The Sentinels of Time

If you come to visit the fort at Fort Atkinson, IA and have a little extra time, there are some interesting remains of an old church just north of the fort. Historical markers tell the history of St. James Lutheran church. The graveyard has several old tombstones with stories to tell that are not on the historical signs.  

Most of the four walls of the church still stand, but the roof which sheltered this congregation is long gone. The west wall gives the appearance of two sentinels standing watch over the ruins. Their original task was to hold up the roof and windows, but that duty is no longer needed as the roof and floor are long gone. Now they quietly stand and watch over the remnants.  

Ice and snow have weakened their joints so now they are stoop shouldered, showing their age. Yet, despite the ravages of time, they still stand their post waiting to greet the curious, the tourists, the historians, the descendants, and the caretakers.  

On the north side of the church stand two headstones of particular interest to me, those of Lorentz Falck and his wife Anna Marie. She was his second wife and there in lies the story.  

Lorentz Falck was born in 1817 in Balbron, Alsace. In 1844 he married Salome Glass, who was born in 1823. Around 1850, they immigrated to America with their three sons and moved to Pennsylvania, joining other family members. In 1852 Lorentz, his brother Jake, and his brother-in-law, Lawrence Glass, came to the Fort Atkinson, IA area to farm. Once everything was ready, Salome and their three sons came to McGregor, IA by riverboats. While traveling by wagon from McGregor, family tradition says that some wild horses spooked their team into a runaway. Salome was thrown from the wagon, striking her head. She died several days later, leaving Lorentz to care for their three sons by himself. I believe they would have been about 8, 4, and 2 years old.  

Lorentz realized he needed to remarry. His plan was to return to Pennsylvania to find a suitable partner since the Falck and Glass families had married each other for many generations. These arranged marriages between the families had been going on since the 1500s. He left his three sons with his brother’s family and headed out, intending to take riverboats to St. Louis and then to Pennsylvania. After he arrived in St. Louis, somehow or other, he met a woman by the name of Anna Marie Breihiner. I wish I knew the details, but she agreed to marry him, come to Fort Atkinson and raise his three sons. Wow! What a life-changing event, and with someone you just met and children you had never even seen! What faith and courage she must have had! In this day and age, her choice would be viewed as accepting a sentence for years of hard labor for a crime you did not commit. But the pioneers that built Iowa saw things differently. What an opportunity to be a part of this new land.

In the picture of Lorentz and Anna Marie, notice her hands. Do you see any fancy jewelry? No, you see the hallmarks of hard work caring for a family. Each joint is like a diamond, each callus a sapphire, each crease a ruby in the eyes of those who understand what gives meaning to life. These are the hands that helped turn a house into a home. They are not worn-out but spent in service to a family. In addition to the three sons, she and Lorentz had three children, two girls and a boy.

On June 11, 1888, at the age of 61, Anna Marie immigrated once again to that distant shore and is now forever young. Lorentz joined her on the first of September 1902. Many of their descendants still call the Driftless area home.  

You may ask why I am interested in this obscure Fort Atkinson farmer and his wife, Anna Marie. Well, if it were not for them, I wouldn’t be here. You see, Lorentz Falck and his bride from St. Louis are my great-great-grandparents.

So now the sentinels of time stand watch over the final resting place of these well-worn hands that turned the Driftless area from a place on the map into a home. The four walls of the church no longer echo the hymns of praise and worship, but the sentinels remember what it was like. They stand as guardians of this time passageway.  

As you leave this hallowed ground to head back towards the fort and pass the sentinels, pause and give them a salute. They have been on duty for a long time. Perhaps as the wind blows through their crevices, you can hear them humming the song they heard so long ago, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God…”. If you listen intently and the wind is from just the right direction, you may hear them whisper what they have observed. “Life is short, use it wisely, life is short, serve others, life is short, love abundantly, life is short but God is eternal”.  

Writing and Photography by Stan Johnson