Column: The artistic legacies of the woodcarver and the model maker

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 15, 2002

One of the most interesting local artifacts from the past has to be the model of a sailing ship now on exhibit in a glass case in Jacobsen Fellowship Hall at Trinity Lutheran Church.

About a century ago that same small ship hung from the ceiling and above the altar of the Trinity Church when it was located on West College Street. Proof of this can be seen with an old photo in the files of the Freeborn County Historical Museum Library.

Information with this photo says the display of a small sailing ship in a church follows a Danish tradition. Words from an old hymn explain this symbolism of this tradition: &uot;The ship of the King is sailing from the earth to the heavenly land.&uot;

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Trinity’s model ship was created by Christian Jensen, a sailor and immigrant from Aarhus, Denmark. He farmed near Goose Lake and was Albert Lea’s first milkman. And that’s about all I’ve been able to find out about this particular model maker.

After Trinity moved from West College Street to the present site on South Washington Avenue in 1924, the small ship was put in storage and nearly forgotten for over five decades. It was restored by Morrie Moorhouse in 1976 and put in its present display case in time for Trinity’s centennial observance in 1977.

While I was interviewing Marjorie Neve and Katie Jacobsen, co-chairmen of Trinity’s recent 125th anniversary observance, I was given information about a very talented Danish-American woodcarver with a local connection. This man was the artisan who created the altar area fixtures in both Trinity Lutheran Church and Geneva’s Community Lutheran Church.

This woodcarver’s original name was Jes Petersen Schmidt. He was born 1855 on a farm in the Danish border region known as North Schleswig. Jes started his carving career as a wooden shoe maker.

When Jes was a teenager his part of Denmark was taken over by the Prussian Germans. He, for some reason, dropped the &uot;ch&uot; from his last name to become Jes Smidt for the rest of his life.

Jes came to the U.S. in 1882 and lived in and near Clinton, Wis., (to the east of Beloit) for a few years.

Jes went back to Denmark in 1886 and persuaded his fiance to come to the U.S. They were married in 1888, had three children, and moved to West Denmark, Wis., in 1906. This rural locality is situated just west of Luck, Wis., on Polk County Road N.

In time, Jes became an artist and woodcarver. During a span of 32 years he created 22 altars, 10 pulpits, eight altar rails, four baptismal fonts, four lecterns, and 13 clergy chairs, plus other wooden items and even a number of violins. Most of Smidt’s work was crafted from native Wisconsin oak and some black walnut, and all done with hand tools.

His religious creations went to Lutheran churches and institutions in South Dakota, Iowa, Texas, Nebraska, California, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

A list complied by Edwin Pedersen of rural Luck, Wis., a grandson, shows that Albert Lea’s Trinity Lutheran Church has an altar, pulpit, altar rail, baptismal font and two clergy chairs. It’s likely these items became a part of the present church in 1924, and Smidt may have been on hand for their installation.

Items listed for the Community Lutheran Church of Geneva are the altar, pulpit and altar rail. Just when these three items were installed isn’t known. Also, there’s an interesting question as to which set of Smidt’s church fixtures, Albert Lea or Geneva, was installed first.

Jes Petersen Smidt died on July 1, 1942, and is buried next to his wife (who died in 1930) in the West Denmark Cemetery.

Tribune feature writer Ed Shannon’s column appears Fridays in the Tribune.