Yellowstone County – Your Ancestral Past Trail Series
St. Olaf Lutheran Church History
Sunday, July 11, 2004
“Saint Olaf Lutheran Church, named for King Olaf II, Patron Saint of Norway, was organized April 8, 1904 by a group of Norwegian immigrants who had settled on Volney & Red Lodge Creeks. Elling Rogness donated “an irregular track of land containing three acres about 18 miles northwest of Red Lodge” for the church and cemetery. A fund drive was started with each parishioner writing a pledge on a strip cut from a pencil tablet. Reverend Jorgen Elius Madson, pioneer Lutheran minister from Absarokee, held services in area homes or the Weast School, started the Ruth Ladies Aid, and with his daughter Dorthea, taught the younger children the Norwegian language. Traveling by horse and buggy in all kinds of weather, Pastor Madson often stayed overnight at area ranches and returned to Absarokee the next day.
In 1919, enough money had been raised to start building the new church. John Lee, who signed his name in the finished attic, Lars Fostveit, and Adolph Lea were the carpenters; but they received help from congregation members. Stan Risvold, whose father helped haul the lumber, said, “Jim Hyem, Gunder Ostrum, Osten Hereim and my father used teams and wagons to haul the lumber from the Roberts Lumber Yard over the hills to the church location. Dad said it was a long haul and the hills were steep. In order to get the wagons up some of the hills, they’d hitch 2 or 3 teams to a wagon, go up the hill, then go back for the next wagon. They’d do that until all the wagons were up the hill, then go on to the next hill. It took them a long time to get all the lumber over here.”
A full basement was dug and the gravel from the hole was used for a concrete foundation about 18 inches thick. The frame building, thirty by forty feet, is built in a Gothic style. Most church congregations of that day had neither money nor material to build from the more traditional stone or brick. According to Red Lodge architect Lewis Stackpole, “Gothic style lent itself gracefully to wood, especially in the pointed Gothic arch of stained glass windows, the windowed arch above double doors, louvered windows in the bell tower, the pointed roof arches and the soaring octagon steeple topped by a cross.”
The eight stained glass windows were made in Billings and were put in when the building was finished in 1921. The steeple is 70 feet high, topped by a wooden, 7-1/2 foot cross. Intricately carved oak pews were ordered from Ohio at a cost of about $75 each, with the parishioners donating or “buying” a pew.
“I remember they each paid $50 and then donated it to the church,” said Mrs. Cora Hyem. “I’m not sure if it was an old school bell or not.”
The alter, purchased from a church in Iowa, was shipped in two pieces by rail to Columbus then hauled by wagon and team to the church. Risvold remembers, “Father hauled the the alter here and when he got to the top of Redinbow Hill, it was so muddy he was afraid to come down the hill with such a heavy load. So he walked to a neighbors and got another team and some help. They chain-deadlocked the rear wheels of the wagon so they’d slide, hitched one team in front and another team in the back to help brake, and brought the alter safely down the hill.
The alter holds a large oil painting of Jesus, “Behold I Stand At The Door and Knock,” signed by Fiaten, and is covered with an alter cloth handmade by the ladies of the congregation. The first heating system was a small wood and coal stove in the basement. Risvold said his brother came to the church at 5 or 6 a.m. to start a fire when it was his turn. In the late ‘50’s a furnace was put in the basement so the building would be warm all day instead of only by the end of the Sunday services.
Pastor Madson held the first services in 1921, the first of 15 Pastors for St. Olaf. The congregation had a steady growth, with a Sunday school and a vacation Bible school to which area children often rode horseback ten miles each July weekday. Thanksgiving harvest dinners, all food donated, served between 300-400 people. Christmas was celebrated with special services, a program and a pot-luck dinner the next day. Most of the early records were destroyed in a house fire in the early 1930’s but those remaining, all written in Norwegian, shows the names of early settlers involved in St.Olaf Church:
Solburg, Ostrum, Hereim. Hyem, Ramsland, Indreland, Hoines, Ostebo, Nelson, Sanderson, Straatveit, Loyning, Risvold, Fiveland, Loftus, Weast, Moffitt, Clark, Redinbow, Allington, Rogness, Norton, Ekle, Lea, Hoveland, Kelly, Eckert, Hesta, Chesbro, Floden, Forney, Doty, Eik, Brambo, Overbo, Hellod, Bjorndahl, Froland, Haralside, Tjeltviet – and many still recognized in this area.
The cemetery, east of the church marks the last resting place for many with those names, along with Pastor Madson and his wife, Helga. It is a tranquil place, planted with bushes, trees and flowers, presided over by songbirds and grazed by deer and antelope. The cemetery was divided into lots about 1978 and still in use; the earliest date is Cornelius Froland, 1923, the latest  is Emma Eckert, 1986.
A Lutheran congregation in Big Timber wanted to purchase, and move, St. Olaf Church in 1969. However the local residents couldn’t conceive of their world without the graceful church. They organized, collected enough money to refurbish inside and out, and now hold semi-annual cleanups which include a pot-luck picnic and according to Risvold, “are attended by 60 or 70 people from all over and as far away as Billings.” The group is trying, so far without success, to get St. Olaf put on the State Register of Historic buildings. Edrie Vinson, State Historical Preservation Officer for Carbon County, is trying to help them.
Services are held the first Sunday in each month, with Red Lodge Pastor Jim Johnson or Absarokee’s Pastor Cider presiding. Because there has never been an usher at St. Olaf, parishioners file p[ast the alter to make their offering. There are weddings, receptions, baptisms and funerals in the church, while the basement is used as a community center and meeting room for dinners and 4-H meetings.
St. Olaf, because it is so easily recognizable from the air, is also used a s a landmark for the low altitude training flights of B-52 Bombers – a situation which causes concern that the stained glass windows could be further loosened by the sound waves of the airplanes. Although the congregation only numbers 20-30 members, and the building is mostly empty, St. Olaf Lutheran Church, with the double doors facing the Beartooth Mountains, its white cross reaching toward the sky, still inspires a feeling of loving serenity in any visitor.”