Thursday, January 15, 2009

Baptists always have the best stained glass ...

I doubt that's universally true, but I like the line --- used by an acquaintance when talking about First Baptist Church in Humeston at a time when the United Methodist and Christian (Disciples of Christ) congregations there were merging, tearing down their old buildings and building a new joint house of worship that incorporated glass from both buildings.

What is true, in Lucas County at least, is that First Baptist Church of Russell (photos top and bottom) has what may be the most architecturally significant building in the area --- and I say that with appreciative nods to both First United Methodist and First Presbyterian churches in Chariton, both of which are larger and grander and quite beautiful.

I can't say that I grew up in First Baptist Church, but I was on the Cradle Roll there (and have the registration card to prove it). This was the only church my parents ever joined other than birthright assimulation into their childhood family churches, neither Baptist.

But sometime after the pastorate of the Rev. Donald Brong ended amicably in 1952, holy war erupted among the Russell Baptists and my parents, neither of whom were religious combatants, fled. And so my career as a Biblical scholar was nipped in the bud, a sad occurance for someone who while he was neither born in a log cabin nor walked miles barefoot through the snow to school did learn to read at age 4 or so from the Bible while perched on parental knees.

But my first memories of church are here, and they are all good ones: Sitting in a pew in the warm glow of sunlight streaming through the Woodman memorial window, the splay of gold organ pipes (now gone) across the front of the church, the dark wood structure that supported the roof and --- best of all --- as the Sunday school hour ended and the time for worship neared, the ceremonial opening by ushers of the immense (or so they seemed then) doors that slid first to double up and then vanish into the walls to reveal the adult Sunday school room, equipped with theater seats, that formed the north end of the church building.

That was a time when many small-town churches, including First Baptist, actually were full on Sunday mornings and the overflow seating area was needed.

I'd always thought First Baptist was a pretty church, although not exactly in the traditional triumphal southern Iowa way, but hadn't thought about its significance until a couple of years ago when I received a query via this blog from Elizabeth Vandam of Minneapolis, a research historian working on a biography and catalog of works of Minneapolis-based architect Harry Wild Jones.

She had found among his papers Wild's drawings of the elevation and floor plan of "Baptist Church, Russell, Iowa," and wanted to know if I could tell her if it still was around. I was able to tell her it was and went down that winter to take a couple of exterior photos so I could show her how near to the original design it remained.

The only exception is the absence of a towering steeple designed to top the bell tower and I have a feeling (but can't prove) that the practical Russell Baptists just never added that final flourish.

The major interior change I noted was the disappearance of the pipe organ I remember, perhaps an enhanced version of the one salvaged from the original First Baptist Church, a quite different building destroyed by fire. This was gone by the time I went to a wedding at First Baptist the summer after high school graduation, sacrificed (as many, many pipe organs were at that time) to the wonders of a shiny new electric organ. The pipes had vanished and had been replaced by an expanse of cream-colored wall.

Vandam now has published the results of her research (Vandam, Elizabeth, "Harry Wild Jones, American Architect," Minneapolis: Nodin Press, 2008), and I assume Russell First Baptist is mentioned in the large catalog of his work appended to it, although I've not yet seen the book itself.

I did a little research myself, trying to figure out exactly when the undated design was undertaken (probably 1913-1914), but issues of the Russell newspaper for those years have vanished and Chariton newspapers were not especially helpful. So there's still some doubt here.

Charles M. Wright, in his 1966 centennial history of Russell, tells us that the original church, built in 1883, burned in October of 1913 and includes the following transcript of an undated clipping:

"The Baptist Church in Russell caught fire last Sunday afternoon and was completely destroyed. The fire, which was discovered about four o'clock, started in the furnace room and from the headway it was making when discovered had evidently been burning two or three hours. The firemen arrived as soon as the alarm was given and made heroic efforts to save the building, but it had gotten too much of a start and all that could be done was to watch the building burn and to keep the nearby buildings from catching fire.

"Entrance to the building was gained through the southeast window, and the pulpit furniture and choir chairs were saved. The pipe organ was too large to get out through the window, but by quick work the sides of the window were chopped out, making a hole large enough to get the organ through and it was saved just as flames came through the floor near the pulpit.

"The church was dedicated thirty years ago the 30th of September, and was a good building, much better than could be built now for the same money.

"The building was insured for $2,000, and with that and what money will be raised later, the Baptists intend to rebuild as soon as the necessary arrangements can be made."

The Chariton Leader of Thursday, 23 October 1913, reported as follows: "The Baptist Church at Russell was destroyed by fire on Sunday afternoon and was a complete loss. All that was saved was the organ and pulpit furniture. There was only $2,000.00 insurance on the building. The structure had cost many thousands of dollars and was one of the prettiest edifices in the county. It will be rebuilt, no doubt, and people will generally assist in the enterprise, as the Baptist congregation there has always been liberal and free to help in the cuase of Christianity. So the people feel that is is a general loss and not confined to the Baptist congregation alone."

On 6 November 1913, The Chariton Herald Patriot reported, "At a special meeting of the members of the Baptist church this week plans were made to erect a new structure on the same site of the old one. It will be a good modern church."

Charles Wright goes on in the centennial history to tell us that after the fire, the Russell Methodists invited the Baptists to share their building and the pastors of the two congregations alternated as officiants. According to Wright, the new Baptist church was "built by Reuben Dixon and was completed in 1915."

Dixon undoubtedly was the contractor, the the architect is not mentioned; and there is no account of why the enterprising Baptists picked a Minneapolis architect with a nation-wide reputation to design what probably was the most remarkable church in the county when it was completed.

But Harry Wild Jones (1859-1935) was himself a staunch Baptist, born in Michigan as the only son of a Baptist preacher who, as preachers tend to do, moved about considerably before alighting at last in Bristol, Rhode Island. There seems to have been some expectation that Jones would become a preacher himself and he spent two years at Brown University in Providence before transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he completed in 1882 its Short Course Architecture Program. After his marriage in Rhode Island, Jones established his Minneapolis practice in 1883.

So that strong Baptist link may explain in part at least how a church in Russell came to be designed by an architect highly regarded across the nation and whose work now is gaining a new generation of admirers. Known for his versatility, Jones also was among the most skillful structural engineers then working as an architect. So that may help explain why the building has proved to be so durable.

There's not much more to say here, other than I consider myself lucky to have these pleasant early church memories from Russell First Baptist to carry around with me --- and I think Russell, and the current generation of First Baptists, are lucky to still have this remarkable building doing the job it was designed to do.


Wanda Horn said...

Hi, Frank -- I've tried twice to comment on this, and nothing has posted. If this one makes it through, I'll write again and tell you what I was going to say!


Wanda Horn said...

OK, looks like I have my Google account straightened out....

Thank you for calling attention to Russell's First Baptist Church. My life revolved around that church for years. I was baptized there in 1946 and attended there faithfully until I graduated from high school and went away to work. I taught Sunday school and vacation Bible school, played the piano, sang in many musical groups, was part of the youth gospel team. For a year or so I even cleaned the church every other week for $4 a cleaning!

In 1957 I married Charles ("Chuck") Horn (from Ohio) at First Baptist. In the fall of 1960, after Chuck graduated from Cedarville College, we moved to Iowa and he became the 22-year-old pastor of FBC, which I think had had 5 pastors in the previous 10 years. After spending so much time in that parsonage as a pre-teen and teenager, it was almost surreal to live there as the pastor's wife. Our son
Fred was 14 months old when we moved there; Chris, born in December 1960, was the first new baby in the parsonage since Paul Beals (son of Archie and Myrtle).

I went to FBC for a service three or four years ago. Sitting there watching the sun stream in through the "Woodman window" and the other beautiful stained glass, remembering the days when the church was full every Sunday, and seeing the small group there that day, my heart broke a little.


By the way, the organ was a fake. More on that if you're interested......

Frank D. Myers said...

Hi Wanda,

Yes, I'd like to now more about the organ. My dad said he thought the pipes were fake, but then we got to talking about it with our cousin, Rosemarie (Relph) Dachenbach, who said she thought they really had been attached to a console. We were going to talk to Rosemarie's mother, Edna, about this; then sadly Edna died and sadly again, so did Rosemarie (one of the nicest people out there I'd like to add as well as a highly-skilled and committed nurse). So we never resolved this.

Then I read about the organ rescue during the 1913 fire, noted the organ chamber on the floorplan, added 2 and 2 and came up with 5. So any light you can shed would be appreciated (and I can correct the above account, too).

This is making me homesick for people long gone --- Cecil and Alice Hawkins (and Charles; Pleasant Prairie Baptist Church down by Washington is where I remember him best); Lyle and Marie Hardy; Lloyd and Bessie May (who I remember, I think, picking up one cold winter Sunday morning along the Transformer Road after their car car had broken down and they had decided to WALK to church, figuring someone would come along to pick them up --- as my folks did --- then take them home). Golly ...


Frank D. Myers said...

Correction, correction: Charles and Phyllis Hawkins served Prairie Flower Baptist Church down by Washington, not Pleasant Prairie. I confused my Prairies --- Pleasant Prairie is the little red United Methodist Church along Highway 14 on the way to Knoxville that just closed in December and now I've been told has been sold to an Amish family thinking of opening a store there.

Wanda Horn said...

The organ pipes were, indeed, fake. The organ itself, rather than being a pipe organ, was just a very large pump organ powered by a lever on the side of the console. The lever was operated by someone who sat on a low chair beside the organ, hidden behind the high railing in front of the loft. Since it took several pumps for the air to reach the organ bellows, the pumper (in my day it was Jack Meyer) had to anticipate the start of a song and get the air flowing. Eula (Mrs. Elmo) Curtis was organist when I was in high school - I was the pianist.

I remember hearing back then that the organ had been salvaged from an earlier fire at the Christian Church, not the original Baptist Church. My understanding was that the Christian and Baptist congregations merged and this was what the Christian congregation brought to the new building. The Russell Historical Society may have information on this.

Personally, I always loved the fake pipes. They made a wonderful backdrop for wedding pictures, including mine. However, the organ and the pipes went away during my husband's pastorate when someone donated an electronic organ with the provision that the old one had to go. What had been the organ loft became the choir loft. What is shown as "choir room" on the diagram was actually the choir loft with a little knee-high swinging door leading out onto the platform. The old choir loft became the home of the new electronic organ.

Charles and Phyllis (Collins) Hawkins were high-school seniors when I was a freshman, but our time in youth group and gospel teams overlapped. Charles loved to preach even then! That group also produced the Rev. Bob Meyer, missionary to Dominican Republic for many years; and Dr. Ron Blue, a missionary in Guatemala, then an instructor at Dallas Theological Seminary, and then president of Central American Missions. And there were others who did well in the business world: Dee Wright, who owned a large produce brokerage business in Des Moines; Dean Swartz (actually Swartzwelter), now retired from Ford Motor Company; and several others who don't come to mind right now. Ron, Dee and Dean were all in my graduating class of 1953. Pretty good, I'd say, for our little town of 700 or whatever it was back then.

The church floor plan you posted shows dividers to form classrooms at the back of the "back room." If these dividers were ever installed, they were gone before I started attending the church.

Thanks again for the information about the architecture of the church. Do you know who designed the parsonage? The upstairs of that house had the goofiest floor plan I've ever seen, but I always absolutely loved that house! I hope its craftsman elements have been preserved. I don't think I've been in the house since we moved out in April 1963.

Frank D. Myers said...

Wanda, thanks for the great information! My dad may be looking down about now and saying, "I told you so!" He used to talk about the pumper --- and tell a story that the young man responsible nodded off once during the sermon and had to be awakened before the closing hymn could begin (but of course that might or might not be true).

About the parsonage, Charles M. Wright wrote about it only, "The present parsonage was built by Robert Lynn and was first occuped by Rev. E. J. Carlson in March, 1920. Within a year, the Rev. Carlson underwent an emergency appendectomy on the dining table of the home." So it's a few years younger than the church.

There are other similar houses in Russell, although none with stucco to match the church. It would be interesting to know if the same builder was responsible for all of them. I'll ask Betty Cross the next time I see her and see if she has any idea.

Funny about the upstairs. When my cousins Glen and Justine Abrahamson bought the old Goltry house, one of two similar homes now respectively two and three houses west of the school on the south side of the street, the upstairs hadn't been finished at all although the first floor was pure and untouched craftsman. So they were able to build in that unfinished space a two-story apartment they referred to as the tree house where they lived for several years before finally moving downstairs after their kids became concerned about all those stairs. Maybe something similar happened at the parsonage --- a finished first floor and an ad-libbed upstairs.

I'll incorporate your information about the organ into the main piece when I get back to the blog next week. Thanks again!

lynne said...

Hi Frank,
Your blog is one of my favorite spots on the Internet.Thanks for all the interesting stories. And yes, I did see Susan Boyle sing her beautiful song. Anyway to the reason I am writing you. The article on the Baptist Church in Russell brought a question to my mind. You stated the following "The only exception is the absence of a towering steeple designed to top the bell tower and I have a feeling (but can't prove) that the practical Russell Baptists just never added that final flourish". I have seen pictures at the Russell Museum and they show a very large steeple on the old Baptist church. Could the picture have been a postcard and the steeple was drawn on the top of the church? Or was there really a steeple on the church? Do you or anyone else know what is correct? Lynne Wilson

lynne said...

I feel like such a fool. I now realize I did not use my head before I sent you the blog question. The steeple was never put on the new Baptist church. You were referring to the new church, not the old. Sorry I bothered you with that blog.

Frank D. Myers said...

Hi Lynne: Thanks for the comment, even though you answered your own question about Baptist steeples.

I wish I had a decent scan of the first First Baptist Church, since it had what seems to me the best steeple in Lucas County. But all I could find was the version in Charles Wright's 1966 centennial history of Russell, printed letterpress by Leonard and Dolly Dickinson at the Union-Tribune I think and not too well reproduced. I'll have to keep poking around.

Charles M. Wright said...

Hi Frank -

I've enjoyed reading your reminiscence of the Russell Baptist Church and the comments of your readers. Before I address your references to my brief history of the church in my 1967 Russell Centennial Book, allow me to share a few of my own memories.

My father's early religious training was the Bethel U.B. Church near his family's home in Cedar Township. My mother's father worked for newspapers in Nebraska and in Algona, Maxwell and Red Oak and her religious background was the Christian (now called Disciples of Christ) church. When my parents established their home in Russell, they made the decision to send their four chihldren to the Baptist church. And so my earliest memories of Sunday School and worship services are of that church. Each Sunday morning the Wright kides were scrubbed, polished and appropriately dressed and sent off to church, each carrying our bible inscribed "From Mother and Daddy, December 25, 1944". I have many memories of pleasant hours I spent in summer bible school, Sunday School and worship there. I don't think I was yet a teenager when I first played the piano for Sunday School. My relatives took pride in occasionally reminding me that two of my father's younger sisters, Meryle Wright Turbot and Edythe Wright Kells were the first persons baptized in the church in May 1914. I don't recall why my older brother Dee drifted away from the Baptist church and began attending MYF and worship at Russell's Methodist Church in the early 1950s but his lead was soon followed by his sister and two brothers. Our parents didn't protest our defection.

Now about the brief history of the Russell Baptist Church that I wrote for the Russell Centennial Book in 1967. When I was in high school I worked part-time for Leonard Dickinson, editor of the weekly Russell Union-Tribune and some months before the celebration of the town's centennial, he approached me about assembling a book that could be sold at the event. Nobody stepped forward to assist me with the task but a few of the town's oldest citizens encouraged my work and loaned to me their old photographs, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings and church and school related items for reference. I also used the files of the Russell Union-Tribune, especially editor Harry Wilson's edition honoring the centennial of Iowa's statehood and also Susan Day's History of Russell written in 1914. I acknowledged those good folks in the book's introduction. Going through those names, I believe my sources of information about the Russell Baptist Church were the wife of Rev. A. E. Beals (Myrtle), John Woodman and Hazel Price Pierce. Hazel had early postcard photographs of the original church. I remember trying to find a list of all the pastors who had served each of Russell's churches and having difficulty getting a complete list for the Baptist church. I believe their early church records may have been lost in the fire that destroyed the church in 1913.

I never saw my book for the Russell centennial until copies were being sold at a table in the park on the day of the celebration. I remember being disappointed that the old photographs had copied so poorly as to be useless and by other aspects of the publication. To this day I wish that some of the talented and dedicated workers now at the Russell Museum or with the Lucas County Genealogical Society at the Chariton Public Library had been available to help me 43 years ago.

Charles M. Wright

Karen Watters said...

Hi Frank. One of my friends from Grace Baptist in Chariton sent me this link and thought I'd enjoy it. I did. I was surprised when you mentioned my mom and grandmother in your writing - Edna Relph and Rose Marie Dachenbach. I wanted to say thanks for the nice comments about mom. I know I feel that was but it's still nice to hear it or read it from someone else.
About the church in Russell - I spent lots of time there as a child, going to "Eager Beaver" and "Junior Astronauts" meetings. One thing I found amazing was in later years, one of my friends from Clear Lake (Chris Humburg) became the paster of that church. His wife had gone to Cedarville the same time I was there. Anyway, thanks for sharing the information.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Frank for all of the hard work that you do on Family History. I to, would like to thank you for mentioning my Grandma Edna and my Aunt Rose. I have some fond memories of going to church with my Grandma. My parents, Harriett & Howard Hull were married at the church in 1957.

Janice (Hull) Gaytan