It was the early 1900’s in rural Scott County.
The area around Summit Presbyterian Church was quiet, with only the sounds of crickets and cicadas chirping and humming in the approaching dusk. Occasionally, the sound of livestock would drift across the fields to add their part to the evening symphony.
The sound of approaching hoof beats broke the chorus as a buggy came down the road toward the church. Soon, a wagon arrived, and then another. They pulled into the grassy area around the white clapboard building, and their passengers climbed out.
They all knew one another, and greeted each other with smiles and handshakes. Many of their families had attended church here, and many of them had known one another their entire lives.
The people all lived nearby, and most of them were farmers. Like farmers today, the conversation quickly turned to the weather, crops, and livestock. They began to walk into the church, and as they did, they shared news of their families and what was going on in the nearby towns of Eldridge and LeClaire.
Once inside, the men gathered at a table while the women took out some lemonade and light refreshments. The women went about their tasks effortlessly, and soon everyone was served and seated.
One of them spoke up and got everyone’s attention. They were a church committee, and their meeting had just been brought to order. Little did they know that it was a meeting not unlike this one that had led to their church being built. They knew even less that their evening would end up tinged, ever so slightly, by the bizarre.
The area around Summit had been settled by Presbyterians from Pennsylvania. They were true believers, and worshipped to the best of their ability. But, there was an issue complicating matters: roads.
Roads in the rural America of the 1850’s were terrible in general. They were made of dirt, and when it rained hard enough, the dirt road would inevitably turn into a mud road. All of the travelling methods that they had available to them in that area left them very much exposed to the weather – cold, heat, rain, snow, etc.
Long distance travel was slow and often uncomfortable. Unfortunately for the Pennsylvanian Presbyterians, the nearest church was several miles away.
But these were tough men and women, not willing to give in to the whims of the Iowa weather. For a long time, they made the journey every Sunday that they were able. But even the most enduring individual has their breaking point, and eventually they reached theirs.
While at a house holding a church meeting, they made a decision – build a church closer to them. Liking the idea of having a church closer to them (and probably tired of taking a wagon several miles through the rain), they all agreed and began to make preparations with a local Presbyterian minister to make it happen.
By 1859, they had constructed the Presbyterian Church of Summit. That was kind of a mouthful, so they quickly began referring to it simply as Summit Church.
More families began to settle on farms in the area, including several Germans. All were welcome at Summit Church, though, and the pews steadily began to fill. The young couples who settled there began to have children, and began taking them to services along with them.
When those children grew up and got married, the cycle would begin anew. But, the neighborhood never outgrew their little country church.
Summit Church was a rural institution, built by local families for local families, and was just remote enough that families outside of that area didn’t really attend services there. So, while the congregation of Summit grew, it never got to be too big.
And while Summit was updated over the years, it never really changed all that much. The families that attended services there were doing so in a building that the founders would have easily recognized.
The church committee that night certainly knew it. For them, going to services and meetings at Summit was probably felt just as familiar to them as visiting old friends in their living rooms.
The meeting progressed steadily, with an informal tone. Every item was brought up in due course, and dealt with promptly. Before they knew it, the meeting was over.
The committee cleaned up what was left of the lemonade and their refreshments, leaving the church as clean as they had found it. Slowly, they began to filter back outside.
Another round of conversations was had, followed by more smiles and handshakes. Then, the individuals climbed into their buggies and stated back down the road toward home.
For most of them, the trip was uneventful, but not for all.
As one woman travelled down the dark road, she noticed something across one of the fields. There were lights there, hovering above the ground. She couldn’t see anyone holding a lantern, nor could she see anything else causing them. They were just…there.
Another woman also had an odd experience that night.
While approaching an orchard, she thought that she saw horses there. As she came closer, the woman decided that the horses were just plum trees.
Both women went home and soon told others about their experiences.
It’s hard to say what they saw that night.
Utica Ridge Road can be, like many secondary roads, very dark. Obviously, the roads were good enough to travel on that night, but not so bright that the source of the mysterious lights could be seen.
Could it have been the moon reflecting off of something left in the field? Or maybe a farmer and his sons were searching for livestock that had strayed? Were the horses in the orchard or were they just a trick of the light?
Or was it something much stranger?
We can’t really say for sure. We know that the woman thought the lights were strange, which implies that it was something that she hadn’t seen before, or it was something that was somewhat familiar, and yet still…off.
Did the other woman really see horses in the orchard that night that simply vanished when she got too close?
Either way, we’ll probably never know for sure.
In many cases, an incident can be explained away rationally. It was a trick of the light, or a sound was misheard. The incident rightly goes into its proper drawer and filed away.
But sometimes, things happen that you just can’t explain. They make no sense, and there’s no logic to them. Any explanation just doesn’t quite fit. It’s these cases where the question of belief is really called into play.
Some choose to slam the square peg in the round hole, hitting it as hard as they can until that incident fits into the rational category of their choosing. Others embrace the incident and accept it for what it is – unexplained.
I’ve told a lot of ghost stories this Halloween season, and at the end of each one you, the reader, are left with the choice of believing, disbelieving, or something in between. Were there ghost lights or was it the moon reflecting off a piece of metal? Was it horses in the orchard, or just shadows playing tricks on the eyes?
As October closes, and November begins, I realize that I’ve made my decision. The question that I leave you with, dear readers is what do you choose to believe?