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Irish cottage, Cottonwood County

It is a sturdy relic of historic Minnesota Protestantism. Someday my wife and I may sit comfortably in its sunny interior — even spend the night — and reflect on the remarkable richness of the faith here and everywhere.

The full story began to emerge when an Irish sound technician came to visit. She was working on “Delafield,” the 2002 television documentary about closing and moving an old church to Fort Belmont in Jackson, Minnesota.

Between shoots, she visited Shalom Hill Farm, a rural retreat and education center run by Pastor Margaret Yackel-Juleen and her husband, Pastor Mark Yackel-Juleen, near Windom, Minnesota.

Pastor Mark Yackel-Juleen of Shalom Hill Farm near Windom, Minnesota, has learned that an old chicken house is actually an Irish pioneer cottage. Metro Lutheran photo: Marc Mequet

The technician marveled at something she saw on the property — an old building once used as a chickenhouse. It was about 15 feet square, solidly built of plastered field stone, full-cut timbers buttressing the interior.

Once we get down to dirt level, I’m hopeful that I can see where their cookstove was located

It is no chickenhouse. It is an Irish cottage, she proclaimed, and it might as well have been shipped directly from County Cork — except it has been where it is for more than 100 years.

Historians have since confirmed that assessment. The building dates to the late 19th century and reflects Irish farmers’ careful building techniques.

Mark Yackel-Juleen’s subsequent research helps fill in the story:

Shalom Hill Farm stands on the onetime homestead of a German Mennonite named Johann Hooge. About 1889, a Northern Ireland Presbyterian immigrant, Edward McCauley, acquired the land from Hooge, who moved to nearby Mountain Lake, Minnesota. No one knows why Hooge sold the high ground on the claim to McCauley and kept swamp and bottom land for himself. Eventually the land all went to McCauley.

More details about Hooge emerged a few years ago when his relatives visited Shalom Hill Farm. Hooge evidently had no horse, so he walked the 12 miles into Windom, bought a shovel, and walked back home. His aim was to build a sod house and dig up saplings by the creek to transplant elsewhere on the property. Such a “tree claim” could double one’s land from 160 acres to 320, explained Mark Yackel-Juleen — who thought he might find the sod dugout’s outline this summer before the grass got too tall.

Irish immigrant McCauley arrived in the area in 1886 and worked as a hired hand at two nearby farms. When he acquired Hooge’s claim, he probably moved into the sod dugout Hooge had built. Mark Yackel-Juleen thinks the beams still in the cottage were dugout salvage — white ash now rare in the area, used up by pioneer builders. An English-style barn on the property was likely McCauley’s work as well. The barn’s foundation remains.

McCauley, born in 1862, returned to Ireland in 1892 and married Anna Martin, age 18, bringing her back to Minnesota in 1894. Whether the cottage awaited her is unknown — but it would have been a nice wedding present, especially compared with a sod dugout. “This is what I would have done,” quips Mark Yackel-Juleen.

The couple lived in the cozy place, and during the 1890s Anna had two boys. A third boy died at birth in 1913. The boys may have slept in a loft above those reused timbers until, in 1915, the family built a new house just 100 feet away. It still stands, expanded. The Yackel-Juleens live in it.

It tells a rich story of deep faith roots in southwestern Minnesota

Mark Yackel-Juleen plans an archaeological survey of the cottage floor this summer. He removed a cement floor he didn’t believe was original, and will carefully sift soil inside the cottage, hoping to find coloration differences or perhaps artifacts that will hint at what went where in the one-room house. “Once we get down to dirt level, I’m hopeful that I can see where their cookstove was located,” says Mark. He puzzles about an 18-inch-high floor-level alcove near the only door. “One of the little mysteries,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense as a chimney.”

Ultimately, he may have the sturdy cottage restored as a guest house for visitors. Contractors have assured him it is in good condition.

Mark only wishes he could have heard the haggling between the Irish Presbyterian and German Mennonite, resulting in the Presbyterian getting the high ground that would become known as McCauley’s Hill and the Mennonite settling for swamp and bottom.

Maybe the Irishman smooth-talked the German. Or maybe the wily German got what he wanted after all: My wife notes that her own German-American grandfather liked having low, wet ground on his Martin County farm in case of drought. The crops might at least grow there.

Or did the Mennonite generously offer the best of the parcel for what the newcomer could afford? We don’t know.

What we do know is this: Pastors Mark and Margaret serve a set of parishes in the same area where my wife’s great-grandfather, pioneer pastor Heinrich Julius Muller, started more than Lutheran 30 parishes — just at the same time that Ed and Annie were building their own lives as good Presbyterians. Minnesota’s Protestant roots are tangled and indeed go deep, but faith still blossoms in the pews each Sunday.

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