Social capital and the Stone Church

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Of late, my inquiring mind came across a couple studies of a concept labeled “Social Capital.” Whatever in the world that might be? Now I know what financial capital is — have lots and you can do a lot of good, have little and the budget gets tight.

One of the authors used an illustration of social capital that resonated with my childhood experience growing up on a farm. My dad always seemed to trade machinery and work with our neighbors. They gathered together to help shell each other’s corn from corn cribs before the days of corn combines. Dad was mechanically adept and ran neighbors sugar beet machinery. One bought the machinery, a third furnished the tractor and the other furnished the labor to run it. The experience of “I’ll help you and you will, in turn, help me when the time comes is somewhat the definition of social capital. The expectation of helping each other works out the best for all parties involved. It isn’t dollars, yet all parties are the richer for trade. Social Capital.

Then on the Sunday before Memorial Day each year since 1975, a church service and meeting of the Stone Church located about eleven miles south of Culbertson takes place. Relatives, friends and any and all visitors are welcome. That is the community where my ancestors homesteaded, developed community and in which I was fortunate to spend my earliest years. The old Stone Church located along Highway 17 is preserved and tended to by a volunteer organization calling themselves the Stone Church Association. This year your windy old columnist was asked to present a history of the Stone Church and I will share what I delivered.

I asked the congregation to “Envision this country 153 years ago. That year marked the end of the Civil War and this part of Nebraska was not yet settled by European immigrants. Indians may have been here for their artifacts can be found a few miles south of where we are sitting. The ground as far as one could see was treeless. Just a great sea of grass. Texas cattle drives came right through here headed for the rail terminal at Ogallala. No roads, just a few trails.

Not long after the Civil War, this whole territory was opened up for settling by the Homestead Act. File your claim, make a few improvements, live there five years and you owned 160 acres. A few of the settlers stayed but a majority managed to sell their hard earned land and moved on to hopefully a less strenuous life.

Those that stayed and bought ever more land as it came available naturally wanted to establish community. School was important and my Great Grandmother, Pricilla Hoyt was a certified teacher, age 16 when she and her husband James came to homestead about two miles east of here. Their little country school used to set just one mile east. But then what better way to bring neighbors together than build a church as a centerpiece for the community? Somewhere around 1890 right across the road south of us, the neighborhood build a church out of the native sod.

I can imagine that sod church was a bit cramped for many families, and they had large numbers of children, to meet together. It must have been tough to keep things clean with a dirt floor when the sod walls and roof attracted mice and insects. Records show an attendance of 97 people so it must have also been crowded.

A Rev. J.E. Darby was the pastor at that time. The congregation decided that they needed a more substantial building. The women of the community did fundraising by doing pie suppers and such as box socials. Finally we have a record of those church builders; the families of (raise your hand if you are related to) Austin Bailey, John Baldwin, Roger Barnes, Dave Bobinmyer, James Hoyt, Bill Brennan, William Burton, Tim Dewey, Simpson Edwards, Charlie Ferris, Otis Fleming, R. A. French, Alex and Jim Haining, Issac and C. O. Mills, George and Will Myers, Aaron McKnight, Tim Perkins, Wall Phillips, Robie (?), Elsa Smith, Gus Spears, William Stock, Henry Whitlake. and I think that I missed the Haller name in the records. It is recorded that a Rebecca Hart donated the one acre of land on which to build.

A winter project the community came together in 1900, to quarry the stone, just five miles south in the hills. Fifty men and boys loaded the stone blocks by hand and hauled by horse and wagon to this site. Overseeing the quarry operation was a “Jolly Irishman” by the name of Finn. James Hoyt a civil war vet who came from Ohio was the stone mason who oversaw the fitting of native limestone blocks and these four solid walls were pieced together joined with hand stirred mortar. Windows had to be purchased along with wood for the floor and roof trusses and sheeting. Those were lean years but it was the women who managed to raise the money needed.

Whether by design or accident they got the acoustics right and music is the wonderful result. Our Bibles sez “Sing a Joyful sound onto the Lord”

Regular church services were held. Neighbors gathered for Sunday school, Christmas programs, Marriages were performed as well as funerals. (How about a show of hands for those of you here this evening that were married here?)

Services were held regularly until 1951 and then this wonderful old building fell silent. In 1975 a group of caring folk came together and organized the Stone Church Association. Then until now, the Association meets here every Sunday before Memorial Day with friends and visitors more than welcome. Enjoy!

A note of appreciation. In recent years Virginia Clark and sisters Pat, Barb and Sharon have assumed the mantle of a watchful eye over this wonderful old building. Virginia seems to be the go-to gal for scheduling weddings and events in this historic place. They see to cutting the grass so it doesn’t look abandoned. Several years ago they donated a new door for better security. Virginia tells me that the old records and scrapbooks displayed in the back have been micro-fished for a more permanent record of the history of this place. Thank you Ginny Lynn!”

Talk about a great illustration of social capital. The women folk all participated to raise the financial capital, the dollars required to purchase building material. Men and boys furnished the physical labor. No expectation of pay involved but all giving to create a better community. And it all worked for over 50 years until rapid travel by automobile and ever declining population loosened the bonds of that rural community. Yet those same people bonded with the citizens of nearby towns to strengthen the making of social capital in our wonderful small town America.

That is how I saw it.

Dick Trail

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