A Family Legacy

Sheila Craig remembers church hymn written by her grandmother 50 years ago

Sara Stromseth-Troy

BURR OAK, IOWA – Fifty years after its publication, Sheila Craig remembers a  hymn written by her grandmother, Genevra Smith, an ode to a country church where she was a lifelong member.

“The Little White Church on the Hill,” penned by Smith, was completed with notation assistance by Myron Heaton, a friend of the church minister at the time, Pastor Mearle L. Griffith. Its lyrics describe the United Methodist Church located in Burr Oak.

The hymn was published 50 years ago, in the summer of 1966.

Craig recalls, “My grandmother was a native of Burr Oak. She lived about one block away from the Burr Oak Methodist Church, and could see the church from her house. She was a farm wife and homemaker.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the church hymn ‘The Little White Church on the Hill”, an ode to Burr Oak United Methodist Church written by Genevra Smith, grandmother of Sheila Craig (seated at piano). Church pastor Linda Thompson of Cresco (standing) calls the hymn a ‘tremendous legacy.”

Craig said her grandmother was also a talented musician.

“She played piano by ear and didn’t need written music.  She would write song words and make up the music. I have the words to a couple other songs, but the music was never written down. I sure wish we would have pursued that more.  She played for her own enjoyment, and the hymn was sung and played at church a few times.”

For her part, Craig keeps close to the family’s roots in Northeast Iowa:

“I was born in Decorah, and grew up on the family farm south of Burr Oak.  It was at least a third generation farm: George and Myra Smith, my great grandparents, and then transferred to Arthur and Genevra Smith (Grandma Nev) my grandparents.  After Arthur passed away, Grandma Nev moved into a home in Burr Oak and my parents farmed the farm.”

As for music, that talent also remains:

“My mom and I did not inherit that talent, but we both play.  My mom played very well and was the Burr Oak United Methodist Church organist for over 50 years.  I took lessons when I was in elementary school, but never acquired the skill that my mom had, and certainly not the talent that my grandma had.”

As Craig notes the 50th anniversary of her grandmother’s hymn to her home church, she says, “I’m very proud of her.  Not many people ever wrote a song or had one published.”

The current pastor of Burr Oak United Methodist Church, Linda Thompson of Cresco, also recognizes the hymn’s milestone:

In this photo published on the back of the sheet music of ‘The Little White Church on the Hill’ in 1966, the hymn’s writer, Genevra Smith, is shown viewing a copy of the sheet music with arranger Myron Heaton and Mearle Griffith, pastor of the Burr Oak United Methodist Church.

“This is a tremendous legacy for the church that has some pretty deep roots,” she said, adding that Burr Oak United Methodist Church is “an open and welcoming church.”

Services at Burr Oak United Methodist Church take place at 10:30 a.m. Sundays, with Sunday school beginning at 9:30 a.m. after Labor Day.

Sheet music

In 1966, Pastor Mearle L. Griffith penned a description of the publication process of “The Little White Church on the Hill” that appears on the back of the sheet music. Among his observations:

“’The Little White Church on the Hill’ is a typical rural church of the type vanishing from the hills and prairies of this country. This song was written especially about the Burr Oak Methodist Church in Burr Oak located –as the song suggests—on a hill in the scenic part of northern Winneshiek County, Iowa.

“The spirit and enthusiasm which has made this particular church an influence in northeastern Iowa and southern Minnesota for more than 110 years enables an active witness when other churches have been forced to close.

“At present she has a membership of 102 and maintains an average attendance of 90 for Sunday services.

“Many of the members can recall nearly half of the church’s history in their own experience. One such member is Mrs. Genevra Smith, a life-long resident of the community and an active participant in the life of the church for more than 70 years.

“The Little White Church on Top of the Hill” was written by Mrs. Smith as she has reached her later years and reflects upon the church which has meant so much to her. Despite the fact that her eyesight and health are failing, she is still regular in attendance and enjoys the “old favorites” which are sung in the little white church.”

The hymn is dedicated to Joyce, Sheila and Shari Headington.


Sara Stromseth-Troy is a freelance newspaper feature writer for The Cresco Times Plain Dealer, and serves as Young Adult Librarian and manages the social media accounts for The Cresco Public Library. Fortunate to grow up surrounded by an extended family of music educators, she is honored to volunteer in blog writing and social media for The Spirit of Harmony Foundation, on whose advisory board she sits. She lives in Cresco, Iowa.