Old Stone Church History

History of the Old Stone Church

First Congregational United Church of Christ

In 1837, one year before Rockton was established as a village, settlers to the area met to form a congregation to offer Christian nourishment and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. In 1838, the same year that Rockton was established, the Rev. William Adams, a member of the Home Missionary Society (which itself was an arm of what is now the American Baptist Churches, USA), William Talcott (a founding member of Rockton and who’s name can be found today on the library in the heart of town), and thirteen other friends formally established the congregation by its then name of the First Congregational Church of Pekatoneka. It is recognized as the oldest Christian congregation in Winnebago County and likely the first church built in the county.

At that time the area of Rockton was referred to as Pekatoneca. The word “Pekatoneka” was from the Algonquian language closely related to the Ojibwe Indians and is a combination of words “Pecca”, which means “slow moving” and and “niba” which means “water.” The same slow moving waters form the western border of Rockton to this day.

Church Pews

The first worship services and meetings of the congregation were held in the log homes of its members. The congregation continued to grow until they made the decision to construct a church structure. In 1848, with a membership of 100 people, the foundation for the present church building was laid and construction began under the guidance of Mr. John Peterson at an eventual cost of $5000. Like many projects of that day, church members were invited to work on the construction of the church and have their wages either given to them or marked as a contribution to the church in their name.

The building itself is constructed of timber from the local area and limestone which was quarried just south of town from a quarry that continues to be in operation to this day. As fate would have it, an accident occurred on the corner of the street when as intoxicated driver failed to stop at the stop sign and drove directly into the existing church sign. As a result of that accident a local restoration mason, Mr. Ron Peterson (of no known relationship to the original contractor), quarried rock by hand from the same quarry from which the church itself was constructed. That sign exists today on the corner of Union St. and Blackhawk Drive, announcing the presence of the congregation to all who pass by.

Front door of Church

While the first service in the new sanctuary was held on June 14th of 1850 the building itself was actually dedicated on Sunday, October 24th 1850 with the Rev. Aaron Chapman, the first president of Beloit College, sharing the dedicatory sermon. It is reported that when the basement of the church was completed in 1949 it was used as a school for the growing community since no schools existed at that time. It was likely that very soon after its construction the church became colloquially known as The Old Stone Church…a name by which it is referred to and known by throughout the area. A person can imagine the people in the area saying, “Go to the Old Stone Church and turn left.” Few people to this day could tell you the formal name of the church, but everyone knows where “The Old Stone” is.

In 1854 the William Talcott family donated a 1400 pound bell to the church, the same bell that still calls the congregation to church every Sunday. It’s reported that about that time the village had a town clock placed into the steeple of the church by the Chicago firm of Speer and Casper. However, the clock was reported not to have worked well and was later removed. Early members of the congregation can remember the hands of the clock lying unused in the balcony of the church until they were removed.

Records from the life of the congregation are missing from approximately 1884 to the early 1900’s. As was common at that time the records for the congregation were often kept at the home of clerk of the congregation. However, it was reported that a fire destroyed the home of the congregation’s clerk, Helen Brown Bether, and many records were destroyed. At some point after that time a safe was installed under the stairs which lead to the original fellowship hall and kitchen so that important records could be kept safe from harm.

A fierce storm in 1913 blew the steeple off the church. Amazingly, despite the fact that the bell came down with the steeple the bell itself was left undamaged by the fall. In 1948 a gift of $2000 was given from the estate of Mrs. Fred Rockwell and a steeple fund was established. The gifts received allowed for the construction of a new steeple which was dedicated on November 9th of 1958.

Surrounding the church on the north end is a stone wall that was constructed around 1935 under the guidance of then pastor the Rev. Phillip Ralph who was a fine carpenter. The wall included a bird bath and fireplace. The wall was originally constructed with a wood divider fence about 3′ in height. However, over the years the wood deteriorated and was disassembled. In it’s place stones were stood up on end (which masons refer to as “hen’s teeth”), a common technique which a person would find on farm fences in the Midwest.

In 1965 construction began on an addition to the church to house the growing needs of Christian Education and fellowship. The addition cost $83,000 and brought about the only changes to the interior of the sanctuary when two doorways were built into the thick stone walls on the front wall of either side of the sanctuary. This necessitated that the choir lofts be shifted toward the middle. However, all work was done in the same fashion as the existing building so a stranger would not know that the front of the church had not been constructed in that manner when first built in 1850.

Old Stone Church Registered in the Library of Congress

In 1935 the Department of the Interior, through its advisory committee of the Historic American Survey, selected the Old Stone Church building as possessing exceptional historic and architectural interest and as being worthy of most careful preservation. Photographs and Measured drawings were made which are a permanent record in the archives of the Library of Congress.

The construction is constructed in a style which is referred to as the “Greek Revival” style of construction. Architecturally the entrance of the church follows the design first used by A.J. Davis in 1835 in the construction of the Carmine Street Church in New York City. Two Greek Doric columns flank the recessed porch and entry. This represents a classic Greek temple-like form. However, the presence of the steeple is very “un-temple” like and clearly represents Christian architecture.

The sanctuary itself remains true to the historic roots of the Congregational tradition. The Congregationalists came from England and were commonly known as the early Puritans who believed in a simple and sparsely ornamented sanctuary so as not to distract from the presence of God. Pews are made from simple walnut boards from the area, just as the beams of the church itself, and are very narrow. The altar, pulpit, and lectern reflect the same simple structure to fit into the sanctuary.

It might be interesting to note here that there were reports that the original altar and pulpit were received from a local “establishment” in Rockton. It was reported the the Rev. Phillip Ralph, who served the church from 1923-1939, was a very good carpenter. The records indicate that the Rev. Ralph did significant maintenance and work on the furnishings to improve the appearance of the existing pieces. Though the chancel now has both a pulpit and a lecture it would appear that when first built the church had just one piece of furniture, a pulpit, on the raised section of the chancel. This was modified with wood received from said establishment and the lecturn and altar built from that same wood. These pieces stand to this day.

The pillars in the front of the sanctuary and in the balcony area reflect the pillars at the entrance of the church structure. The glass in the windows is clear: reflecting the early simplicity of the Congregationalists and a sense that, “The hurting world should always look into the Word of God, and the people of God should always look unto the hurting world.”

Although there is no mention of original lighting there are small ornamental pieces attached to the four front window frames in the church which may indicate that kerosene lamps were attached to these brackets and used for lighting. Heat was originally provided by wood, and later a coal furnace which would be stoked by one of the church custodians early on Sunday morning so the chill was out of the air by time for worship. An article from the Rockton Herald, dated June 15th, 1911, indicated that the first use of electric lights was for the graduating class of four young ladies from the Rockton High School. The article states that, “Exercises (were) held in the Congregational Church which which had been tastily decorated for the occasion. It was also the first time for the new electric lights to be used in church.”

The Old Stone Church

First Congregational United Church of Christ

While the history of the church is found in the Congregationalist from England and the east coast it shared an interesting history to become a part of the present denomination, the United Church of Christ.

Between 1909-1915 the congregation fell on hard times, was in need of repair, and was without a pastor. During this time the Rev. Clarence J. Eddy served as pastor of the Baptist Church in Rockton which was located on the north corner of Green and Chapel streets. Both churches were in need so there were conversations of uniting. In 1915 the congregations did unite to form the Federated Church in regards to their worship life. However, each retained its own identity and autonomy in business and missionary dealings.

The union was advantageous to both since the Baptist Church was smaller and more easily heated in the winter and the Old Stone Church was used in the summer because it was larger and cooler. However, in 1938 the Baptist Society sold their property and gave the majority of the money and members to the Old Stone Church. Plaques noting the existence of both churches and the existence of their spiritual unity can be found today behind each pillar at the entrance of the church.

At the annual meeting in January of 1964 the First Congregational Church of Rockton voted to join into the membership of the United Church of Christ, thereby changing the official name of the Old Stone Church to the First Congregational United Church of Christ. The United Church of Christ was formed in 1957 by the historic union of four denominations: the Reformed Church (from Switzerland), the Evangelical Church (from Germany), the Congregational Church (from England), and the Christian Church (which was indigenous to to the New World). In all of this, however, the church is simply and lovingly known as “The Old Stone Church”