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Commission on Archives & History

Historical Sites

The Rockland United Methodist Church

by Ronald A. Brunger
(from the Historical Messenger, May 1979)

Location:  Ontonagon County - Rockland is in the western part of the Upper Peninsula, on U.S. 45, some 12 miles southeast of Ontonagon. The Minnesota mine started operations in 1847, and Methodist services began here in 1850.

The other Historic Sites in the Upper Peninsula mark our early Indian Missions at the Soo and at Kewawenon on Keweenaw Bay.  The Methodists began working with the copper miners in the fall of 1846 in the Eagle River area of the Keweenaw Peninsula.  Nothing remains of the early mission work in that area.  The Rockland Church Historic Site reminds us of Methodism's important work with the miners from the early years.

The first Methodist services were held in one of the mine buildings, known as the "Whim House", in 1850.  The Minnesota Mine was expanding rapidly, and several hundred men were employed.  The majority of the miners were English, notably Cornish, and many of them were Methodist.  The company erected a number of houses for the officials northeast of the mine location.  In 1856, the Minnesota Mining Company built what was known as "The Old Church on the Hill", and presented it to the denomination having the largest number of adherents among the miners, which was the Methodist Church.  The day of dedication brought a large crowd together; many people came from miles away.  A bell which still hangs in the local church, was presented to the congregation by Mr. Cash, president of the Mining Company. The bell was cast in Troy, N. Y., in 1858, and weighs approximately 800 pounds.  The copper used in the construction came from the Minnesota Mine.

As time went on, mining operations were started at other points round, and different locations built up.  The National Mine to the west of the Minnesota was a flourishing mine.  The main population of the community moved down from the hill near the Minnesota Mine, and villages sprang up, Rosendale, Webster, and Williamsburg.  In the time the church members and officials decided that it was too much to walk up to the "Old Church on the Hill".  After careful study of their situation, the decision was made to erect a new church edifice on some land acquired from the National Mining Company.  Accordingly, the church was built on the spot where the present church stands today.  The year was 1864.  The bell was brought down from the "Old Church on the Hill", and installed in the new church.

During the pastorate of Rev. George Tucker, 1885-86, extensive repairs were made.  The plaster had started to fall, so it was removed.  A yellow pine ceiling was installed, which improved the appearance of the sanctuary greatly.

In 1892, Rev. Frank Leonard was assigned to the Rockland Circuit, composed of Rockland, Greenland, Sidnaw, Withey and Hubbells Mills (now called Rubicon).  In 1893, the parsonage was built.  The labor was largely donated, and with Rev. Leonard's vigorous leadership, the parsonage was constructed.  Also, under the pastorate of Rev. Leonard, the Methodist Church at Sidnaw was built.  These were "horse and buggy days," and Leonard decided to build a barn.  An old house was purchased for $40.  Rev. Leonard and some of "his boys" razed the building which was constructed of pine lumber, this material was used to build a barn to the rear of the church to shelter Rev. Leonard's horse.  Later Frank Leonard was known as the "Sky Pilot" of the Upper Peninsula as he went to many small communities having no regular pastors. He also served as District Superintendent.

In 1898-99, there was a boom in the copper mining industry.  Several mines which had been idle for years were started up again. The Minnesota Mine started up again, also the Victoria; the people there organized a society and became part of the Rockland Circuit. Services were held there in the schoolhouse on Sunday afternoons.

In 1902, Rev. Harry Gillingham was sent as pastor of the Rockland-Victoria circuit.  Soon he felt that a new church building was needed.  Some years previously, the walls of the old church had started to spread; two iron bars were inserted into the walls to prevent the spreading, but the building began to be quite shaky.  Rev. Gillingham called the members of the Official Board together, and proposed that a new building be erected.  It looked like an enormous undertaking, and the members were inclined to be cool toward a building program.  He promised to raise $2,000 and succeeded in doing this; the members and friends of the church responding to his leadership with a generous response.

During the summer of 1903, the old church was razed, and much of the timber was salvaged and used in the construction of the new church.  In September, the cornerstone was laid by the officers and members of Rockland Lodge No. 108, A. F. & A. M.  Construction work continued and the church was dedicated February 22, 1904.  It was a memorable day in the history of Methodism in Rockland.  The Dedication service was in charge of Rev. G. M. Thompson, District Superintendent, and the principal speaker was Rev. William B. Coombe, pastor of the Calumet Methodist Church.  The weather was extremely cold, but all services were well attended.

In May 1924, Rockland was put on the Ontonagon Circuit with Greenland.  Since that time the pastors have resided in Ontonagon.  The original church site was deeded to a community group which attempted restoration of the church, but it was subsequently destroyed by wind.