Eastern Iowa meteorologist, journalist convert church into Airbnb outside Galena
How the couple turned an 1894 church into their retirement goal
Elijah Decious,Cedar Rapids Gazette
Galena, Ill. — As the daughter of a line of Presbyterian ministers, Carolyn Wettstone spent half of her day at the church next to the manses her family lived in.
So as the former Iowa broadcast journalist enters her golden years with longtime Iowa TV meteorologist Terry Swails, it made sense for them to retire in church, too.
“Terry and I have never lived conventional lives,” Wettstone said. “The last thing I was going to do was live in a conventional house.”
That’s why the couple bought the 1894 church sight unseen after coming across the online property listing in 2021. Now over two years later, their eventual dream retirement home is on the Airbnb market to help repay the nearly $400,000 renovation investment.
If you go
Where: 6603 West Council Hill Rd., Scales Mound, Illinois (about 10 minutes from Galena, Ill.) Rate: Rates range from about $300 to $600 per night, depending on season. Two-night minimum. Details: With 2,500 square feet, modern amenities meet historical charm in this renovated church just 10 minutes northeast of Galena, Illinois. The home sleeps up to 10 people with three bedrooms, three full bathrooms, two pullout sofa beds and a full kitchen. An attached deck overlooks rolling hills of farmland, and an outdoor gazebo from the former wedding chapel can host wedding ceremonies, as needed. Available for bookings via Airbnb.com.
After long careers covering Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois as TV personalities and authors, Galena was the only location the couple could agree on for retirement.
Swails, an Iowa City native, spent a long career covering Waterloo and the Quad Cities before finishing at KGAN and KFXA in Cedar Rapids. Wettstone served in broadcast journalism for 20 years, including time at KCCI in Des Moines, KQWC in the Quad Cities and WHBF in Rock Island, Illinois. For now, they live in East Dubuque, Illinois — across the river from Iowa and just a few minutes from historic Galena.
“We’ve always had an affinity for Galena. This has been our home away from home,” Swails said.
TWO NIGHTS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE
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Hey everybody, February is the love month and boy do we have a "lovely" deal just for you at my new Airbnb, The Little White Church of Galena. If you book one night, the second one is on "us." totally free. As we celebrate our Grand Opening Month, it is a $500 value. The offer has been such a hit we are extending it past February. Come check out the splendor of the church which includes three bedrooms and three full bathrooms. Each bedroom has its own television and ceiling fan. The master suite has an ensuite, private deck and king sized bed. Plus a fireplace, fire pit, gas grill, Dish TV and Sirius XM with a great sound system. It's loaded. PICTURES BELOW Contact Carolyn for available times and details email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 563-676-3320
After purchasing the former Council Hill United Methodist Church, the real work started with renovating a church to become a home. As renovation estimates of $200,000 nearly doubled with pandemic cost spikes, the couple had to consider how to make it an investment others could enjoy living in, too.
“Originally, we were drawn to the structure, just the way how they constructed churches back then and how stately this thing was sitting on a hill,” Swails said. “But then you come in, you feel all the emotions that have gone into this place over the years — people dying, people getting married, family events.”
With the transformation, they hope the church — long an icon in rural Jo Daviess County — can continue to maintain a sustainable presence, giving those feelings a new life long after worship services ceased in 1995.
Throughout the home, church staples have been restored and smartly reincorporated into a fresh modernization that doesn’t neglect its roots. Wrought iron gates are now pieces of art, photos from historical archives complement the walls and stained glass windows give the eyes a reason to wander.
The former sanctuary now is home to a large open-concept living and dining room that maintains its warmth, despite vaulted ceilings over 20 feet tall. In the main area, a former organ has been repurposed into a bar cart, original lights illuminate the overhead space and oversized doors lead to a patio overlooking rolling hills of farmland.
“On Sundays, my brother and I would get on our bellies and scoot underneath the pews looking for money. I felt very comfortable in a church — it feels like home to me,” Wettstone said. “So when you incorporate all these artifacts that were part of the original church, that just is an extension of what I consider my house.”
In doing so, the couple has managed to transform signs of reverence in the 129-year-old building, saving them from irrelevance.
“The big thing for us was to watch the transformation unfold, and to know this church built in 1894 still is here,” Swails said. “I think it’s about the journey. This place has seen some things and it’s been through amazing revelations.”
Two smaller bedrooms on the main floor are accented with restored pieces of church history, stained glass windows and a shared central bathroom — one of three that feature upscale finishes and tile patterns compatible with the church’s original aesthetic.
Upstairs, in a new ward of the home thanks to 40 percent more square footage, the primary bedroom suite is closed off by grand folding doors relocated from the sanctuary, where the main floor’s patio doors stand now. The largest bedroom in the home features its own private patio and connecting bathroom.
Across the hallway, original wood adds a rustic paneling to the staircase wall. Around the corner, guests can relax in a church pew on an interior balcony offering a bird’s-eye view of the living area and kitchen.
With three bedrooms, three full bathrooms and two sofa beds, the 2,500-square-foot house comfortably sleeps 10 people — ideal for larger groups hitting the slopes or exploring nearby historic Galena for a weekend. After finishing renovations late last year, the home is now available to rent.
And if you feel so inclined, ring the original church bell by pulling the rope in the foyer of the bell tower on your way in or out.
“The neighbors say they don’t mind — ring away,” former owner Beverly Stabenow told The Monroe Times (Wisconsin) in a 1998 article.
Built in 1894, the Council Hills United Methodist Church was a robust force in its community — first as a place of worship, and later as a wedding chapel.
In 1832, Chief Black Hawk signed a peace treaty just a few feet away from the church’s property with Galena citizens to halt attacks between Native American warriors and local residents. That site, the Branton Tavern, still stands directly across from the church.
“This is a big part of Galena’s history,” Wettstone said. “We tried to find photographs and stories and put them up.”
Early settlers in the area included miners and their families. Council Hill got its name in remembrance of Chief Black Hawk, who held council meetings there near the end of the Black Hawk War.
When the church was built by Roland Smart, it boasted handcrafted woodwork, a bell tower and the same three round stained glass windows that remain today.
In 1998, three years after the church ceased worship services, Larry and Beverly Stabenow transformed the building into the Little White Church on the Hill Celebration Chapel with local artist Charles Berryman. For most of the following two decades, couples continued to marry there.
After both of the Stabenows died, Swails and Wettstone purchased the building from their trust for $63,000 in 2021.
Elijah Decious-The Cedar Rapids Gazette