Brian Roebke photo
Walter Croll, a musician who grew up in Minnesota but most recently lived in River Falls, has purchased the St. John Ev. Lutheran Church building in Wrightstown and plans to rename the building Turner Street Music Hall.
By Brian Roebke
If you had fears of something crazy being done with the current St. John Ev. Lutheran Church building in Wrightstown, relax.
The building, located at the intersection of Fair Street, High Street, and Turner Street, is being purchased by a Walter Croll, who is a musician but is so much more.
With a variety of life experiences under his belt, Croll is excited to bring music to the old church that was built in 1911 but deemed no longer the best place for the congregation to gather.
“I’ve wanted to live in a church ever since I was a young adult,” he said. When he was in his late teens, he remembers walking around some lakes and seeing a small but well-constructed stone church in Minneapolis over and over and thought how cool it would be to live in a church.
Fifteen years later, the church was sold and it’s turned into a home.
While Croll won’t be living in the St. John church building because of zoning codes, he plans to spend a lot of time there with his passion for music.
Croll had been operating a music store in River Falls when the pandemic came and he had a hard time thinking about going back there after the shutdown ended because the rooms were small and he wondered how safe it would be.
“I’m a lung cancer survivor so my lungs are sensitive and I’m susceptible,” he said.
One day he was surfing the web and started to look for churches and found one in Wrightstown that was on the market but listed as a commercial site, not a church.
He put a bid on a church in Connecticut a few months ago that fell through but he’s happy with ending up in Wrightstown, with his daughter going to college and son moving to Iowa, he had nothing tying him to River Falls.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be neat if I woke up in the morning and went into this church and started to play my viola or guitar or whatever string instrument,” he said.
Having played many times for weddings in churches, he believes instruments sound so beautiful in churches.
He knows there are a lot of barriers to anything a person wants in life, and in this case, they fell like dominoes and now he’s on the verge of closing on the Wrightstown property, living in De Pere.
“It’s going to happen by the end of September or the beginning of October and then I’ll probably be ready to go at the beginning of November.
He’s going to preserve as much of the church that he can, although the congregation is taking the altar and pulpit from the sanctuary.
“Other than that, everything is going to pretty much stay the same,” he said. He’s converting part of the basement into a workshop because he likes to work with wood and with instruments.
His business plan is lessons and performances.
“I’m a string teacher,” he said. “If it’s got strings on it, I can play it. It’s hard to admit, but I’ve been playing musical instruments for 51 years.”
Croll has much experience teaching, starting when he was just 14 years old because they didn’t have a guitar teacher at the music store in his hometown of Rochester, Minn., and he was a pretty good player.
He doesn’t think he was a good teacher at that young age but started gaining experience and it led to teaching through his mid-20s in the twin cities.
He knows that everyone learns differently and he loves being able to find out how he can connect with a person to teach them. “I also strongly believe that anyone can learn to do anything because there’s only two things you need for it,” he said. “You need some knowledge and you need experience. Maybe a third thing you need is some guidance if you want it to go smoother than trying to knock down those barriers on your own.”
Currently when most people are learning to play an instrument, they must go to Green Bay or Appleton, but he hopes some of those people will learn from him — and others he’s looking to recruit — in Wrightstown.
He’s looking for teachers of woodwinds, brass, piano, and percussion, and there’s always the organ that’s remaining in the building.
He wants to make it nice for teachers because they’ll have parking, waiting rooms, teaching rooms, referrals, and they can work on their own schedules.
“It will give the community a place to get lessons, kids will be able to do recitals and performances,” Croll said.
After high school he went to college … for a while … but dropped out to play in a band. He went back later in life and got his degree.
“I got cancer when I was 43 and it was devastating in the sense that it was lung cancer and the survival rate of lung cancer is very low, much lower 16 years ago than what it is now,” he said.
The doctors couldn’t even calculate how his chances of survival were but he beat the odds by having experimental treatments that eventually fried his brain. The cancer in the brain can’t be treated with chemotherapy, so he was mass dosed with cranial radiation.
That cured his cancer but he says he was basically a “walking drool” that was tough on him and his family, resulting in the breakup of his marriage.
“It’s sort of like having an axe sticking out of your head but nobody can see the axe,” he said.
He then moved to River Falls, where he taught lessons and got a degree from UW-River Falls while he was recovering from his brain fog.
“I hadn’t had math since eighth or ninth grade and I signed up for college algebra,” he said. He did really well but it was all he did. He got through the class, then took another class, and five years later he had a Bachelor of Science degree in music (focusing on the viola) and French.
“It still wasn’t full recovery,” he said. “I would say I really feel like myself again … but it took 15 years before my brain really recovered from all that radiation,” he said.
The good news is he’s now 59 years old, functional, and his health is on the upswing.
COVID-19 devastated the music industry and he was left with not much of a connection with his life before the pandemic, so he looked to move on.
He loves playing music, and weddings in particular, and most of those performances went away for more than a year. “Since most of my stuff is solo work, I didn’t have a lot keeping me there.”
Orchestras are not his thing, but he loves solo and jazz ensemble work.
“That stuff is golden,” he said.
He said people wanting to do recitals need to find a church, rent a hall, or find a library to give them time, and the church building will completely work for the business he’s calling Turner Street Music Hall.
He’s looking forward to playing with ensembles and with seating for more than 200 in the church, it’s a perfect place to play for audiences.
He wants the performances to be the “right thing,” meaning acoustic and small ensembles. Don’t count on hearing any heavy metal in the building.
“The space, it just feels so good,” he said. “You go in there, you’ve got all this beautiful stained glass, the sound is glorious, there’s an organ.”
Croll promises to never remove the organ from the building.
Croll has a unique connection to Wrightstown in that he stayed overnight once when he was in a band while at River Falls called Luna and the Sun Brothers with Hannah Tjoflat, who hailed from Wrightstown.
They came to play a gig at De Pere and stayed at the Tjoflat residence.
When he came over to see the church in person, he remembered being in De Pere and thought he stayed at the Tjoflat house. Not having talked to Hannah for several years, he emailed her and they reconnected.
“Eight years or so I stayed a couple of nights here, a right, a left, and a right from the church, a half mile away with Bill and Maureen Tjoflat,” he chuckled.
Croll can be reached at 920-857-4475.
Editor’s note: St. John Lutheran Church holds its church decommissioning service at 9 a.m. on Sunday. Students in grades K-8 will sing at this service. The congregation moves to the St. Paul building in Greenleaf beginning in October.