The old rock church in Alpine was gone by the time I was born. All I ever saw of it was pictures. But it must have been beautiful. Together with the Alpine Co-op and Marsh's store, it formed the nucleus of the town between 1872 and 1928.
Several additions were made to it over the years, each one enhancing the beauty and utility of the building. In its final form, what had been the main doors were restructured into a beautiful, round stained-glass window. The silver-toned bell in the belfry was used to call people to both church and school. On the occasion of a funeral, its tolling echoed against the surrounding mountains as mourners walked from the church to Cemetery Hill.A row of black locust trees lined the street north of the church. In front, a single Lombardy poplar stretched skyward, accentuating the graceful thrust of the church's steeple.
The interior of the church, owing to the thick stone walls, was cool and inviting in the summer. In winter, however, it held in the cold like a root cellar. A huge pot-bellied stove rumbled in the center aisle during long sermons. Flashes of light shimmered off the surrounding walls. People close to the stove roasted, while those who came late and sat in the corners stayed cold.
Jenny Wild, in her fine historical compilation, "Alpine Yesterdays," records the following:
"One morning during Sunday school the stove door flew open from the pressure and red hot coals tumbled onto the floor. Ralph Strong leaped out of his seat, grabbed up a broom and tried to sweep the burning mass in to a coal shovel. The broom immediately burst into flames. There was some stomping and yelling for a few seconds and many people didn't know they could move so fast, but the fire was extinguished without any damage to the room."
At Christmas, a large pine tree decorated with popcorn and tinsel would be set up in one corner of the chapel. On Christmas Eve, the entire congregation would gather at the church for a special program, a highlight of the year for the hard-working farm families. The air was filled with the scent of pine and the warm spirit of community.
I try to picture how it would feel outside at that moment in the gathering darkness. The sun throws a last beam of orange light against the high peaks. Evening shadows give the snow a bluish cast. Horses, harnessed to bobsleds and cutters tied to hitching posts, stand patiently, their breath steaming in the cold air. A glow of light from inside the church throws an amber radiance through the round stained-glass window. The muffled sound of Christmas hymns breaks the otherwise bitter winter stillness.
The summer of 1928 had been especially hot and dry. Leaves from the locust trees clogged the gutters of the roof. By October, no rain had fallen to flush the gutters free.
On the cold morning of Oct. 21, Hans Olsen, the custodian, came in early to warm up the building for Sunday School. A short time later, someone noticed smoke on the roof. Smoldering leaves in the gutter had kindled the dry pine shingles. The flames spread so fast that nothing could be done but look as the building burned out of control. Before long, the weakened roof came crashing down inside the thick, stone walls that now acted as the walls of a furnace.
My mother was a girl of 10 at the time. From Grandpa's farm on the edge of town, she recalled seeing the plume of smoke that rose above the cottonwoods of Dry Creek. Especially, she remembers the shingles. Swept upward with tremendous force from the draft created by the heat, the burning shingles rained down all over the south end of town.
Many times, over the years, I have heard her recall the story about how she stood with Grandpa and Grandma by the edge of the orchard next to Earl Devey's field and watched the embers fall. They were terrified that one might set the roof of the barn on fire, or the house. It strikes me as ironic in a way, the terror of embers falling out of the sky, issued from a fire stoked in the heart of the very community that gave forth life, raging with excitement and fear intermingled, as a moment of intimate history was born and burnt into indelible consciousness.