STARK — Founded in 1853 to provide a place of worship for all denominations, the Stark Union Church, and its frequently photographed neighbor, the Stark Covered Bridge, are the subjects of a new book.
In October, the Stark Union Church Pew-owners Association voted to retain author Nancy Gray of Groveton to pen the official history of the church and bridge, which, with the Devil’s Slide, a cliff that overlooks Stark Village, constitute an iconic image of the North Country.
Gray recently released a query asking the public to provide materials — letters, news articles, photos and stories about the church and its pew holders — that she can use for her book.
Items can be sent to the Pew-owners Association c/o Nancy Gray, 317 Brown Road, Groveton, N.H. 03582. All items will be catalogued and returned to their owners.
Wayne Montgomery, who with his sister, Jill, and brother, John, owns one of the 48 pews in the church and is a trustee of the association and a former president, said the church represents a practical, Yankee solution to worshiping in a very small, poor community.
Recognizing that Stark wasn’t affluent enough for separate, denomination-specific churches, a group of families pooled their resources and raised $1,050, which was used to build the church. Pew owners, then and now, pay annual dues to cover maintenance, repairs and other expenses.
Several years after the church opened its doors, the Stark Covered Bridge was built immediately to the west, over the Ammonoosuc River. Both the church and the covered bridge are on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the 1890s, the bridge was carried downstream by flood waters but the Stark Board of Selectmen hired a Colebrook man and his team of oxen to retrieve it and put it back in place. The bridge, which has experienced other incidents over the years, celebrated an extensive renovation in June 2015.
By contrast, the church, apart from the inevitable, gradual deterioration caused by time and the elements, has had a less exciting past, said Montgomery.
Never flooded, the church has also not experienced any major fires, Montgomery said, despite being heated in its early days by wood stoves located in each corner. The flues from the stoves met at a chimney, since sealed, in the center of the church, in a design that would probably not pass muster with present safety codes.
Now kept warm by two kerosene heaters, the church has undergone “quite a few changes” in its 166 years, said Montgomery, among them a 180-degree re-orientation of the pews so that they now face east, not west. More recently, he said, the church received two new coats of paint and saw the reconstruction of its windows and belfry, in addition to an overall emphasis on “making this a safe place to worship.”
Still used on Sundays for services, the church once had a doorway at the back of the altar that Montgomery said was used for baptisms in the Ammonoosuc.
Believed to be the oldest continually operating church of its kind in the North Country, the church, said Montgomery, is open to the public, but its pews are owned by the members of the association, and the ownership is recorded at the Coos County Register of Deeds.
“You get a deed to your pew, which is kind of unique,” said Montgomery, adding that the church, apart from worship services, holds weddings and funerals.
However, despite being known through photographs, the church sees “very few” weddings a year — three to four, Montgomery said — because there is no reception hall anywhere near it.
Nonetheless, the church continues on, he said, through dues paid by pew owners and through donations and grants.
Asked about Gray’s endeavor, Montgomery said he hopes her book will preserve the history of the church and covered bridge “so it doesn’t get lost.” He noted that the impetus for the book came from Bob Kidder, who is a member of the association and had been its president for some three decades, during which he accumulated much information about the church.
With the history, “we want future generations to know what happened here,” said Montgomery. It’s not about attracting bus-fulls of tourists because the church doesn’t have enough resources to operate it as an attraction, he said.