Landmarks: Zoar Norwegian Lutheran Church in Day County
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On a hill overlooking the deep, cool water of Pickerel Lake, nestled among the verdant hills of Day County, sits Zoar Norwegian Lutheran Church.
The building’s aesthetic is a laconic Gothic Revival, with wood frame walls and clapboard siding. A square bell tower rises from the gable roof, crowned with a conical steeple.
Interior features include pressed metal vaulted ceiling, hardwood floors, a communion rail and plain plaster walls.
Built in 1904, the Church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as significant in the area of Ethnic Heritage. According to the registration form filed with the National Park Service, the designation was made because the Church “was associated with a small but distinctive enclave of Norwegian-Americans who homesteaded in northeastern Day County alongside a larger, dominant group of Polish-Americans.”
Incorporated in 1880, Day County did not see a large influx of European immigration until 1892, when parts of the Sisseton Wahpeton reservation were opened to settlement by non-Indians.
At that time, Kosciusko Township — named for a Polish hero of the American Revolution, and a name generally well-known to Polish Americans — became a destination for Polish homesteaders, on the western outskirts of the reservation.
Alongside the larger Polish Catholic community, a group of Free Lutheran Norwegian-Americans settled near the lush, green banks of Pickerel Lake. This group organized around Zoar Lutheran Church in 1893, worshiping at first in homes and schoolhouses, until the funds had been raised for the Church and construction was completed. A cemetery preceded the Church edifice in 1895.
Services were held and records were kept in Norwegian. In the 1930s and 40s, the congregation began to shrink as the economy slumped and congregants looked elsewhere to make a living.
Despite the downturn, the church helped establish a Lutheran youth camp, in conjunction with other regional Lutheran congregations, which still operates in the area. In 1953, the congregation merged with others in the area and by 1960, the Zoar Church was seldom used. Today it stands as a spartan testament to the small group of Norwegian immigrants that settled in Day County.