Most mornings, unless the roads are snowy, we take a shortcut to the office on Highway YZ. About halfway along, just off the road to the south, is a tiny white church with the words: Simpson Chapel 1861.
We’ve driven past it for many years, wondering about it, even imagining little country weddings and such, but always in too much of a hurry to stop. Today, though, our curiosity finally gets the best of us, and we pull over and get out, just to see what the front of the church looks like.
Quite plain and simple, really. We walk up the wooden stairs, and try the doorknob. To our surprise, the door opens, and we step into another world, another time.
As small as the chapel looks from the outside, it is well set up for a service inside. There are 11 wooden pews, and several chairs. A pulpit, cabinets, even a pump organ. We sit down in one of the pews and reflect on all the things people have prayed over, since the church began its services the first year of the Civil War. We feel peaceful, and privileged to be here.
On the wall to the left of the pulpit is a short history of the Simpson Chapel. It was built in a carpenter’s shop in Dodgeville, used by a German congregation for a time, then hauled to its present site by Benjamin Elam and his four-yoke team of oxen in 1861, to serve the worship needs of farmers east of town. It held regular services until the early 1940’s, and has been the scene of five weddings and countless christenings. At just 18’ x 20’, it is one of the smallest churches in this country.
Reluctantly, we get up to leave. We like that there’s a fly swatter hanging on the wall by the door. It reminds us of a favorite Emily Dickinson poem, “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died.”
Once back at the office, we decide to find out more about Simpson Chapel. Melva Phillips is the woman to talk to. At 85, she is one of the five remaining members of the Simpson Ladies Aid.
“Six generations of my family have gone there for church,” says Melva. “I was married there on February 16, 1946.”
Not long ago Melva added some of her own money to the Ladies Aid treasury funds to put a new roof on the church. People around here do things like that.
We ask her why the door is never locked, and she says, “If somebody wants to get in, they’re going to break down the door, or smash a window, so why bother to lock it.” But we think there’s a more spiritual reason too – the chapel is always accessible to any wandering pilgrim seeking solace.
Melva tells us there will be another wedding at the Simpson Chapel, come October. Beautiful time of the year, out our way. We just might stop by.
Later on, leafing through a booklet from the Iowa County Historical Society, we find this verse, which nicely captures the appeal of the tiny church:
“Out where the air is pure and sweet
Out from the city with its noisy street
Away from the rush and jam and show
Back where the fragrant flowers grow
Stands little Simpson Chapel.”