To Save Their Historic Church, Leavenworth Neighbors Revive A Tasty, Old-Time Tradition

Jun 2, 2017

On a windswept hillside in Leavenworth County is a weather-worn wooden church that’s been there for nearly 150 years. For more than a century, Little Stranger Church was a place for worship and celebration   — until it wasn’t anymore. But now, some locals are trying to bring it back, and they have a powerful incentive: home-made pie.

“I started off with some rhubarb, then I had the best piece of pecan pie I ever had in my life and then I finished up with this banana cream, dark chocolate graham cracker,” says Mark Stevenson, a guitar player in the Kansas City band The Kemps.

Stevenson and his partner Scott Gobber have been the entertainers at the annual pie social at Little Stranger Church for a couple of years now.

Scott Gobber (left) and Mark Stevenson sing "I Long to be a Cowboy," a song Stevenson wrote for their duo The Kemps.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

“I really felt like please, if I approach the pie table again don’t serve me," Stevenson says. "I’m pie-eyed. You know, I’m totally pie saturated.”

Little Stranger Church is the oldest wood-frame church in Kansas. Settlers from across the river in Farley, Missouri, came here in the late 1850s. They built the church in 1868 with wood milled from local cottonwood trees, and named it for nearby Little Stranger Creek. It was a meeting place all the way up until the 1980s. But the building was starting to fall apart and people talked about pulling it down.

Carrie Ritchey takes a break from church-yard maintenance inside Little Stranger Church. With the third annual pie social approaching, Ritchey says there is a lot of work to be done.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

Carrie Ritchey was having none of that.

“This building was built right after Kansas became a state and the people that came from Farley they built it because they felt the conditions were so harsh that they needed a place to fellowship and join together,” Ritchey says. “I think we’re disrespecting those people if we don’t take care of what they’ve given us.”

A couple years back, Ritchey and others were able to get the church listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Now Ritchey can apply for grants for restoration projects. In December, they replaced the roof. Over the summer they’ll shore up the foundation. But this kind of work is expensive and grants don’t cover everything. So folks around here stepped in to raise the rest of the money. That’s where the pies come in. 

Several boxes of old photographs and church meeting minutes have helped inform restoration work at Little Stranger.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

“You say, ‘Why a pie social?’ Well, in reading some of the old minutes and things, they had pie socials, they had oyster suppers, they had box socials, So I thought pie social, hmm, we can do that,” Ritchey says.
 

Veteran pie baker Martha New, 92, bakes several pies each year for the pie social.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

She didn’t have to look far to recruit one baker. Just up the road, her mother, 92-year-old Martha New, is still winning prizes for her baking. Last year she took home first place at the Leavenworth County Fair. With 16 grandchildren and 31 great grandchildren there is always a reason to bake, and pie is a favorite treat.

“I like cherry myself, cherry or apple,” New says. “A lot of pies, even fruit pies, are thick. I like juice cause you put a scoop of ice cream, you know, it’s really nice.”

New is one of about a dozen bakers. She says these pie socials remind her of old times.  

“It’s more fun than you can believe,” says New. “People just sit there and visit and visit and visit and visit and visit. People used to talk face to face.”  
 

A rhubarb pie cools on New's kitchen counter.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

Baking pie is a lot of work, but New says she doesn’t mind. It’s for a good cause.

“I think it’s a great old building to survive the winds and the tornadoes and the rains and the snows and the vandals,” she says with a laugh. “And it’s still there and it’s strong. And so it’s worth loving and caring for, I think.”

Meanwhile, performers Mark Stevenson and Scott Gobber have been tightening their set list of gospel songs for Saturday's event.

“I describe it as going to the rock," Stevenson says.

Gobber added that there’s something special about performing at Little Stranger. “It’s inspiring to us. Sweet people. Beautiful location. And if there’s a breeze on that hill it is just gorgeous. And we sound good out there.”

Of course, a slice of homemade pie also makes the gig attractive.

The third annual Little Stranger Church Pie Social will be held on Saturday, June 3 at 1 p.m. - 4 p.m., 16698 Stranger Rd, Leavenworth, Kan. 

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.