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The little chapel at the truck stop

(ran NT,CT,LT,CI,TP editions)

It's probably best not to ask Dale Beimfohr why he built his own little chapel. Part of the answer he won't tell. Part of it he doesn't know.

But there it sits in playhouse proportions, 8-by-12 feet of cedar sanctuary along Interstate 64 at Illinois 127, beckoning the 600 or so motorists who stop each day at the Little Nashville truck stop next door. On average, about a dozen will answer its call.

They no doubt wonder why it was built. Few get to ask. Beimfohr, 63 and ordinarily gregarious, shies away when strangers are about. The guest register has logged 14,000 names in three years, but he said he had met fewer than 100.

"I feel that if they want to go in there and pray, I won't disturb them. It's their private time," Beimfohr explained.

He understands privacy. The part of the mystery he won't tell is the subject of the prayer he said God answered for him 34 years ago. All he said when pressed was that it was for someone else and that it was potentially a matter of life and death.

He said the experience left him feeling a debt he did not know how to repay.

Then in 1989, while he was driving in Colorado, a wrong turn left him at a miniature chapel someone had built along a lonely back road. "I knew instantly that's what I had to do," he said. "I felt immediate relief knowing that was how to repay the debt. I didn't understand it, I just knew I had to do it."

The company Beimfohr heads, which owns the truck stop, put up $6,000 for materials. A builder finished the stilted wooden deck and walkway, and then Beimfohr spent the fall and spring doing everything else alone, including inscribing Bible verses on dozens of wood panels.

His compulsion brought mild ridicule.

"Some of my friends thought I was a little kooky," he said. "The Lutheran minister in town said he thought I had gone a little off my rocker."

The exchange with one critic grew so bitter that their friendship ended.

Visitors might think that this is the work of someone quite pious, perhaps fanatical.

"They might think that, but it's not true," Beimfohr said. "I don't mean I'm not a Christian, but I don't always do what my conscience tells me to. I do sin. I'm a member of the United Church of Christ, but I don't go every Sunday. In fact, I haven't been to church since Easter."

Besides, would a religious fanatic build a trucker's bar, the LN Lounge, right next to the entrance ramp to his chapel?

"I don't see that as a contradiction," he said.

Beimfohr, a native of the area, has run a variety of businesses, culminating in Little Nashville, about 50 miles southeast of St. Louis. It is the livelihood of all four of his grown children's families.

He also is the new mayor of Okawville, just up the road.

While the "Country Chapel" has never had a regular service, two weddings were held there, and two more are rumored. The chapel is open around the clock. Beimfohr said there had never been a problem.

Doris Beimfohr, his wife, signed the top of the first visitors' log, June 11, 1990. Now 18 nations and 49 states are represented. Some people leave messages with their names. Dale Beimfohr reads and keeps each.

"Incredible place," wrote Bill, Diane and Angie Perry on Dec. 1, 1990.

"Very unique and good for someone's soul," was someone's reaction on Nov. 27, 1990.

The most famous living visitor might have been Brett Hull, the St. Louis Blues hockey player, unless of course it was some other Brett Hull, or a prankster.

The most famous dead visitor was Elvis Presley, who signed in on March 30, 1993.

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