TIPTON, Iowa — Sometime this week, a company with a national reputation for moving large buildings expects to tackle one of its biggest challenges yet: moving a 150-year-old church from rural Cedar County about 12 miles over mostly gravel roads and a farm field to a new spot in Tipton.

The South Bethel Church, believed to be the oldest continuously operating rural Methodist Church west of the Mississippi River, closed a year ago because of declining membership. Rather than see it sit empty or be torn down, the eight to 10 active members of the congregation offered it to the county’s historical society.

Jeff Kaufmann, a community college history teacher and state representative from Wilton, Iowa, chaired a committee that raised the money — almost $60,000 — needed to move the church to the society’s museum site, where it will become part of a Prairie Village exhibit.

“We beat the bushes,” Kaufmann said of the fundraising. “We knew we had something special here. This church represents a direct and unbroken link to our earliest origins as a county. It is a living memorial to our heritage.”

Kaufmann will be among those cheering from the sidelines later this week when Jeremy Patterson House Moving Inc. of Washington, Iowa, the second-largest structure-moving company in the world, attempts to relocate the church.

Success is anything but assured.

Patterson, whose company moves 400-500 buildings a year and whose credits include The President riverboat (which once was docked in Davenport) and factory buildings, said the church presents an unusual challenge because of its size and the terrain over which it will travel.

While Patterson has moved buildings that are far heavier, the church is plenty large: about 40 feet high, 40 feet wide and 82 feet long. Because of that, the building will be “hanging over the ditches” of the country roads, and “there are lots of hills we are going to be going up and down,” he said.

Weather — namely too much rain — could throw a monkey wrench into everything.

“The physical challenge will test our men 100 percent,” Patterson said last week, speaking from New Orleans, where his company was moving slab homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

What happens if the truck gets stuck in the field?

“Then we’re screwed,” he replied. “We’re banking on the faith of the church to get us through.”

Lots of other people and entities are involved.

Employees of the Cedar County roads/engineering departments have built two earthen entrances to allow passage between fields and roads, and they will take down (and reinstall) road signs as the church passes by.

Members of the Cedar County Sheriff’s Department will provide traffic control.

Historical society volunteers will handle the mailboxes, and crews from three different utility companies will take down and reinstall power lines.

Also on the sidelines will be a film crew that is producing an episode for a new reality show called “Heavy Haulers” for cable TV’s The Learning Channel.

“Heavy Haulers” will feature Patterson’s company exclusively. John Driftmier, a director for the film crew, said Patterson is a good subject because he is “exciting, larger-than-life, a magnetic personality.”

Church was the center of lives

For the people of Cedar County, however, the move is all about preserving a large piece of their past.

“This church is not just a spiritual center, but a social center,” said Kaufmann, whose family worshiped there for five generations. When people in south Cedar County wanted to get together, they went to the church because it was literally the only public building within miles.

“It was the center of all those folks’ lives. They prayed together, worked together, comforted together. You can just feel it. This church was the heart and soul of something.”

Freda Chambliss, 89, a descendant of one of the church’s original members, said the move makes her  happy and sad at the same time.

“I hate to see it moved from the hill, but I am so happy the society wanted it,” she said.

The church’s stained-glass windows, pews, altar, organ and piano all will stay inside for the move, said Sandy Harmel of the historical society.

The church will be the fourth building in the historical society’s Prairie Village. An 1840s log cabin was moved there in 2007, and a country school and blacksmith’s shop now on the county fairgrounds in Tipton will be moved there this week, ahead of the church.

“We wanted the buildings consolidated in one place,” Harmel said.

The society intends to rent the church for weddings so it can generate money for the organization’s ongoing operations, similar to how Olde St. Ann’s Church is used at Scott County’s Pioneer Village in Long Grove, Iowa.

“We have every intention of making this a happy ending,” Kaufmann said of the move.