June 7, 2015
By LAURINDA JOENKS
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) – “Baby quilts for sale.”
The unlikely sign stands in front of Son’s Chapel, a landmark about three miles east of Fayetteville on Arkansas 45. The Rural Builders Club, an all-female group, has been in charge of the chapel from its inception to fundraising to construction. The tradition continues as the latest generation focuses on the chapel’s preservation, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (http://bit.ly/1M55G2k ) reported.
“People who know Son’s Chapel today see the rock chapel built in the 1930s and used for Sunday school services through the 1970s,” wrote Jim Carson, who grew up in the Son’s Chapel community and recorded a personal history of his memories. “It is a beautiful and historic place, created by the energy and inspiration of the pioneer women of the community, fittingly preserved into the 21st century by women of similar character.”
Regular weekly services were never part of the chapel’s duty, but it has provided a peaceful, simple setting for many weddings and funerals throughout the years.
The current members of the Rural Builders Club recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of the chapel’s dedication with an open house and rededication service. And the women – also known as the Son’s Chapel Quilters – sold hand-made baby quilts.
“On the 19th of October 1922, 20 women met at the home of Mrs. Malcolm Henson to organize and plan the ways and means by which they could face the challenge coming their way,” reads a history by Jo Ellen Crouch in the collections of the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale. The community needed a church and a meeting place for social activities. The community’s one-room school was too small to accommodate the area’s needs.
Pointing out that the community had no active organizations in the 1920s when she moved to a farm there, A.G. Hartley, a 10-year club member, wrote in a history relayed in a November 1935 edition of the Progressive Star found in the museum’s files. “The beginning came in the form of a ‘Self-Help’ club organized by Rufus J. Nelson, editor of the Arkansas Countryman,” the Star’s report reads.
“The interest taken in the programs so laboriously planned demonstrated the need of a larger building, but it was not until a women’s club was organized in 1922 that the project was given definite expression,” Hartley wrote.
The women decided a church with meeting space would better serve the community, and they unanimously voted to build a community church.
“… No time was lost after the first meeting in starting a building fund,” Hartley said.
“With the Lord’s help and our husbands, we can and will do it,” Henson is credited as saying.
An initial fundraiser found the women serving lunches to the crowd gathered at Henson’s for the sale of a number of “fine Jersey cattle,” according to the Star. More dinners and pie and box suppers were planned. The women even sold lunches to the men working to pave Arkansas 45, which runs in front of the chapel, said Jeanette Loris of Fayetteville, a current member of the Builders Club.
Soon, the club had accumulated $400, which accumulated interest. In 10 years, the nest egg reached $1,400, and the women were ready to think about construction.
“The group of women began to look for a building site,” reads the nomination form placing the chapel on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. Grace (Reed) and W.R. Porter in 1933 donated and deeded about 1 1/2 acres for the new building.
Excavation began that year. The women decided the building would be 36-by-50 feet, with a basement of the same size for community activities and a sanctuary upstairs for religious events. The men of the community volunteered their labor and arrived with their horses and mules.
“When the real work began, every man in our neighborhood was willing to help us,” the Star quoted Hartley. “The 330 perch of stone – 8,167 in feet – were hauled and placed on the grounds. With 77 days of team work, and 260 days of man work, it was wonderful how the structure grew. The carpenter work was mostly donated, but we paid a builder and a stone mason. Our own people gave their time and money freely.”
Sometime between 1936 and 1937, the outer stone walls, rood and windows were in place. However, the interior was not furnished. With the building fund running low, the women decided to organize a drama club and hold a series of plays.
“Large crowds came to enjoy the plays and other entertainment,” Crouch’s history reads. Free-will offerings were taken at each performance. And with proceeds from the plays, lumber was purchased to make benches. Those board benches remain as pews in the chapel.
On May 26, 1940, Son’s Chapel was dedicated as a community Protestant church.
“The community church served all different denominations,” said current Builders Club member Christine Brandon of Prairie Grove. “It depended on whatever circuit rider was in town.”
Much of the building today remains original – down to the Bibles and hymnals in the pew racks, said Eloise Gusman of Goshen while leading a tour.
The chapel’s belfry holds a bell, which brides and grooms ring as they are married. A tree branch in front of the chapel still sports the wire which held the lantern to light front of the chapel, Gusman pointed out. The stained-glass windows facing south were donated and dedicated in the memory of June Sawyer Henson.
The chapel has been updated to keep pace and provide for the comfort of its users. Bathrooms, air conditioning and heating were added, along with a modern kitchen. Best yet, the dirt floor of the basement was covered by concrete. “But they didn’t start until they had the money to pay for it,” Loris insisted.
The women currently consider a new roof for the chapel and paved driveway and parking lot.
Fundraising efforts benefiting the chapel have never stopped.
The women serve a soup lunch on the third Tuesday. “We will feed our husbands, friends or whoever for a donation,” Loris said.
They also meet every Tuesday to make baby quilts to sell – thus the sign in front of the stone chapel.
“We would raise money for the building through bazaars, but we noticed the baby quilts were always gone first,” Loris said. “I’ve not been able to determine when (Builders Club members) started quilting,” she added.
Similar to the way the stones of the chapel were laid in an assembly line, the quilts are made. Some members embroider blocks. Rita Zelei of Goshen sews sashes to the blocks, then the borders of the quilt; she marks it for quilting and “sandwiches” the layers together. Two quilt racks hang suspended from the ceiling in the church basement, and four women gathered around each on a recent Tuesday to add the hand quilting.
The women can complete a baby – or a lap – quilt in about two months, Zelei estimated. Last year, 33 people donated 3,500 volunteer hours to quilt 50 quilts by hand, Loris said.
The women showed quilts at the meeting, with themes such as Noah’s Ark, owls, frogs, dogs, baseball and breast cancer. But the club also has its “signature quilt” – it features a monkey, a squirrel, a rabbit and a lamb embroidered in a circle. They also will create specialty quilts if asked.
“We also buy the quilts for ourselves, our friends and our family,” Zelei said. A quilt’s price depends on its size and design, but an average cost is $85.
“It’s the best little quilt shop in the city,” added Nell Taylor of Fayetteville.
And the women teach new members how to quilt. “We keep each other sane,” said Go Strealy of Fayetteville.
“The purpose of the club is to maintain the chapel,” said Anne Oakley of Springdale. “But more than anything, we enjoy quilting together.”
“It was all created from a women’s idea to establish a community. The property was donated to women for the community. Women are still taking care of the building,” Oakley stated.
“(Son’s Chapel) is rich in history, really rich in history,” Loris said. “It’s generations of women.”