RHINELANDER, Wis. In northern Wisconsin's beautiful "Northwoods" of lakes and pine live 225 Latter-day Saints in tiny rural communities scattered about the 200-mile diameter of the Rhinelander Branch, Wausau Wisconsin Stake.
Typical of many Midwest members is branch President Norwell Schreiber, who lives 60 miles north of Rhinelander. He said that he "drives [up to] 30,000 miles annually, mostly Church miles doing home teaching or going to meetings at the branch or at the stake center in Wausau, which is 60 miles south of Rhinelander."
The Northwoods' logging camps and mills supply timber for building needs and paper and provide jobs to residents, including members of the Rhinelander Branch, said President Schreiber. Branch members are also employed as educators and in the tourist trade.
President Schreiber and his wife, Darlene, retired local farmers, are caretakers of several acres of pine trees and lakes on the Michigan border in Land O' Lakes, Minn., owned by a businessman. Sister Schrei- ber said that she and her husband go fishing together every week.
While living on the Michigan border in a resort area puts them away from the hubbub of the busy American lifestyle, the Schreiber's stay in close contact with ward members through phone and e-mail. Sister Schreiber researches family history and prepares names for ordinance work at the recently dedicated St. Paul Minnesota Temple, a four-hour drive, one way.
"He will never cancel a meeting," said Sister Schreiber when asked what happens if they get snowed in. "The plows are out right away."
Because of the distance, "seminary-by-phone" is being tried out in an effort to reach students in the outlying areas, said President Schreiber. He said on the fifth morning, all the students meet together at the chapel.
Even though these youth live in the far reaches of the mission field, they seem to have internalized gospel principles, evident in their talks in a sacrament meeting during which se- minary class members participated.
"I have a strong testimony of choosing the right," said seminary student Marie Lindner. "I know we need to stand for the right even if it is not the popular thing to do, even if we are ridiculed, even if it means we are standing all alone." With some emotion, she added, "The Lord will become our best friend."
Seminary student Kimia Branham of Eagle River, Wis., 30 miles north of Rhinelander, can trace roots in the branch back to her great-Uncle Cecil V. Branham, an early 1900 convert and one of the first district presidents in Wisconsin, according to Kimia's father, Kevin. Regarding seminary, Kimia says, "Seminary starts my day off in a good frame of mind. I bring that positive attitude with me to school. It affects my friends also, in a good way."
Missionary zeal among Rhinelander branch members burns brightly, said Wausau Stake Mission President Art Foster, adding, "The Rhinelander Branch leads the stake in missionary work; they are extremely successful.
"The folks here have really been diligent in working with this. There are 70 people being worked with right now in the branch."
President Schreiber said that three stake missionaries serving in the branch, including branch mission leader Alma Olson work with two full-time missionaries. Of the stake's 42 baptisms in 1999, said President Foster, 25 percent were in Rhinelander. And, he added, "Stake retention is 87 percent."
President Schreiber explain- ed that convert retention in Rhinelander is 100 percent. "They're all coming out [to meetings]. They're all active. Of the 11, probably five go to the temple to do baptisms. All have callings to an extent. The member participation is outstanding. Everyone in the branch is so friendly, they make everyone feel a part whether they are a member or not."
Church history in northern Wisconsin goes back to 1841. At Black River Falls, the saints formed a logging camp on the Black River to cut and raft lumber to Nauvoo for the temple and other buildings. The saints who worked in the logging camp stayed a short time then returned to Nauvoo. Rhinelander is 60 miles northeast of the head of the Black River.
The first permanent meetings began with baptisms in 1925, according to descendants of early local converts. The few members first met in LDS homes and available buildings. Numbers remained small as the total LDS population in Wisconsin during the Depression was 1,000. A branch was organized in Rhinelander in 1938 and a chapel dedicated in January 1941, shortly before the United States entered World War II. Branch membership remained low with 27 members in 1941, because once baptized, many converts moved.
Rhinelander's first LDS meetinghouse, wood frame with several rooms and full basement, was built by members and building missionaries in less than eight months for $6,000, according to historical records. With only five priesthood holders over age 21, explained long-time Rhinelander branch member and stake missionary Vernon Lowther, the members and their friends dug the basement using hand shovels and a farmer member's team of horses. The hand-mixed, hand-poured cement walls of the basement were also hand-smoothed. After the meetinghouse was completed, about 100 non-member youth continued to attend weekly Mutual activities.
Many branch members were local converts or are children or grandchildren of converts. Tillie Mericle of Mole Lake, Wis., at 89 years of age, fondly remembers the full-time missionaries who lived in her community half a century ago and recalls "getting started going to their meetings" in 1944.
"The girls (her daughters) went so I went with them," she said. "We sang 'The Spirit of God.' Seemed like I was going to everything coming up. I liked the cottage meetings. The missionaries held Primary on Thursday afternoon in the church next to the old school house in Mole Lake. I was baptized Aug. 9, 1949. I had a dream that the missionaries were leaving, so I thought, 'They are leaving and I haven't been baptized yet.' "
When asked of her feelings about the Book of Mormon, Sister Mericle said, "It's a good book. I like it. It's one book I read and got a testimony. The day I read it all was in 1964. I was determined to read it all the way through."
She still has that copy. With tears, she recalled, "It was one wonderful night" when she prayed the Lord would never allow her to forget "the good feeling" of that evening. "That was a glorious time. I was so thankful. I couldn't stop thanking Him. I asked Him that it would never leave me. I prayed and I begged for that. When I pray, I thank Him for that all the time."