The First Congregational Church of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota was organized in 1872 by the Reverend Hiram N. Gates. Gates was the minister of the Congregational Church in Connecticut when he received a commission from the American Home Missionary Society to establish Congregational churches in settlements along the newly constructed line of the Northern Pacific Railroad in northwestern Minnesota. Before leaving the East, Gates met Colonel George H. Johnston, who, as president of the New England Military and Naval Bureau of Migration, was in the process of establishing a colony at Detroit on lands purchased from the Northern Pacific Railroad Company (the name of the town that was to Detroit Lakes in 1926). Many of the original settlers of the “New England Colony” were Congregationalists, and Johnston convinced Gates to settle there.
Reverend Gates preached his first service in Detroit in the New England House, a hotel, on February 18, 1972. When the church was formally chartered the following August, as the First Congregational Church of Detroit, it was the first church in Detroit and the first Congregational church west of Duluth on the Northern Pacific line. Gates served as its minister until 1873, when the congregation received its own resident pastor. He continued to live in Detroit and to serve other mission churches along the line of the Northern Pacific Railroad until 1874, when the American Home Missionary Society appointed him superintendent for Nebraska.>
Construction of a church began in 1872 and was completed in May 1873, on land donated by Colonel Johnston. The railroad, eager to encourage the colony’s development, transported the lumber for the building free of charge. This building was used by the congregation until 1893, when the present church was completed. The original church was destroyed by fire in 1969. In 1957, the Congregational Christian Church joined with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ. The First Congregational Church of Detroit Lakes, sensitive to the Congregational tradition of local autonomy, voted not to affiliate with the merged church; it was one of eight Congregational congregations in Minnesota to do so. However, the church does belong to the Northern Pacific Association of the United Church of Christ. Information about the establishment of the Detroit Colony and the role of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the early history of Detroit Lakes may be found in the Minnesota Historical Society’s microfilm edition of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company Land Department Records, 1870-1876.
This collection consists of two rolls of microfilm. Correspondence and miscellaneous papers are divided into four groups: materials pertaining to the history of the church; correspondence relating to dismissal or transfer of membership, church officials, ministerial calls, and related topics; legal and financial records regarding church property, including bank statements, contracts, insurance policies, invoices, and mortgages; and annual reports. The annual reports consist of lists of new members and elected officials; minutes of annual meetings; reports of church auxiliaries, ministers, Northern Pacific Association, Sunday school, treasurers, and trustees; and statistical summaries of church activities. Volume 1-5, Church Records Books, record the names of members, ministers, and church officers; baptisms; deaths; marriages; and minutes of annual and special church meetings. Volume 6, Church Historian’s Record Book, contains a summary list of church members and officials. Volumes 7-10 consist of minutes of meetings of the board of trustees and the church council. Volume 11 is a daybook of receipt and disbursements; Volume 12, Sunday School Cradle Roll, is a register of infants. Volumes 13-18 contain records of various church auxiliaries: the Recreation Club (Volume 13); the Fortnightly Club, and organization for young women (Volume 14-15); the Ladies’ Aid (Volume 16); and the Men’s Club (Volumes 17-18). Some volumes contain historical information that predates their creation.