Vernon County History logo

Weekly Column

Each week a small segment of Vernon County history is published in the county papers.

For the week of 3/18/2018
by Carol Krogan, assistant curator

Many churches were established in the town of Viroqua and it is impossible to convey the importance of them all. However, a beautiful church outside of Westby in the area known as Coon Prairie reflects the dedication of many Norwegian Lutherans to worship in the Lutheran traditions and teachings they knew in Norway. Despite the Methodist Episcopal churches work to expand their mission throughout the county, many Norwegians who had been indoctrinated into the Lutheran church preferred the teachings of that religion.

The origin of what is known at the Country Coon Prairie Lutheran congregation begins with Even Gullord, who at age 24 came to Coon Prairie in 1848. His letters home to Biri, Norway prompted many people from that area to settle here. He felt the need to bring spiritual direction to the area and in 1849, he visited Rev. Adolph C. Preus in Koshkonong, WI (another settlement of many Norwegians) to attract pastoral service to Coon Prairie. At Preus’ urging, his co-worker, Rev. Nils Brandt travelled to Coon Prairie in 1851 and on or about November 1 and services were held in Gullord’s barn near the site of the current church. A joyful congregation welcomed Rev. Brandt who baptized 5 children and performed some marriages that day.

In July, 1852, Brandt returned to Coon Prairie to hold services. On July 11 he confirmed 11 young settlers. At his suggestion, a congregation was formed which they did the next day and 91 settlers took part in communion. On July 29, 1854 the congregation was incorporated. Rev. Hans A. Stub was called as the church’s first minister and took charge on July 1, 1855. In 1857, first church was erected. It was a 30’ x 50’ framework structure and featured a tower. As the congregation grew, and when the church proved to be too small, a second stone church was erected for a cost of $25,600 and dedicated in 1884. A steeple was added in 1891. An oil painting by Herbjorn Gausta entitled “Baptism” was completed in 1891 and installed at the altar of the church. On Easter Day, 1909, the church was struck by lightning and burned but the painting was rescued by Pastor Halvor Halvorsen and Nordahl Buros. Some members wanted to erect a church on the same site and others wanted to erect a church in Westby so they would be able to walk to church. After much discussion, it was decided to build two churches, just 1.5 miles apart.

Country Coon Prairie church was designed by the Parkenson and Dockendorf architectural firm of La Crosse and built by Theodore Thorson on the same site in 1909. It was ready for use in 1910. This brick church has two steeples 12’ square and 80’ high. The interior was decorated by renowned designer Odin J. Oyen of La Crosse. The Gausta painting was reinstalled at the altar.

Now known as the “vanilla” church to distinguish it from the darker colored brick Our Saviors Lutheran Church next to it, Westby Coon Prairie Church, also built in 1909, sits stately on Main Street sporting twin steeples. During the 1940’s, due to financial strains to support two churches and the preference for parishioners to attend the city church, leaders chose to conduct services at the country church only once a month. Over the years, some maintenance issues needed to be addressed at the Country Church and in 1984, a member of the congregation and six others formed Country Coon Prairie Preservation, Inc. Their goals were to restore the church to its original condition and to establish a perpetual fund to maintain it. In 1986, the church was placed on the National Register of Public Places. Those maintenance issues have been resolved and the Preservation committee still oversees the management of the church. It is used for special programs and services throughout the year.

The book Coon Prairie, written in 1927 and translated from its original Norwegian in 1977, has a comprehensive history about the church, a history of the Coon Prairie area and biographical sketches on many of the residents. If your family has roots in the Coon Prairie area, it is an excellent source of information. An indexed copy of the book can be found at the Vernon County Museum.

Coon Prairie Church
The Country Coon Prairie Church, rural Westby, was struck by lightning on Easter Day, 1909.


For the week of 3/11/2018
by Kristen Parrott, curator

In the museum’s World War I collection is a single piece of stationery from the “Woman’s Committee of the Vernon County Council of Defense”. It’s a blank piece of letterhead, with the names and titles of all the committee members taking up about one-third of the page. Most of the names are of women. In honor of Women’s History Month, today we’ll take a closer look at this group of women and what they did during WWI.

The Wisconsin State Council of Defense was organized on April 12, 1917, just a few days after the U.S. entered WWI. Each county in the state also had its own Council of Defense. It appears that primarily men served on the Councils and their subcommittees, with the exception of the Woman’s Committees.

The mission of the Woman’s Committees in Wisconsin was “to organize and coordinate the woman power of the state” and “to aid in the proper adjustment of women to the altered home and industrial conditions brought about by the war”.

Many of the Vernon County Woman’s Committee members are identified on the letterhead by “Mrs.” and then a husband’s name. Museum volunteers have patiently looked through obituaries and other sources to determine the first names of most of these women.

When this letterhead was printed, the chair of the organization was Miss Maud Neprud. Maud became the county’s Superintendent of Schools in 1917, the first woman in Vernon County to be elected to public office. As an accomplished woman with wide name recognition locally, she must have been a natural choice to lead the Woman’s Committee. The secretary and treasurer was Mrs. Charles S. Slack, born Anna Hansen.

The titles of the various sub-committees indicate what the Woman’s Committee was all about. Mrs. William D. Dyson, born Minnie Eckhart, was head of Food Conservation. Rationing, meat-less and wheat-less days, and victory gardens were all a part of food conservation during WWI. Mrs. Selmer Neprud, born Hulda Hauge, was in charge of Child Welfare and Nursing. Nursing on the home front was especially significant during the 1918-19 flu epidemic.

Miss Lucy Dawson headed up the committee’s efforts for the Liberty Loan drives and War Savings Stamps program, providing funds for the war. Lucy was a businesswoman who helped run her family’s insurance agency for half a century. Mrs. R. W. Baldwin, born Jessie Hutchinson, a high school art and music teacher, was assigned to Health and Recreation.

The Speakers’ Bureau was led by Mrs. Frank E. Morley, born Isabelle Collins, who also served as the first chair of the Viroqua Red Cross during the war. Miss Clara Glenn led Publicity and Information. She was a librarian at the Viroqua Public Library, and also worked as a newspaper correspondent.

Mrs. J. Henry Bennett, born Olga Omundson, was in charge of Home and Foreign Relief. She was also the chair of the Sub-Committee on Fatherless Children of France, and raised so much money that she was officially thanked by the French government. Winifred Baldwin was the secretary of this sub-committee.

The rest of the letterhead lists the names of the women who ran smaller, community-based Defense Councils around Vernon County. This list includes Mrs. M.H. Bekkedal (Amanda Anderson) of Westby, Mrs. W.O. Shear (Ella Onsager) of Hillsboro, Christene Bauschka of La Farge, Mrs. Merle Timmerman of Ontario, and Mrs. Cora Griffin of Viola.

The Wisconsin State Council of Defense disbanded in June of 1919, seven months after the armistice, and presumably the county and community councils disbanded about then as well. But the Woman’s Committees had surely set an example of what “woman power” could do. They no doubt also prepared women to campaign even more strenuously for their full right to vote, achieved in 1920.

Maud Neprud
Maud Neprud served as the chair of the Woman's Committee of the Vernon County Council of Defense during World War I.


The previous two articles:

March 4, 2018

Februaruy 25, 2018