[to learn more, please visit www.firstestonianchurch.com]
The winter always brings out the best in night photography. The skies are a royal shade of blue and the air is clear, crisp and devoid of the soupy humidity typical to a Wisconsin summer. Unfortunately this also means braving Wisconsin’s frigid winter temps. This past New Year’s Eve was as frigid as it gets, or at least as cold as we can stand, knowing we’ll be in the elements for at least an hour!
Due to a thick cloud cover during the three best days of the December full moon, we decided to make this New Year’s one for the books by venturing 3+ hours north of Milwaukee to Gleason, WI, for another light-painting excursion. Cozied up in our half dozen layers of clothing, we hit the road around noon in order to check out the site in daylight.
Chris had his eye on an abandoned Estonian church for quite some time, thwarted for months due to full moons that were hidden by weather or inconvenienced by ‘school nights.’ One weekday a few months back, a sky that appeared clear as crystal in Milwaukee, slowly clouded over as we trekked north, so we made the painful decision to turn around in Stevens Point, a mere hour and a half from our destination. Not this time. This time, the sky was perfect. After a lovely drive northward, we found the suitably-named Estonian Church Rd. and ventured down a snowy (but thankfully plowed) gravel drive, passing a cottage house to our right, seemingly empty for the time being. There, nestled deep in a clearing of trees which lined the field, stood a modest, one-room structure, like an old man slouched up against an imaginary wall, exhausted from decades of toiling the fields. We jumped out of the car and took a tour of the church.
Some quick background on the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church: A small group of Estonian pilgrims, who immigrated to the States in order to escape oppression back home, decided to settle in north-central Wisconsin when they heard that the landscape was not unlike their native land. Being the close-knit and devout group they were, the construction of a new community church was top priority. The small building was finished in 1914, nearly 100 years ago, to become the very first Estonian church in the United States. Sadly, it only celebrated 50 anniversaries until vandalism and pilferage paved the way to its closure in 1964. Most everything in the church was destroyed or stolen (even the small bell that had been donated by Sears-Roebuck), so the church members saw no point in reopening the doors. Since then, many have tried to maintain its structure for posterity–shoring foundation and giving it a new roof–but the little church never reopened to hold official services.
Everything checked out ok as we took our little tour and we were actually pretty surprised at how well the structure held up as we peered into the mouth of the church. Obviously a lot of people loved this church enough to at least make an attempt to keep it from collapsing into the earth. We took gingered steps inside of the single room, decorated with nothing but broken glass, some old doors and windows and a pulpit.
The wood floors, and more importantly the steps leading up to the bell tower, were solid enough. We made a game plan for the evening’s compositions, color options and angles from which we would light up the inside of the church. As the bare trees to the west swallowed up what remained of the day, we climbed back into the car. We had another five hours until the waning gibbous moon would rise high enough to expose the old church.
Wausau proved to be a nice way to pass those five hours with dinner at Hudson’s Grill (where any road trip/Route 66/Americana fan would feel at home) and coffee at a nearby Starbucks, which thankfully stayed open ‘til 9pm. Dozens of news articles, a failed NYTimes crossword and successful Sudoku later we were back on the road. We explored the streets of quaint downtown Wausau for a little while, NYE party-goers walked briskly to their various locations. Then on our journey back to the church, we made a quick gas station stop to grab some hand- and toe-warmer packets, both of which proved less than effective, at least on this particularly arctic evening.
Once again, we pulled onto Estonian Church Rd., drove passed the darkened home to our right (its inhabitants perhaps out for New Year’s or on vacation somewhere warm!). We braced ourselves for the sub-zero temps and set up shop outside the church, the glowing moon rising at our backs. Even though we had explored the battered innards earlier, I still had some trouble climbing the ladder to the bell tower. Four inch wide steps plus four inch tall boot heels make for an interesting combination when stumbling inside a dark building in the middle of the night! I do have to mention that when we first walked up to the church, we heard three distinct knocking sounds come from the building’s direction…as if someone was walking down the ladder steps. It was clear enough to stop us both dead in our tracks with the assumption that someone was indeed inside! No one appeared, but obviously the initial batch of heart palpitations didn’t help my courage while climbing up the steps myself. Eventually, when I grew annoyed with the bell tower window not being lit up adequately, I swallowed my fear and climbed all the way up to the platform rather than cowardly clinging to the top step.
We took a little over half a dozen shots of the north side of the church in four different colors, each exposure a little over five minutes long before moving to the center for a few straight-on shots to include the pulpit. Our fingers and toes were definitely starting to feel the elements now. I actually ran back to the car to put on a third pair of gloves! We moved on to the south side of the church for a just a handful of shots, using only yellow this time. During each exposure, after I was done lighting up the interior, Chris and I would stare up at the sky trying to spot shooting stars. A dog barked in the distance, but otherwise it was deafeningly quiet out there…any other sounds were absorbed by the landscape’s ice-encrusted coating of snow.
About an hour and a half into our shoot, Chris’s camera decided that enough was enough. We pulled off one more shot (my favorite of the bunch!) and packed it in. We blasted the heat and Chris spent the next ten minutes in agony trying to unthaw his toes. At about a quarter to midnight, we said goodbye to the little church. As we drove along toward legendary Highway 51, we glanced inside dozens of brightly-lit homes full of family and friends celebrating the stroke of midnight. After quite the epic year of creativity and adventure for the both of us, we really couldn’t think of a better way to ring in the new year.