MUSCATINE, Iowa — Eight years ago, Steve and Miriam Schoenig traveled to Muscatine County from their home in Fort Collins, Colo., seeking a glimpse of a significant ancestral landmark in Steve’s family history.

Their visit led to a vision that is becoming a reality.

On Oct. 13, the couple returned to see the progress being made in the restoration of the 140-year-old limestone church that was built on a grassy hill near Wildcat Den State Park.

The Schoenigs fascination with the church began in 1999 after Steve discovered a photo of it among his family’s heirlooms.

Steve researched the church and learned it was named the Pine Mills German Methodist Episcopal Church when it was built in 1867 by a group of volunteers that included his great-grandfather, Heinrich Schoenig.  The Schoenig family immigrated to the Pine Mills area in the 1800s and family historical documents referred to the church and the nearby Pine Creek Grist Mill at Wildcat Den State Park.

A trip back in time

In 2000, Schoenig, a financial planner, Miriam, and her parents, planned a stop at the old church site during a visit to eastern Iowa. Steve said Greater Muscatine Chamber of Commerce & Industry officials put him in touch with area historian Gladys Mittman. She guided his family to the church. The walls were cracked, plaster had fallen and the floor was worn, but the Schoenigs were inspired by the enduring beauty of the church’s carefully placed stone exterior.

They also discovered an open door to initiating restoration of the church.

Mittman told Steve her brother, Paul Kemper, owned the church and the land it was on.

According to church history, Kemper and Mittman are the great-grandchildren of the stone mason who oversaw the construction of the church.

Kemper, who had a longtime dream of seeing the church restored, donated the building and the land it sits on to the Muscatine Area Heritage Association, a non-profit corporation that was established in 1971.

A new beginning

In 2003, Steve successfully applied to have the church placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Friends of the Old Stone Church was founded in 2006 under the auspices of the Muscatine Area Heritage Association.

Steve is president of the Friends group, which has 49 members in eight states, including 15 members who live in Muscatine County.

New uses for an old church

Once restored, the church could become a meeting site for area organizations and a tourist attraction that would complement the Pine Creek Grist Mill and the restored one-room Melpine school house. 

“A lot of people don’t have big church weddings anymore,” said Friends member Ken Hyman. “And this would be an ideal place for a wedding.”

Special church and Sunday school services could also be conducted there, said Hyman.

Mittman, treasurer for the Friends group, has learned that the last service at the church may have been conducted on Christmas Eve of 1910. “We hope we can have the restoration done in time for Christmas Eve of 2010,” said Hyman. “We’ve even located some German speakers and might be able to have someone speak a little German at that service.”

Granting welcome changes

On the Schoenigs most recent visit to the church, they watched Steve Stecher and his son, Brad, of Stecher Carpentry in Muscatine restore the church roof. Steve Schoenig  said funding for that work comes through an emergency grant from the Iowa Historical Society.

“It’s great to hear the sound of hammer and saw and to have this activity going on,” remarked Schoenig.

His last visit to the church site was in April, when the restoration work began.

“Quite a bit of clearing of the area had been done at that time,” said Steve. “Some things have happened rapidly, others take longer than I would expect.”

The American Schleswig Holstein Heritage Society provided funding to help restore the windows and concrete sub-floor.

A new gravel driveway that winds up the hill behind behind the church was paid for through a $900 grant from the Muscatine Community Foundation.

Volunteers make the difference

The Schoenigs say they have been impressed and inspired by the ambition and skill of area volunteers who stepped up to bring the 19th-century church back to life.

For example, Gerald Rinnert of nearby New Era donated time and equipment to carve out the driveway.

Miriam said Muscatine area residents, Ken Hyman, 61, Dave Metz, 61, and Joe Clarke, 73, have been very active in helping direct and carry out the renovation plan.

“Part of the joy is seeing the way the volunteers have become involved,” said Miriam. “It’s been four years since I’ve been out here and it’s amazing the progress that’s been made.”

Volunteers have been working on tuck pointing the structure’s stone exterior and have invested significant effort in replacing the mortar that holds the unique stone facade together.

The Friends quickly learned that this is a first step in the restoration when they attempted to place shutters for the church windows and realized the mortar was no longer strong enough to hold them.

Metz said the mortar had to be compatible with the limestone rock it holds together to accommodate the expansion and contraction that occurs with temperature extremes.

“We have to be very careful, because if the mortar contracts or expands at a different rate, it could crack the building,” he said.

The Friends found Acme Materials in Muscatine, which makes exactly what was needed.

“They make a comprehensive line of specialty concrete products,” said Metz. The specially  formulated mortar mixture the Friends needed contains Portland cement and sand.

 “The volunteers have worked for a long time on that to be sure we had the right stuff,” said Steve.

Once the mortar is replaced, Steve said the Friends will get back on track with working on the windows. To stay true to the church’s original state, the volunteers are considering replacing the window frames by mortaring them into the wall, as was done when the church was built.

Hyman said people of all skill levels are welcome to join the Friends in the project. Landscaping, historical research, carpentry and masonry projects are among the work that needs to be completed. The Friends of the Old Stone Church also accepts financial donations.

Reporter contact information

Cynthia Beaudette 563-262-0527

To be involved: Friends of the Old Stone Church president, Steve Schoenig, said volunteers are welcome to attend monthly meetings to learn more about the progress of the renovation project of that site and learn how they can be involved. The meetings are held at 7 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month at New Era Community Church. The next meeting is Tuesday, Nov. 11.

To contribute funds, time or skills to restoring and preserving the Old Stone Church, contact Ken Hyman at 262-9040.

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