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Thomas Fullerton set the tone for Baraboo’s oldest church when he arrived in town in 1841.

The Methodist circuit preacher encountered men working on a Baraboo River dam. They viewed him with suspicion until he rolled up his sleeves and started helping. He gained their favor, and by October the locals asked Fullerton to lead church serves in the valley.

This turn of events birthed what is now known as First United Methodist Church, whose members continue to roll up their sleeves and help when they see work to be done. The downtown Baraboo institution has hosted the Baraboo Food Pantry, the Neighborly free store, Boy Scout troops and programs for Ho-Chunk youths.

“I think this spirit has been consistent throughout our history,” current pastor Marianne Cotter said.

Its members have collected child carriers for refugees and shoes for the needy, and hosted free holiday meals for the hungry. “We tend to open our doors,” church historian Marilyn Hatfield said.

Keys to longevity

Next month, the church will celebrate its 175th anniversary with a special Sunday worship service. Several factors have contributed to the congregation’s longevity, in addition to its passion for mission work. The church’s downtown location, its gorgeous architecture, and the support of other Baraboo churches have played pivotal role.

The congregation started out worshiping in members’ homes, until the community built a log school house that was shared on Sundays by three denominations. To this day, First United Methodist works with other congregations to support ecumenical missions such as the Peanut Butter Lunch Bunch, which ensures children from low-income families are well-fed during school breaks.

“Our history in Baraboo is of churches working together,” Cotter said.

Congregations moved their services to the Sauk County Courthouse (then on Fourth Avenue, east of where the Al. Ringling Theatre now sits) in 1848. The next year, a temporary church was built at Fifth and Broadway at a cost of $200. A more permanent structure was built the year after that, but later burned.

In 1853, the church bought a bell for its tower at a cost of $321, an instrument that – thanks to a 1995 renovation – continues to ring each Sunday.

Building community

In 1898, the congregation built its church at the corner of Broadway and Fourth, seven years before Al. Ringling built his mansion up the street. Featuring a red brick exterior and priceless stained-glass windows, the church is the oldest in Baraboo and the only one remaining on the downtown square. The ladies of the church raised funds for the construction project by sewing a quilt and charging 10 cents to members who wanted their names embroidered on it. The quilt survives to this day.

While a church is made up primarily of its people, First United Methodist members say their building is a powerful draw. Hatfield said she was considering joining another church before she stepped inside. “I was agog, especially the stained-glass windows,” she said.

“I think that draws people in and gives them a spiritual uplift,” Cotter added.

“They love the building,” added church historian Janet Brice.

Amid an effort to expand the church in the 1980s, the congregation considered building elsewhere. But an architectural study determined the church’s foundation was sturdy enough to last another century. “Then things took on a new life,” congregation leader Virgil Kasper said. “They wanted to keep their roots in the business community of downtown Baraboo.”

A fellowship hall and offices were added on the church, built on the former site of the church parsonage. That addition – and the church’s central location – allows the congregation to serve needy people and community groups. Scout troops, the Rotary Club and Kids Ranch meet at the church. Plus, the congregation offers water and lemonade during the Big Top Circus Parade, and in years past served food during Old Fashioned Day.

Special service

The 175th anniversary service Nov. 13 will feature a skit dramatizing church history, a performance by the handbell choir, a multimedia overview of church history and a demonstration of how the church’s original log walls were built.

Church members have spent recent weeks preparing for the anniversary celebration, but they’ll return to their mission work soon enough. The church’s women, who organized a Sewing Society in 1857 and continue to raise money for missions through an annual pasty sale, will remain busy.

“They’re living their membership vows,” Cotter said.

Kasper is working to expand his multimedia presentation on the church’s history to a more detailed book. And he hopes it’s only a first draft. “We want to keep adding pages,” he said, “because we want more history.”

Follow Ben Bromley on Twitter @ben_bromley