Long-abandoned Intake church is razed by controlled burn (slideshow 2)
By Cindy Mullet
Ranger-Review Staff Writer
From construction in 1916-1917 to destruction in a controlled burn Oct. 15, the life of the First Congregational Church of Intake and the lives of the Stevenson/Lease families have been closely connected.
“My grandfather helped build it, and I helped burn it down,” Lowell Stevenson noted.
An April 9, 1992 Glendive Ranger-Review story, documenting an effort to restore the building, noted that services were held in the church until 1968, but since then it has stood empty and been the victim of numerous acts of vandalism.
Locks and boarded up windows did not deter vandals, Stevenson noted. A coal cook stove in the basement was one of the first items stolen. In 1992 someone stole the church bell from the bell tower, tying a rope to the bell and pulling it down with a pickup. Anything that wasn’t tied down, disappeared, he said.
Efforts in the early 1990s by the “Friends of Intake Church” to restore the building and place it on the National Historic Register were unsuccessful, partly because of the vandalism problems. Putting on a new roof and installing new windows didn’t seem a viable venture when there was no way to stop vandals from destroying things, Stevenson said.
For many years, though, the church was the center of activity in the Intake community. Members came from various church backgrounds: Baptist, Evangelical, Methodist, United Brethren, Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian, Congregational and others. It was really a community church, he said, adding that the group chose to be Congregational because individual churches in that denomination could own their buildings and choose their pastors.
According to information from the Dawson County history book, “Our Times, Our Lives,” the church was organized in June 1914, but in July 1913 a group of 10 women, “The Earnest Workers,” began raising money to pay the salary of a Home Missionary minister who held services in a harness shop, a vacated pool hall, a lumberyard shed and the Intake School.
By June 1916, 43 donors had joined The Earnest Workers to raise $1,583 for construction of a church building and work began. Arthur C. Millard was the contractor. Volunteers from the community made up his construction crew. The building was completed in 1917 and dedicated on May 13 of that year.
The Earnest Workers furnished the church basement, bought an organ for the church for $25 and 12 hymn books for $1.75. Fund raisers included an ice cream social which netted $16.50, a bazaar and box social which raised $37.75 and a 1914 Fourth of July stand which brought in $62.05.
By Sept. 14, 1945 a $950 grant from the Congregational Church Building Society of New York was paid off, and a special “Mortgage Burning” service was held with Millard and Charles Lease given the honor of burning the mortgage.
During the early years, when there were 32 homesteads in the area, services were held all year round, but as people moved from the community and attendance numbers declined, they were limited to holding services only in the warmer months, Stevenson noted.
The church was heated with a coal floor furnace which had an eight or nine-inch pipe going from the furnace into a six-inch pipe in the chimney. Because of the difference in pipe size, the fire in the furnace had to be started slowly to warm up the chimney for a good draw. If it got too hot too quickly, the church filled with smoke, he noted, adding that his dad was responsible for getting the fire going and so he learned to do it also.
The register for the furnace was located in the center of the church about a third of the way to the front. Warm air came up through a square hole in the middle with the cold air return at the corners. When people came in from the cold, they would often stand over the middle of the grate to warm up, he said.
The church had two out houses in the back and Stevenson remembers some uncomfortable trips to the outhouse when he was four or five years old and didn’t sit still and be quiet during the service. He was a quick learner, though, so it only took a couple trips, he said.
His mother, Doris Stevenson, played the piano for the church and the family always sat in the front pew or the second from the front pew and his parents had no patience for squirming children, he added.
When Stevenson was in the first grade, a new school was being built at Intake so classes were held in the church basement. The furnace was for heating the upstairs, so they had an old coal/wood stove rated for four or five rooms to heat the basement and the teacher came early in the morning to start the fire and warm the building, he said.
As the basement warmed, at time snakes came crawling out and the teacher led the way running up the stairs to get away from them. Ervin Mitchell and Ron Mitchell were always delegated to go down and take care of them, he said.
The basement of the church was also home to two voting booths which just fit inside the alcove below the pulpit area and were used for many years, he noted.
Over the years, the abandoned church building slowly deteriorated. This spring Stevenson asked Dawson County Rural Fire Department Chief Richie Crisafulli about the possibility of doing a controlled burn to take care of the building. Crisafulli obtained a burn permit for Sunday, Oct. 15, Stevenson said.
The forecast was for a calm day but the wind picked up when they were ready to burn. They waited a couple hours. The wind went down so they decided to go for it. They started the fire and the wind came back. With the dry grass and wind they had fire “running every direction.” They had enough equipment and manpower to control it but he didn’t get to watch the church burn because he was too busy putting out grass fires, he said.
With the old church gone, the lots will be sold and money used to fence the Grandview Cemetery of Intake and pay for upkeep of the cemetery, he noted, adding, “There was a lot of good in that church, a lot of happy memories.”
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