(First published in the May 24, 2018 issue of City Pages)
The effort to restore this long-empty church in Gleason is led by local moviemaking legend Bill Rebane
CHAD LEMMENS AND DAVE KALLAWAY
A person could easily pass by the Estonian Evangelical Martin Luther Church in Gleason. The simple little church built more than 100 years ago is tucked away down a dirt driveway, within a copse of trees next to a farm field.
But once you make your way down Estonian Church Road and enter the property, there’s a definite “feeling.” I’m not the only one who notices this. Other visitors struggle to describe it: Eerie or haunting come to mind, but those words imply a threatening presence, and that’s not quite right. The place just seems to have a gravity. Perhaps because despite decades of neglect and vandalism, this simple wooden church with a handsome steeple, in the middle of nowhere and in a state of disrepair, still feels like something meaningful.
Its current warden conveys a sense of gravity himself. As he stands in front of the weathered-gray building, Bill Rebane seems the perfect man to rebuild the historic church, which has been empty since the 1950s. A brown cigarette hangs from the lips of this 81-year-old wearing a weathered baseball cap, hunting shirt and jeans. Rebane gives the impression of a character from another time and place, and in a lot of ways he is, with his own particular mystique.
In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s Rebane operated a movie production studio in Gleason, about 15 miles northeast of Merrill. It was for a time the only operating movie studio in the Midwest, and it was here that Rebane created a succession of B-movies that involved many Hollywood actors.
Even today Rebane has the slow, precise voice of an actor from a Hollywood classic. He almost cast Ronald Reagan in one of his movies in the early 60s. (The film’s investors passed on the idea, saying Reagan was a has-been at that point; a friend of Reagan’s ended up in the cast instead.)
Now Rebane finds himself in the position of being a historic preservationist, after being passed the reins by one of the church’s original founders.
It hasn’t been easy. The sturdy but old tongue-and-groove siding has kept the church standing longer than it should have, says David Towles, a retired carpenter and handyman in Merrill who serves as the church’s sole volunteer, besides Rebane.
The church essentially has been abandoned for decades. Vandals have struck often. Whereas years ago it was treated as a party shack by local teens and suffered only the occasional theft and mess of beer cans, the building abuse worsened over the years. Satanic symbols were spray-painted on the walls, and a new bell Rebane bought for the church was stolen (as was the original).
The church has had its benefactors. In the summer of 2015 Rebane and the Estonian Evangelical church organization in Chicago held a fundraising concert in the Gleason church itself with Estonian singers Kart Johanson and Tonis Magi. Called the Hingemaa (which translates to “Land of Soul”), the concert brought roughly 100 people to the church. The concert itself didn’t make much money, but did result in a $10,000 donation from an Estonian Church organization in Baltimore.
And recently, Wausau photographers Chad Lemmens and Dave Kallaway have been visiting the photogenic church. They used the images to set up a GoFundMe page and create postcards to help raise money for the church’s restoration.
“It’s old and it has a lot of character, and there isn’t much around it,” Lemmens says.
Kallaway and Lemmens have come to know its character well, spending twilight and darkness hours on site to take the photos. “It’s not supposed to be a creepy type of church the way it comes across today,” Lemmens says. “But because it’s old and run down, it has that persona.”
Why save it? Because as the first church constructed by Estonian immigrants in the U.S., it’s a fascinating piece of history. There’s also something ephemeral, haunting and compelling about a little place of worship in the middle of the woods. You could call it hingemaa— the soul of the land, or in this case, the building.
From B movies to historic preservationist
Bill Rebane, known for B movie classic The Giant Spider Invasion, in front of the Estonian church he is working on restoring.
Rebane is perhaps best known for the now cult horror classic The Giant Spider Invasion. The 1975 movie famously used a Volkswagen car to create the monsters attacking the small city of Merrill and surrounding countryside, and starred Alan Hall, Jr. (best known as the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island) as the sheriff. It was featured in a 1997 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
When I called and asked if he’s the same Bill Rebane of that movie, he replies in a resigned tone “I’m afraid so.”
His Gleason-based studio and sound stage produced a number of B movies, all catalogued on IMDB. One of his first works sold to NBC, a television special about the snowmobile craze in 1970. His next project was a science fiction film called The Selected, which Rebane says was the first Hollywood film to utilize an entirely Wisconsin crew. Its world premier took place at the Grand Theater.
It was almost by coincidence that Rebane ended up in Gleason in the 1960s. He lived in Chicago at the time, and on a fishing trip in northern Wisconsin found himself stopping in a tavern in nearby Irma. After talking with folks about land up there, Rebane decided the area was as good a spot as any to run his post-production studio (it was shortly thereafter that he got the bug to make movies himself). He called his wife to tell her he’d just bought a farm in Gleason. “She went berserk,” Rebane says.
Rebane was born in Riga, Latvia; his father was Estonian and his mother Latvian. But he had no idea the Irma-Gleason area was a major settlement of Baltic-region immigrants in the early 1900s. From his new neighbors, Rebane came to learn about the once large number of Estonians who settled in that part of Lincoln County. And then he learned about the church, which by then already stood empty and unused except for occasional picnics and gatherings by those who took pride in the historic landmark.
In the early 1970s, Rebane was introduced to one of the church’s original founders, then in a nursing home. “He was absolutely elated to find a young buck even interested in the church and being Estonian,” Rebane says. “He pleaded with me to do whatever I could to maintain the church.”
The church was built in 1914 by Estonians immigrants. At one point, thousands of Baltic immigrants lived in the area, many working in the lumber industry. They flocked to the area because they heard reports that Gleason was exactly like Estonia (even today 50% of that country is covered in forests and is one of the least populated countries in Europe).
There were two major waves of immigrants from the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, says Linda Rink, executive director of the Estonian American National Council in Philadelphia. The first began in 1897, and included those escaping the chaos of the Russian Revolution and Bolshevik occupation around 1917.
Estonians in Gleason built the church along with Latvians who lived there too. The Latvians later built their own church, which burned down in the 1960s but their graveyard is well preserved. The Estonian church’s graveyard holds few gravestones. Rebane says he’s found about a dozen grave sites total, but only a few headstones still stand.
The church was abandoned in the 1950s, after the prominent local Estonian Pay Brothers decided to support a new church in Irma. But that family still cared about the keeping the historic church intact, Rebane says. It was the Pay Brothers who introduced Rebane to an original founder of the church, Albert Sommi, who asked Rebane to do what he could to preserve the church as a landmark of Estonian roots. The guard was officially passed.
The church remained independent, not associated with any larger organization until 1992, when Rebane had the legal papers drawn up to officially connect it to the national Estonian Evangelical Martin Luther Church. That was a big and necessary step in Rebane’s long efforts to preserve the church.
Today, there aren’t many immigrants of Estonian or Latvian decent left in the area, says David Towles, the church volunteer. Many of the sons and daughters of immigrants moved to more populated areas.
Laying the foundation
CHAD LEMMENS AND DAVE KALLAWAY
Photos by Chad Lemmens and Dave Kallaway took a series of photos that included use of drones, and made postcards to help raise money for the church’s restoration.
While Rebane is working to restore the historic Estonian Church, he’s also been restoring himself. Rebane suffered a stroke in 1988 and was incapacitated for three years. His illness and the costs he incurred caused his studio to go under.
A bankruptcy petition was filed in his name during that time; he still doesn’t understand all the details. “I didn’t know what happened until I got my senses back two-and-a-half years later,” Rebane says. “My small empire was gone. I tend to get pissed off when I think about it.”
Now living in Saxon, Wis., Rebane has a crew of younger folks he works with, and together they’re working on a documentary about the church that will hopefully raise money toward the church’s restoration. They’re also wrapping up a feature film Rebane had been working on years ago: Ghostly Obsession, a paranormal drama. That’s due to release in June.
And he was recently contacted by a distribution company to bring The Giant Spider Invasion back to theaters for its 50th anniversary in 2025.
So why did he answer “I’m afraid so,” when asked about the being the man behind The Giant Spider Invasion? Rebane was hoping to get out of the horror/sci-fi business at the mid-1970s. “In Hollywood, when you’re typecast as a writer of horror and science fiction, you can’t do comedy or dramas,” Rebane says. He wrote a screenplay at the time that’s quite a departure from giant spiders —a feel-good Christmas drama called Rosemont,which finally got made in 2015.
And the church is now on a more solid foundation, literally. An attempt about four years ago to bring Estonian construction volunteers up from the Chicago area didn’t go very well. Towles became the sole volunteer, and probably a great one to have for the restoration. Towles spent years working in trades such as carpentry and restoring historic buildings.
Together Towles and Rebane managed to get a new, solid floating foundation under the church to keep the building stable. Money raised at the concert to fix the roof instead had to go to the foundation (otherwise the roof repairs wouldn’t have lasted). And the roof will need to be finished by a professional crew because of liability reasons, Rebane says. So raising funds for that is the next step. In the meantime, Towles donated a jade cross that now hangs on the back wall of the church.
CHAD LEMMENS AND DAVE KALLAWAY
The church does occasionally host services from visiting ministers. Towles says services have been performed in English, Estonian and even German (many Estonians speak German).
The Gleason church is a unique cultural site for Estonian-Americans, because, Rink says, it’s the first church built by Estonian immigrants in the U.S. The problem is its location in the middle of nowhere. From Wausau it’s a nearly hour drive, and several hours from major cities. Even if the church were turned into a museum, Rink says, it would be a tough sell to convince people to make the trip with little else around it.
For Rebane, restoring the church is more than preserving a piece of history; it’s about creating a place of peace, where anyone can enjoy the surroundings and feel the solemnity of the site. It already has drawn people from all over the country, from Estonian-Americans, Estonian singers, photographers and those just interested in old buildings. The place just seems to exude a force that pulls people to it, for reasons that are hard to understand.
Lemmens has set up a new GoFundMe page for the church at gofundme.com/estonianchurchWI.