Images of the Past: Mars Hill, a church reborn

On the morning of March 9, 2006, a southern Iowa landmark was extensively damaged by arsonists. A woman reported smoke and flames coming from Mars Hill Church. The first firefighters from the nearby Floris Fire Department found the roof of the historic log building gone and the interior engulfed in flames. By the time the Wapello County Rural Fire Department arrived, the fire had been suppressed, with heavy smoke remaining (photo above, from Ottumwa Courier clipping). While most of the four walls remained standing, the west wall sustained the most damage. The plank floor was badly charred, and the old bench pews were destroyed.

Arson was suspected, and within days, five Wapello County teens, ages 15 to 19, were charged with deliberately starting the fire. They later pleaded no-contest or guilty.

There was some doubt the church could be saved, but residents from the area rallied to make that happen. The 1856 church, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, had no insurance. Donation jars soon appeared, followed by soup suppers, garage sales, raffles, auctions and benefit concerts — all with the purpose of rebuilding this important piece of area history. While the church is just over the county line in Wapello County, some in Davis County look upon the church as theirs, too, because of people from the county were members and are buried in the adjacent cemetery.

After securing a grant, the rebuilding got underway, with an outpouring of time and services from local contractors, church members and people from the area. Businesses donated materials, and other donors contributed period replacement logs and ceiling materials from an old house and flooring from an old barn.

On June 8, 2008, a rededication ceremony was held at the church. Mars Hill’s current appearance follows the renovation efforts in 1955 that preserved the old church (below) and not its appearance from 1856, when it was constructed by pioneers. Mars Hill Church hosts reunion services on the second Sunday in June each year.

— Rudy Evans   |   revans1953@gmail.com