brown? Simple. The people back then were poor; they couldn't afford white.
Truth be told, the church would be no more if it weren't for that old song, a piece recorded by Alabama, The Statler Brothers, The Carter Family, not to mention Dolly Parton, Andy Griffith, Don Knotts, and dozens of others.
Now get this. That beloved old hymn was written before that little brown church existed. Nothing Twilight Zone about this. Hark! William S. Pitts was aboard a stagecoach when it stopped at little Bradford, strolled through the wildwoods, and he decided he'd write a song for church that wasn't there but darn well should be.
Imagine the shock Mr. William S. Pitts must have felt when he happened to return a few years later, accompanied his music students, and found that mythical hymn was not at all mythical because there a church stood, a little brown church in the vale.
It had to be one of the most stunning musical moments in Iowa history, Pitts the music teacher wanders in and, right then and there, stands in front of his students and sings a composition of his he'd never sung in public before. If you dared believe in what can't possibly be true, you might be tempted to say that the sweet old hymn conjured the church where it was first sung. I'm not making this up.
The town of Bradford is long gone, as is Mr. Pitts, whose bust should be in the pantheon of great Hawkeye musicians, a shelf or two beneath Meredith Wilson and Simon Estes, because the little brown church in the wildwood is a beehive of love. 75,000 weddings and counting. As I stood there one afternoon, families moved in at the same time others left. The sweet old woman who manages the place, a smile-r if I ever knew one, whispered incessantly to me as we stood in the back, but never took her eyes off the action before her.
The organist never turned around. "How does she know when to play what?" I asked the manager. "Oh, you can believe we got ways of communicating," she said, smiling as the families streamed in.
I don't know if that old bell rings anymore. I don't think I heard it. It would be more than 150 years old, as old as the little brown church itself.
Pitts is long gone, even if his music will be recorded again soon, I'm sure, if it's not being recorded somewhere as we speak. The man's elegant circular portrait is up on the wall to your left when you walk in, one of those portraits with eyes that follow you all around the sanctuary.
It's not scary. It's really kind of sweet. Even as we speak, the man is still right here in the church in the wildwood, as he was before it was even there.
If the veteran organist plays the old favorite, as I’m sure she does, I can’t help but think he’s still singing along.
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