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Historically Speaking: A church built out of powder cans

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Photos courtesy of New Mexico Magazine The powder can church. The bell was a steel rail — 1913.

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily

Record

Recently I came across an article I thought was so interesting I had to share. Just a small bit of history, but the ingenuity, hard work and results were such an example of those who came before us and the determination they had.

The article was originally written by Beulah Meeks, for the February 1960 edition of New Mexico Magazine — I am sharing it with the readers of the Roswell Daily Record with permission from today’s editorial staff of the New Mexico Magazine.

Accompanying this article is a poem by my friend, cowboy poet Mike Joy.

“Powder Can Church

“Through the years, many kinds of material have been used in the construction of churches, but probably the most unusual material was used by pioneers in the construction of a little church near Vaughn.

“Vaughn, about 100 miles east of Albuquerque, was conveniently situated near the junction of two major railroads. Surrounded by miles and miles of prairie land, it seemed to offer much to homesteaders and ranchers who came in to the territory of New Mexico and filed a claim to land during the first decade of the past century.

“In such new and undeveloped communities, many hardships and disappointments awaited these early settlers. Like pioneers of all ages, they were confronted with long days of hard work, homes to build, land to fence, breaking sod for their fields, and preparing cisterns for water storage. There were no wells near Vaughn, and water was hauled from town in barrels and wagon tanks and stored in these cisterns. Many adverse circumstances faced them, and at best, development was a slow process. But however new, however much to do, when Sunday came, they longed for a place in which to worship God and seek spiritual strength and guidance.

“In Vaughn, Sunday school and church were held in the schoolhouse but there was no motorized transportation then, and it was not always convenient for the people to get into town to attend church services. Just north of Vaughn was the old limestone rock quarry which employed some 150 people, many of them from nearby homesteads.

“Mrs. D. M. Ross, wife of the superintendent there, realizing the need of a church for the employees and their families, decided to do something about it. Enlisting the help of others who were interested, movement was started to build a church. People were willing to give their time and labor if material for the building could be obtained.

“Since thousands of cans of powder and boxes of dynamite were used to blast the rock from the quarry, someone thought of using those empty powder cans for the walls of the building. The idea was accepted and work began immediately in the spring of 1910.

“The empty powder cans were filled with dirt and rock and stacked in double rows for the walls. Crevices were plastered with adobe, and the building was soon ready for the roof. Two large wagon sheets were used for the roof. These were supported by a length of railway steel used for the ridgepole. In June, the church was dedicated. That fall, when the weather began to get cool, the wagon sheets were replaced with a permanent roof making the building warm and comfortable for the winter.

“A little church was incomplete without a bell, so a short piece of steel rail was used and hung at the corner of the building. The bell was rung by striking it with a piece of iron.

“Though the little church was hopelessly crude in appearance, the people were proud to attend services there. Long benches were used for seats and there was always a good attendance.

“A Sunday school was also organized. Mr. D.S. Mullen served as superintendent, and Mr. P. Risen as secretary.

“At Christmas, Easter and other special times, appropriate services were held and attended by virtually all the people in the settlement.

“Marriages were performed there, too. One of the first was that of Joe A. Shaver, the ‘powder man’ who had used the powder of every can that went into the walls of the church. He was married on May 26, 1910 to Miss Evan Clark, and it is remembered that the bride wore ‘white organdy trimmed in tucks and lace and a large white hat covered with white ostrich plumes.’

But the unique little church was not destined to have a long life. In 1912, the quarry closed — and after that, the little church was never used again.

“Sometime later, the roof was removed, and the walls began to tumble down.

“I was a young girl when the church was built, but one of my fondest memories of those pioneer days is of attending services there the first Sunday as well as many others as time went by.

“Today, the highway serving the ranches north of Vaughn passes where the old church stood. There is nothing left but memories.”

From Dynamite Came the House of God

By M.D. Joy

Times were hard on Vaughn’s windy plain

Some tried to farm where it seldom rains,

Dirt tanks for the stock, and cisterns for the house

“Use only what you need,” was told by many a spouse.

Some of those cisterns would hold 400 barrel, but cisterns were seldom full.

They just didn’t get much rain and the water wagon was hard to pull.

But with all of that and the need to work,

The community knew what they could not shirk.

They had a deep abiding reverence for the Almighty Holy God,

Only through him could they make a living from the rock-strewn grama grass sod.

How do you build a church house, when there is just nothing there?

From the rock quarry north of town came the building blocks to spare.

Black powder dynamite cans were used by the wagon load.

Emptied out, filled with dirt, these cans would not explode.

Those walls were built, two cans wide, 10, maybe 12 feet tall,

With wagon sheets for the roof, the weather, it stood it all.

The dynamite can church didn’t last very long but it’s part it played so well,

Bringing God’s holy word, to a hard, hot land,

Saving some souls from hell.

 

Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.