Preserving 'The Old Rugged Cross'

Reed City historian reflects on history of Rev. George Bennard and his famous hymn

REED CITY — A unique piece of Christian and local history stands in a field tucked in the northwest corner of Reed City. It’s a simple wooden cross which stands as a monument to Rev. George Bennard, composer of the 1912 Christian hymn “The Old Rugged Cross.”

Bennard was a Methodist minister in the Salvation Army who traveled the country preaching and composing songs with his wife, Hannah (Dahlstrom) Bennard.

The song was first performed in Pokagon in 1913 when he was preaching in the area. The Bennards moved to Reed City in the latter portions of their lives, leaving the town with most of the couples’ possessions when they died.

These keepsakes of Christian music history ended up being placed in the Old Rugged Cross Historical Museum, located at 780 N. Park St., under the care of museum president Richard Karns.

The museum displays a mock-up of the Bennards’ living room, including one of George’s guitars and Hannah’s piano, which George used to compose the first notes of “The Old Rugged Cross.”

“Rev. Bennard wrote the song in 1912, and it was first performed in 1913,” Karns said. “He had his own music company and he toured the country, preaching and playing music. The museum is here because he retired here. When he died in 1958, all his belongings went to Mrs. Bennard, who gave it to Reed City in her will when she died in 1978.”

The museum shows the plain lifestyle the couple lived, focused on God and music. There are also newspaper articles about Bennard and his famous hymn. Karns said Reed City is fortunate to have such a famous figure touch the lives of so many people in the area.

“It’s our responsibility to keep this history,” Karns said. “Rev. Bennard brought a lot of people to faith. For people around Reed City, we have a lot of great things going for us. This is something we need to preserve – it’s an important part of the area’s history.”

Karns said thousands of visitors from all over the country, and sometimes the world, visit the museum to sing “Old Rugged Cross” next to the piano and guitar on which the tune was first played.

“When people come here, they have a connection when they lay their hands on the piano and sing the song using the instruments he used to write it,” Karns said. “People from Japan, Australia and France have visited. People just have a connection to the song.”

The museum staff keeps the piano in tune and invites people to play. Karns said many have shed a tear during the song’s playing, overcome with emotions the hymn provokes.

Karns has a personal connection to Rev. Bennard, as he and his two sisters sang at his funeral in Ashton in 1958.

“I remember he was about my height,” Karns said. “He spoke loudly and had this presence through his voice. He spoke regularly at the Ashton Methodist Church. He had this unique gift to really touch people in a spiritual way.”

While touring the museum, visitors can browse through other artifacts from the Bennard family, including a hand-written version of “Old Rugged Cross” from August 1958, just two months before Rev. Bennard died.

“When you get older, you just have a greater sense of things,” Karns said. “I think that’s why he decided to write this copy.”

In 1954, the “Old Rugged Cross” was first erected 50 yards from the Bennard home on Mackinaw Trail Road. When the couple died, the Dahlstrom family donated one-eighth of an acre of land as a permanent location for the memorial. The Reed City Area Chamber of Commerce allocates $300 of its annual budget to maintain the location.

The first cross stood until the late 1990s, when deterioration caused the cross to be replaced. The second cross was blown over from strong winds in 2012, leading to the creation of the cross that’s still standing.

“‘Old Rugged Cross’ came to him after thinking of the torment Jesus suffered,” Karns said. “I think it’s up there with ‘How Great Thou’ Art’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ in terms of popularity. It depicts Jesus’ suffering and the salvation it brings.”

Since the cross has been built, dozens of church groups have used the site as part of their services, and people still drive by to take pictures next to the monument to the song that’s been song around the globe.

“The song speaks to the little people,” Karns said. “It speaks to all of us. Jesus died for the poor, not just the rich. The last parts of the first verse speak of our salvation, and that’s pretty powerful stuff.”

Karns and other volunteers maintain the site of the cross and the museum, preserving history for the next generation and passing along Rev. Bennard’s message.

“I’m proud to think I’m preserving something important,” Karns said. “We need to preserve this part of Reed City history and the message Rev. Bennard spread, which relates to everybody.”

Karns said he still meets Reed City residents who have never been to the museum or seen the cross, and he tries to relate its importance and why remembering the past matters.

In his 70s, Karns looks to the younger generation to take up responsibility and care for the cross in the years to come.

“You don’t realize what you have until you don’t have it anymore,” Karns said. “People find they have such a strong connection to the song and the things Rev. Bennard preached.”