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Members Keep Sunday Services Going in 1880’s Milltown Church

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Lura Roti
Darlene Juhnke has attended the Milltown United Brethren in Christ Church since childhood. She is among a dedicated group of members who volunteer their time and dollars to keep the rural church doors open.

Just 10 miles east of Parkston on a hill overlooking the James River sits the United Brethren in Christ Church. The white wooden church opened its doors in Milltown, South Dakota in the 1880s and services have been held there every Sunday since thanks to a dedicated congregation who value their rural church.

“We all went down to the river, it was where the old bridge was. We were standing at the top, there were two that were baptized. I think they were 12 years old. It shows where they dunked them under the water,” Darlene Juhnke said.

Photo album pages crinkle as Darlene Juhnke describes the last baptism that the Milltown United Brethren in Christ Church congregation witnessed on the banks of the James River just across a gravel road from the church.

Baptisms, weddings, funerals - Milltown United Brethren in Christ Church has served this rural farming community since 1880.

And as the population of this community has decreased, so has the congregation. But members like Juhnke are dedicated to keeping its doors open and bell tolling.

Juhnke grew up in the church. At 85, she cleans the church weekly, turns the heat up the Saturday before services and helps schedule minsters. Her brother, Dean Simmons supplements weekly offerings to compensate pastors and pay for building heat and maintenance. A neighboring farmer does snow removal.

Whether there are 10 or 30 in attendance, members are determined to hold services each Sunday.

“Milltown Church has celebrated some 150 years and there has never been anything preached from this pulpit other than the Gospel,” Maurice Bueber said.

Maurice Bueber is one of five ministers who take turns sharing the weekly sermons here. The congregation became too small to support a full-time minister in the 1970s.

Bueber preaches the third Sunday of each month in the evening. He says he looks forward to the opportunity each month.

“That makes it just fun. The history of the Milltown Church, the fact it is the only United Brethren Church, the fact the Church was built in 1880, still the original building, original pews, original pulpit – I mean that is pretty amazing stuff. And it isn’t every church where you have the opportunity to use an outdoor biffy,” Bueber said.

A musician, Bueber also provides special music with his friend, Merlyn Tiede and the church pianist, Ruth Buchman.

Because the pulpit was designed more than a century ago for the original pastor - a man of short stature - an 8-inch block of wood was long ago added to its base.

Throughout the decades, many have leaned on this pulpit as they shared lessons from the Bible. Including the father of famous American aviators Orval and Wilbur Wright.

Local historian, schoolteacher and pastor, Dan Flyger.

“You maybe have heard of a couple of famous people who were part of the denomination. One of them was a fellow by the name of Francis Scott Key. He was a hymn writer for the United Brethren in Christ Church…And we know that Milton Wright came here and preached in this church here in Milltown South Dakota,” Flyger said.

When Milton Wright preached at the Milltown church in the 1880s, there were perhaps five United Brethren in Christ Churches in the state. Today, the Milltown church is the only remaining church of this denomination. And it’s the only church in Milltown. Most of its members began attending as children. This is the case for Jennifer Martinez.

“My husband and I have looked into several different churches and we keep coming back here. My kids are very active and a part of this. My son, he helps read and light advent candles. We love being a part of this small church….I love the old hymns that we sing. Some of the churches we have gone to have amazing praise bands and songs you will hear on the radio if you listen to the Christian channels. We still sing from the hymnals,” Martinez said.

An after service potluck in the church basement is another tradition members enjoy each Sunday at the Milltown United Brethren in Christ Church.

In the video below, local historian, schoolteacher, and pastor, Dan Flyger gives the history of United Brethren in Christ Church.

Lura Roti is a freelance reporter working with SDPB.