Feb 6, 2012
Back in my college days, my route to and from Sioux Falls took me south of Midland, South Dakota on Highway 63. There is a place on that road that you can see a lone country church on a ridge a few miles away to the east. I always loved that site. I'm not exactly sure why, but I suppose the scene spoke to my rural roots and spiritual beliefs. Mix the vast expanse of South Dakota's West River prairie with a symbol of my faith and it produces a sort of transcendent and serene feeling. It's hard to describe, really. There is something inspiring about a lone church spire standing upright in the midst of nature's immensity — a kind of study in contrasts with these small centers of spiritual community amidst what can seem to be endless nothingness.
When I worked for KSFY's news department right out of college, I spent a good deal of time on the back roads of Minnehaha and surrounding counties chasing stories. I noticed a lot of other picturesque country churches on these trips. Back then I had an idea that someone should do a coffee table book on these rural churches. I’ve finally taken the time to go out and photograph a few of these myself over the last year. In doing so, I’ve discovered that the buildings and sites often hold a great deal of historic value in addition to their photogenic beauty.
Take St. Basil’s Church along Highway 212 near Ridgeview, for example. During the blizzards of 1949 and 1950 it served as a haven for stranded travelers who were forced to burn some of the pews to keep from freezing. Sounds like a plot for a good short story to me.
The country churches on the eastern side of the state are primarily Lutheran and usually have a single tall spire at the front of the building. I really like how they look against the colors of a South Dakota sunrise or sunset. Another way to capture the beauty of a rural church is to get low and shoot the structure against an interesting sky. Try changing the photo to black and white and see if you like the results. One of my favorite church photos was taken on a dull gray day last March near Canova. For most of the day, I wasn’t finding any good photos because the light was terrible. As the day grew late and the sky darkened even more, I happened to drive by Immanuel Lutheran. Despite what I though was bad light, I shot what I saw so as to remember to come back at a later time when the light was better. When I got back home, I started playing with the image in black and white and really liked the image. Sometimes photography is funny like that. That’s one of the things that make the hobby fun for me.
The photos you see here are just a small sample of the many country churches in our state. I’d love to hear back from you on your favorite country church. It would be fun to go out and try my hand at shooting more of these inspiring scenes.
Christian Begeman grew up in Isabel and now lives in Sioux Falls. When he's not working at Midcontinent Communications he is often on the road photographing our prettiest spots around the state. Follow Begeman on his blog.