Dakota Datebook

Ladbury Church is Saved

Monday, November 15, 2004

The village of Sibley, on Lake Ashtabula, was formed in 1954, the same year that Karnak, named for an Egyptian king, closed its post office. They had in common the Ladbury Church. This church building was the first built in the town of Kensal, in 1899. When it closed in 1926, a rural congregation near Karnak bought it and pulled it 25 miles east with a steam-driven tractor. One boy made the trip by riding inside the building. Originally lit with kerosene lights, it had recently been wired for three electric bulbs, but electricity wouldn’t reach “rural” ND for another 25 years. So, the light bulbs were cut off, and the wires were used to hang kerosene lanterns, again.

The church closed again in 1936 due to out-migration during the Great Depression. It had been named Union Congregational Church, but locals called it Ladbury, for the man who donated the land. The locals used it for Memorial Day picnics, but that ended in the 1990s. The foundation developed problems, the roof started to leak, the building was neglected, and wildlife moved in.

In 2000, a group of concerned citizens approached Preservation North Dakota (or PND), a grassroots non-profit organization working primarily on a project called Prairie Churches of ND. The project is a national pilot program, the first to deal with preserving rural churches; it was also included in the White House Millennium Council’s “Save America’s Treasures” projects.

With PND’s help, the Ladbury group laid out plans to save and restore their building. The first step was taken in the dead of winter, when volunteers climbed onto the roof to cover holes with sheets of tin. The altar area furniture was taken to a local museum for safekeeping, and a volunteer architect began plans for dealing with structural issues. Interested families donated more than $3,000, and PND awarded the group a $7,500 grant.

The following spring, 2001, the east wall of the basement caved in, so stabilizing the foundation became priority number one. During that same time period, the National Trust for Historic Places put ND prairie churches on its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

In 2002, an increasing number of volunteers donated more than 3,000 hours to scrape, paint, clean, make repairs, re-tin the steeple, renovate the interior, and shingle the roof. Local businesses and contractors donated materials, and a number of highly appreciated women kept the volunteers well fed. The group developed a plan to make “natural scaffolding” from bales stacked against the exterior walls, but, instead, a group of nearby farmers brought in their tractors, and people shingled the roof from the comfort of tractor loader buckets. Electric generators powered many of the tools, a dilapidated outhouse shared with a field mouse provided necessary facilities and drinking water was carried in.

By late August, the Ladbury Church was restored top to bottom, and used by a couple who flew in from Hawaii to get married – they were looking for an “exotic” experience on the prairie! The Church received nationwide coverage when House Beautiful magazine published an article called Answered Prayers two months later. The project was also featured in a History Channel documentary on the Nation’s endangered architectural jewels, and the Prairie Churches of North Dakota project made the cover of the New York Times and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

On this date in 2002, Preservation North Dakota awarded the Ladbury group the state’s highest honor in historic preservation, the “Preservation Excellence Award,” which was accepted by Keith and Lois Muncy and George Amann. The “Volunteer of the Year” award went to Becky Heise, who championed the project.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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