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Historical Society board votes to raze Bonanzaville church heavily damaged by fire

Bonanzaville volunteers John Bartholomay and Eugene Christl look over the fire damaged St. John's Lutheran Church on Monday, July 21, 2014, in West Fargo. David Samson / The Forum 1 / 3
The fire-damaged St. John's Lutheran Church at Bonanzaville in West Fargo.2 / 3
South Pleasant Church near Christine, N.D. Carrie Snyder / The Forum3 / 3

WEST FARGO – The Cass County Historical Society voted Thursday to raze Bonanzaville’s church, which was heavily damage  by fire Saturday, after learning the cost to repair it would be more than what will be covered by insurance.

At a special meeting, the board decided it would move forward with replacing the church with one of the five area buildings that have been offered as a replacement.

The leading contender as a replacement is South Pleasant Church in Christine, a building that looks almost the same as St. John’s Lutheran Church, which served as Bonanzaville’s tourism beacon since 1967.

The fire is believed to have started between the main floor and the basement ceiling. The West Fargo Fire Department was able to get the initial fire under control in the morning, confining the damage to the first 10 feet of the church, but the fire starting smoldering again that afternoon, causing extensive fire, smoke and water damage.

Fire investigators finalized a report this week on the fire that was called in about 4:30 a.m. Saturday and listed the cause of the fire as “undetermined.”

“There is severe damage to the building,” board President John Monilaws said. “We were able to remove probably 95 percent of the church’s furnishings, pictures.”

Bonanzaville insured the building under the North Dakota State Fire and Tornado Fund for a cash value of $27,655.

“It’s deemed a total loss as far as our insurance company is concerned,” Monilaws said. “It’s my understanding that they will issue a check to Bonanzaville for that amount and wish us luck.”

Monilaws said he obtained two rough cost estimates to repair the church. The first estimated the cost to be from $450,000 to $500,000 and a second estimate came in at more than $1 million.

A contractor estimated the repair would take at least 150 days, Monilaws said Thursday.  

Before anything can be done, even before demolition, the structure must be checked for asbestos. If any of the dangerous material is found, abatement must be done, which will cost upward of $3,000. Fire restoration cleaning could also cost up to $50,000.

Along with the church in Christine, churches in Kragnes, Minn., and in Wyndmere, Maddock and Litchville, all in North Dakota, contacted Bonanzaville officials, offering a replacement building.

Monilaws said the South Pleasant Church is not only close – about 21 miles from Bonanzaville – but would likely fit well on the existing foundation.

The Christine church recently updated the siding to steel and a new roof was installed.

The board hopes, like with St. John’s Lutheran Church, the building will be donated to Bonanzaville.

“If they donate the church, it’s up to us to move the church,” board member Kathleen Taft said.

A moving estimate was not available Thursday.

To help pay for the costs of the new church, the board approved starting work on a new fundraiser designated for the building. One of Bonanzaville’s largest events, Pioneer Days, will be Aug. 16 and 17. The event, which generally helps raise funds for Bonanzaville and the Pioneer Village as a whole, will continue as planned.

A fund for the church will be set up at Bell State Bank & Trust, Bonanzaville interim Executive Director Emily Wehlander said.

St. John’s Lutheran Church was built northwest of Horace in 1898. Services were held at that site until 1967, when the building was donated to Bonanzaville.

Since then, it has served as Bonanzaville’s landmark and a wedding venue.

Wehlander said Maple Sheyenne Church, a rural church in Harwood, N.D., has offered to host the weddings that were scheduled at Bonanzaville at the end of September and the first weekend in October. 

As the board moves forward with demolition and a final decision on the replacement, the church‘s steeple and bell will be preserved. 

Monilaws said he hopes to create a monument with the pieces, which would be placed near the replacement church.

Wendy Reuer

Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and at CBS in Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 

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