There’s something about visiting landmarks that inspires my imagination and nostalgia. Those moments prompt me to hearken back to a time no one can see. That’s how it was for me when I visited one landmark: Elbowoods Memorial Congregational Church. It’s no longer there, and that’s not my imagination.
That’s why I was sad when news stories reported an arsonist burned down the Memorial Congregational Church that once stood in Elbowoods. The story circulated through the state and caused great sadness.
If we looked back 75 years ago, we’d see a Badlands landscape following the Missouri River toward Garrison. Bluffs and buttes surrounding lush farm ground along the river. The town of Elbowoods stood as the centerpiece of the valley landscape.
History of Elbowoods Memorial Congregational Church
The Elbowoods Memorial Congregational Church building had an amazing past, but I didn’t know it until I investigated. You see, it was easy to ignore the abandoned prairie church building. It stood a mile or so west of Highway 1804. I often drove past it, south of Parshall. But once I stopped to check it out, I uncovered layers of monumental history. I stopped often to step into history.
Charles Hall comes to the Dakota Territory
The story goes back to 1871 when the Dakota Territory was organized and an architect from England worked in a New York mission. Charles Hall felt the call to minister to the same people who had ministered to Lewis and Clark 67 years earlier.
The same year that the 7th Cavalry marched to Little Big Horn, Charles Hall floated the Missouri River for two weeks upriver to get to his destination. He got off a steamboat armed not with a rifle but with the “Sword of the Lord.” He landed at Like-a-Fishhook Village and met with a community of Mandan and Hidatsa people. (The village is under Lake Sakakawea, now, southwest of White Shield, ND.)
What Custer couldn’t do with a rifle, Hall did with the Gospel. He forged a peaceful, harmonious co-existence. Hall directed the building of a school, a community building. And then, his major contribution to the state was when he successfully lobbied for a bridge (Four Bears Bridge) to cross the Missouri River.
Eventually, he and his neighbors built this church building at Elbowoods, North Dakota. Remember, he was an architect before he became a missionary. So, designing the landmark church building was part of who he was.
Hall labored among the area’s farmers, ranchers and other residents, both white and Native-American. It took Hall 10 years of patient loving work before the first man converted to the Christian faith. Long after Elbowoods was gone, and the fertile river valley was flooded, the empty church building was the only physical reminder of a work he began about 140 years ago.
Hall worked for years, and he slowly earned trust, but once earned, it became invaluable. Later both whites and enrolled tribal members met together to worship and socialize.
The Elbowoods Church building was built after 45 years of feeding, teaching, healing whites, and Natives. Local workers followed the architect/missionary’s plans to build this solid building next to the mission and school he started at Elbowoods.
When it was dedicated, crowds came from as far as 30 to 50 miles over rugged Badlands trails and barely passable roads to join in the dedication. Dignitaries from Bismarck, Minot and even New York also came to the dedication.
Standing up to the U.S. Indian Agency
Hall helped the members of the Three Affiliated Tribes rise above the limits placed on them by the dictatorial federal government Indian Agency at Elbowoods. The Indian Agency was so harsh, Hall later testified, that the Indian Agent required tribal members to stop and bow their head when he walked by. If they received visitors, the visitor would first have to meet with the Indian Agent before going to meet the family or friends they came to see.
Church vs Government
That kind of harsh government attitude was part of the reason why local residents avoided the government Indian school. Though they lived in poverty, they paid $10 a month to have their children schooled, fed and cared for by Hall’s mission school. They preferred his school over the free government school. Wages at that time were about 60 cents a day – if someone could find paying work.
The Mandan were an agricultural people. They tilled the river bottom along the Missouri River and grew corn, squash, pumpkin, sunflower, and tobacco. Families took their produce by horse-drawn wagon to sell in towns such as Minot, 60-miles north. Then they used their money to support the mission, its school, church and community programs.
The Elbowoods Congregational Mission church building was dedicated to Charles Hall’s second wife, Susan Webb Hall. He lost at least two children and his first wife to the tireless work. Racial distinctions were erased at the Cross. The church people were both white and native. Together, they built the building by themselves, by hand. They didn’t borrow a penny to build it. It cost them $5,500, with $3,500 coming from their own donations, and another $2,000 donated by friends of Charles Hall.
Moving from the flood
The federal government flooded out the people who lived along the Missouri River to create Lake Sakakawea. That’s when towns such as Nishu, Van Hook, Sanish and Elbowoods were flooded. The intentional flooding forced hundreds of families to move out of their homes. They left behind a hospital, school, and many main street storefront businesses. As the flood waters rose, locals moved five church buildings out of the valley, including the Susan Webb Hall Memorial Church building.
Starting on a Friday night, local farmers and ranchers worked non-stop to lift the building from its original footings at Elbowoods. They raced against the flood waters moving into town. By the time they got it up a bit of a hill, the flood was already taking over the original site. Their work was not done until they moved the building nine miles farther north near the communities of Lucky Mound, Parshall and White Shield.
The building stood on the prairie for more than 90 years right where it was moved during the man-made flood of 1953. Neighbors watched it move in. They said it seemed to them the church was all lit up. A story about the relocated church quoted the neighbors who said, “It gave them a queer feeling as they had never lived near a church before.”
It stood tall and proud
Later in its life, when I met the remarkable building, it was toothless. No windows or doors. But, for its age, it seemed to be a solid old
relic. In fact, the building was destined for the National Historic Registry.
No furnishings remained inside, no furniture or other features, just a love note to a grandfather.
The church building and cemetery were sacred places and vandals had respected it, until now. They did not leave graffiti or other degrading elements. A bell tower was as empty as the rest of the building. The tower used to hold a donated bell that called people to worship throughout the early Missouri River Valley.
It is inspiring to know the history behind the building. This is a part of North Dakota history that few people know.
Charles Hall left an account of the work in his collection of documents assembled in the book 100 Years at Ft. Berthold, 1876 to 1976. I’m thankful to one of the most refined and regal older member of the tribes, Mary Bateman who gave me her copy.
My thoughts and attachment to the stucco church building are but a sliver compared to the memories others kept. People such as Marilyn Hudson have passed on, and the memories of the church building are gone with her. Other tribal elders and retired ranch families who remember the legacy of this building and what it represents mourned when the building burned down. I am still angry that some rotten scoundrel wiped out this history.
I’m attracted to the flooded town of Elbowoods and its storybook history. I know where it is, but of course since it’s underwater, I cannot go there. Yet, I’ve visited the old major highway that passed through Elbowoods and crossed the Missouri River on the original Four Bears Bridge. You too can follow the old road to the edge of Lake Sakakawea and imagine what it mast have been like.
We’ve also traipsed around the abandoned town of Mondak, though it is on private property and I have to advise you to not visit the town unless you have permission. It’s history is as amazing as any Hollywood movie. What other abandoned towns in the Badlands do you recommend we check out? We love to research the history to tell stories.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where is Elbowoods?
Elbowoods is below Lake Sakakawea, south of Parshall and north of Twin Buttes. A walking trail and sign boards near Indian Hills Resort point to the approximate location of Elbowoods. Highway 8, on the west edge of Twin Buttes is closed, but the abandoned highway leads to the south side of the Missouri River where the Four Bears Bridge once stood, and Elbowoods was on the north end of the bridge.
What towns were flooded by Lake Sakakawea?
Towns populated by members of the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara) were Elbowoods, Sanish, Like-a–Fishook, Charging Eagle, Van Hook, Lucky Mound, Shell Creek, Independence, and Nishu.
Who was Charles Hall?
Charles Hall was born in England, came to the U.S. and became an architect. As a young college graduate, the budding architect helped establish a mission in New York City. He became a missionary, with the Congregational Church denomination, first serving at Springfield, South Dakota. Then, he moved north to minister to people in and around the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation from 1876 to 1922. He began his mission work at Like-a-Fishook village on May 9, 1876. He designed, helped build and then preached at the church building named for his wife, Susan Hall. It then became known as Elbowoods Memorial Congregational Church.