“Wisconsin’s Lost Towns,” Rhonda Fochs

New Hope (Benson’s Corner)

“Tale of the three churches”

Rhonda Fochs wrote this about Benson’s Corner, now named New Hope:

“Benson’s Corner was the stuff of childhood, of memories and stories.”

Fochs also wrote about the book “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes” by George Victor Martin. It depicted his wife Selma’s childhood in Benson’s Corner. Later the book was turned into a movie by the same title. The town was constituted in 1865. Most residents were Norwegians.

Today the town boasts, “New Hope lies completely on the terminal moraine of the last Wisconsin glaciation. It is, therefore, hilly with some kettles and several small lakes formed in the kettles. One of the most beautiful lakes and also most popular lake is Sunset Lake.” I can vouch for that. The landscape in the area is beautiful.

New Hope is one of the oldest towns in Portage County. It was constituted in 1856. Back in the day, the town had a few stores, a post office, and a creamery. New Hope was the community’s formal name because that was the post office designation, But the more popular name was Benson’s Corner. Peer Benson operated a store in the town in the 1870s. In his book mentioned earlier, George Martin called it Benson Junction.

The County published a Comprehensive Plan for New Hope in 2017. This is new Hope’s Vision Statement for the next 20 years:

“The residents of the Town of New Hope envision that the Town will remain a primarily rural community that retains its agricultural heritage. Decisions regarding new growth will be made to ensure compatibility with the existing rural character of the Town.”

This is Martin Nelson’s general store and warehouse on the corner of CH T and Hwy 161. This was once James Nelson’s General store. Mark Nelson, previously named Mathias Gjefsen, worked for James, James gave him the name Mark Nelson, and Mark took that as his name. Mark subsequently bought the store.  I do not know how, when, or why, but this store is no longer here.

Instead, it was replaced by a gas station and auto repair garage. This building, in pretty rough shape, still stands in the same corner.

I want to show you the rear because a neighbor told me an interesting story.

She said this building was once used as a jail in the basement. She said it was a holding pen until the police could transport the suspects to the central jail. Neat story, but is it real? However, I did see what looks like an entry-exit area in the basement!

A resident said this home’s foundation once served as the foundation for the creamery. I bumped into another who has lived in the town most of her life, and she said that is true. Apparently, the people who ultimately bought the creamery had it torn down except for the stone foundation. They then built a house on top of that foundation.

I accidentally ran across the New Hope Town Hall while traveling on  CH A off Hwy 66, east of Rosholt. Driving south on CH A, I spotted a small and old bluish building off to the right at the intersection of CH A and Town Hall Rd. It stands there alone, about a five-mile drive from the New Hope ”Town Center.” I looked inside through the windows and saw places for people to sit, a platform from which some could talk, and an American flag hanging. I have not found out if it is still in use.

Next came the fun part of my two visits to New Hope. After the first visit, I learned through research there were three churches in the town.

As it turned out, I had only seen and photographed the newest of the three during the first trip. This one is Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, right next to the old gas station. I believe this church was built in 1926-1927.

Its address is in Amherst Junction, yet another name for New Hope: Benson’s Corners, Benson Junction, and The Corners.

The congregation began as “a small group that built a church in an apple orchard almost a century ago under the name Our Savior's Evangelical Lutheran Church of New Hope … New Hope, Rosholt and Alban congregations of the 1870s through the mid-1880s were affiliated with the original Norwegian Synod.”

After the first trip, I learned of the other two. I, therefore, returned to photograph each of them.

This one was and is called the New Hope Lutheran Church. It is commonly known as the North New Hope Church.

Settlers, as with all the churches here, were primarily Norwegian. They organized and incorporated the congregation in 1857. They settled in a largely Scandinavian region of Wisconsin but wanted their church. I mention this because this church’s history is tied to neighboring churches in a fascinating way but is too complex to describe here.

At first, they worshiped in the homes of members. The first church building was built in 1864 on the present cemetery site, on CH T at the intersection of CH T and MM, north of town. It was moved to its current location across from the cemetery in 1901. It burned down from a lightning strike. A new structure was built in 1925 and still serves the congregation.

There was a significant division among the members. Synod debates over church doctrines compelled some families to leave the New Hope Lutheran Church.

They organized a new congregation in 1888 as The New Hope Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation of Portage County commonly referred to as the South New Hope Church. They built their new church in 1889, about four miles south of the original church, also on CH T.

The last service was held in 1967. The congregation had dwindled and could not support the church. My sense is the building fell into a state of disrepair.

However, in 2011-2012 community residents organized a restoration project. They contacted people in the community, those with relatives buried in the cemetery, and others. They received a great response. A newsletter was begun to keep all hands informed of work accomplished and identify new tasks that must be addressed.

The committee first had to organize its priorities. Number one was to improve the structural integrity of the building. It was severely threatened. That involved replacing beams and timbers and correcting leakage. Animals were using the building as a home, which could not stand.

They organized teams to work on the different challenges. They hired a construction contractor for some of the work. Restoration began in spring 2012. The contractors started work inside before spring.

Volunteers came out to remove a rotten wood basement floor starting in February 2010. A new concrete floor was poured. Over the following weeks, rotten wood studs were removed and replaced, the original 1945 wiring and doors were replaced, the entire premises were cleaned, a lot of fresh paint was applied, and you can imagine all the other tasks that had to be completed over the ensuing years, such as those associated with the roofing and siding.

Added to the construction restorations, the volunteers also tackled the cemetery, cleaning, brushing, raking it out, removing trees, and extending it. The grounds always seemed to need attention. The church was opened on July 4, 2016, for people to see. Work continues into 2020.

After the restoration took off and work got done, as you might imagine, the organizers transitioned into a Board of Directors, and a South New Hope Cemetery Association was formed. Raising funds was a unique challenge. A strategic plan was required to enable additional revenue streams for upkeep and maintenance.

Arguably the best part was that the Board invited the community to use the facilities and grounds for their projects, such as weddings, funerals, memorial services, family reunions, and organizational events and meetings. That is happening as I write.