Old church rings with music at annual bluegrass service

If you walk out the front doors of St. Olaf Church 15 miles north of Red Lodge, you see the high peaks of the Beartooth Mountains spread out on the horizon.

Nearer at hand you can trace the paths of Red Lodge Creek on your left and Volney Creek on your right, the two streams divided by an expanse of rolling, grass-covered hills.

Farm families, most of them Norwegian, used to live up and down both creeks, and those Lutheran families founded St. Olaf in 1904, gathering in people’s houses until the church building was completed in 1921.

Few families are left in the area and there are services only six times a year at St. Olaf now—on Christmas, Easter and the second Sunday of June, July, August and September.

“On Christmas this place is packed,” the Rev. Robert Leaverton said. “It’s a fire marshal’s nightmare.”

Leaverton, a retired Lutheran minister who lives in Absarokee, presided last Sunday over the second-most-popular event of the year at St. Olaf—the annual bluegrass service.

Nearly 70 people, about a quarter of them musicians, turned out for the 1 p.m. service, followed by a potluck dinner in the church basement and a bluegrass jam up in the sanctuary.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

St. Olaf Church was in a bad shape 40 years ago, but it is in good repair now.

During the service, the emphasis was on the music, performed by Canyon Creek, a Billings band, and the Sure Enough String Band out of Columbus. Each band played seven or eight songs, and the congregation was invited to join in.

“If you know the words to any of these songs, folks, chime right in,” Leaverton said.

After a handful of opening tunes, Leaverton led the congregation in a few short prayers and then said, “I call again on the Sure Enough String Band to crank it up.”

That they did, though when they finished, lead singer Barbara Bott turned to her listeners and said, “I think I owe somebody an apology. This was a last-minute thing and we sang the wrong song.” No one seemed to mind.

The sermon was short and mentioned a “Norwegian compass,” an empty Copenhagen tobacco tin with a mirror inside. If you get lost, you open the can and take a look. It won’t tell you where you are, Leaverton said, “it will only tell you who is lost.”

There was also a collection, with all proceeds going to upkeep of the church, followed by still more music. The closing tunes included “How Great Thou Art” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”

The Canyon Creek band included two Indrelands, brothers Terry and Trent, who grew up on the family ranch not farm from the church. They both live in Billings now but still own the ranch, which they lease out.

Terry Indreland said the bluegrass service started 14 years ago, when Jim Smith of Red Lodge approached him with the idea of using such a service to raise money for St. Olaf’s maintenance.

The idea took hold. There probably weren’t even 20 people, counting the musicians, the first year, Indreland said, but sometimes it’s been so crowded that part of the congregation had to sit in the basement during the service.

This past Sunday the crowd was closer to average in terms of numbers and consisted mainly of older couples, with a smattering of younger people and a few children. Just about everybody brought food and filed downstairs after the service, feasting on salads, sandwiches, goulash, meatballs and an entire table of desserts.

It was past midafternoon before the jam started upstairs, by which time the wind was blowing hard outside, with storm clouds gathering. That might be why only a handful of listeners stayed for the jam, which featured about 15 musicians, who traded licks and songs for another hour and a half or so.

One musician who was at the first bluegrass service and was there last Sunday was Archie Bott, an 84-year-old guitarist and singer who still picks sweet runs on his trusty Martin guitar. He was with the Sure Enough String Band, which included his wife, Barbara, and a younger couple, Dawn and Brad Sherseth.

“It’s always important to play with younger people to keep yourself in the game,” Bott said.

Marilyn Weast, a cousin of the Inderlands who grew up on Volney Creek eight or nine miles from the church, now lives even closer, just a few minutes away from St. Olaf.

When she was a kid, she said, 30 or 40 people attended services, which were held every other Sunday. In the winter, parishioners took turns arriving early to stoke up the big wood-fired furnace in the basement. When it was her father’s turn to tend the furnace, she said, the rest of the family missed the service. They had only one car, she explained, and it was too far for her father to drive home again after getting the furnace going.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Let’s see: An altar painting of Jesus framing a bandanna-draped upright bass. Must be the bluegrass service at St. Olaf.

As the number of families declined, Terry Indreland said, the church “just died. It got smaller and smaller and smaller.” Weast said the church was finally abandoned in 1969 and was beginning to fall into disrepair when her brother decided to get married there in 1976.

She and her parents spent a solid week cleaning the church up before the wedding, and in 1977 former parishioners and people in the area got serious about sprucing the place up.

“They’ve been raising money and repairing it ever since,” Indreland said.

In addition to fundraisers, Hollywood also lent a hand. The movie “Amanda” was filmed there in the mid-1990s and the producers paid the church something like $11,000.

“‘Amanda’ is what re-sided it,” Weast said. The movie starred Kieran Culkin, a younger brother of “Home Alone” star Macaulay Culkin. Weast said there was some kind of family disagreement over the movie and it was never released in the United States.

More money came in when Mercedes-Benz filmed a car commercial at the church, and still more when an Italian clothing company did a photo shoot there, Weast said.

Besides new siding and a new roof, the tidy little church’s plaster walls have been repainted and everything—including the 16 wooden pews, wood floors, altar and pulpit—all look well cared for. The stained glass widows were repaired and partially replaced by Susan Kennedy Sommerfeld of Kennedy’s Stained Glass Studio in Billings.

The bulk of the fundraising and the work on the church has been done by locals, or by people whose families used to live in the area.

“That’s what’s kept this going is the community,” Weast said. “We’ve never been affiliated with anybody.”

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