Paonia United Methodist Church Pastor Steve Dunkel is a third-generation coal miner, but he's not from the North Fork area. He grew up in Creede. At age 26 he was called to serve the United Methodist Church, and a year ago he was assigned to Paonia.
It's an interesting time to be here, he said, recalling when the Creede mines closed down in the 1980s and didn't come back. "The whole culture of the town changes." With eight drinking establishments at the time, and one church, Creede is different than Paonia, he added, but with local mines closing he sees similarities between the two communities. He also sees the needs of the community changing.
"Now the challenge is, what do we need right now?" he asks. "How can we help the community now?"
This summer, he said, visitors, many in town for class reunions, and many former church members or descendents of members, have stopped by seeking historical church records such as baptisms and marriages.
While not all pastors are, Pastor Dunkel happens to be very interested in yesteryear and wants to share the church's history. And while some records exist, they aren't all archived and readily accessible. He's hoping that during his time in Paonia, however long that may be, he can change that.
Dunkel said he's been in churches where historical records are nonexistent. For centuries churches have been repositories for family records including marriages, births, deaths and cemetery records. Some church records date back centuries, he said, but in the relatively young West, most churches aren't very old by comparison. Whether or not churches recorded events in the late 1800s and early 1900s relied greatly on the availability of resources and the interest of the congregation in maintaining records, which was often difficult or overlooked. Many churches lost their records to fire or other disasters.
Lifelong Paonia resident Claudia Sutliff King has written extensively on the history of the North Fork Valley and has access to a wealth of information on the church. In writing about local history, she said, she also has the advantage of drawing from her own experiences and memories, including stories told to her by her parents. They were members of the Methodist Church for a time, and in 1947 at age 8, she was baptized in the church.
In 1994 King compiled a history of the Paonia United Methodist Church to mark its 100th anniversary. She drew from several sources, including periodicals, local history books and personal accounts. A 1907 newspaper clipping states that the first organized meeting of Methodists in the North Fork area was held in September 1891, at Hotchkiss, for the purpose of seeing "what could be done for the moral good of the people." In 1893, the first Methodist service in Paonia was held at the Bethlehem School.
In 1894, the North Fork circuit including Hotchkiss, Paonia and the Smith Fork area was established, and in 1895, J.W. Martin was given a one-year term as the circuit's first pastor. In 1899 the Paonia congregation separated from Hotchkiss. Plans were made to build a church in Paonia in a field of timothy hay, and on June 24, three years before Paonia incorporated as a town, the cornerstone, made of white sandstone quarried from the Ebersol Coal Mine, was laid at Third Street and Onarga Avenue. In June, 1900, a dedication and consecration ceremony was held. During the event, $1,300 was raised to pay off construction bills, and the church was debt-free.
The original church walls were made of brick. While the architect is unknown, the cathedral-style building's Gothic architecture, common in Methodist churches, is seen in its stained glass arched windows, vaulted ceilings, open interior and steeple. In 1906 it was reported that each school day the bell rang at precisely 8:30 a.m., which was said to reduce tardiness at school.
Over the years, the building has seen numerous changes, starting in 1905 when a gallery was added. In 1934, the iconic steeple was taken down. That's likely because the bricks were failing and the structure couldn't support its weight, said Dunkel. "Colorado is tough on buildings." To protect the walls from decay, the building was reinforced in stucco. Dunkel said he's curious about the bricks after learning that bricks for the neighboring Bross Hotel, which opened in 1906, were made on-site from materials excavated for the basement.
In 1950, the cornerstone was covered up when a support buttress was added. Beginning in 1959 several projects, including the addition of a new parsonage, were completed. In 1970, the sanctuary underwent a major renovation and the vaulted ceiling was lowered.
Paonia is known historically and today as a church community. Other churches were built in the early 20th century include the Friends Church at Third and Poplar in 1904, and the Romanesque style Paonia First Christian Church at Third and Box Elder in 1907. During the 1930s and the Great Depression resources were scarce and the Methodist Church joined with the Friends, Congregational and Community churches to form the Federated Church.
According to "Elk Mountain Odyssey," a 1998 book on the West Elk Scenic/Historic Byway, under the headline "Paonia's Pious Populous," the authors cited a 1995 article in The Denver Post stating that in the 1930s, "Ripley's Believe it or Not" listed Paonia as having one church for every 67 residents -- at the time more churches per capita than any other U.S. town or city.
Today the local Yellow Pages list 13 churches in Paonia and the surrounding area. With about 1,600 residents, that ratio is closer to one church for every 123 residents.
The Methodist Church has also served as a gathering place. During World War II women made blankets for war veterans. A preschool operated for many years, and it was a meeting place for the local Boy Scout troop. Until recently the church was a local voting precinct.
The church's 125th anniversary is just three years away and King is considering updating her history for the occasion. She also wants to apply to have the building placed on the Delta County Historic Landmark Register. Due to stringent requirements and the many changes made to the original building, the church likely won't qualify for the state or national registers, she said.
Dunkel supports those efforts. He is working on a project to update the church records and has designated a room in the church basement for storing archives. That way, he said, when people come in asking for family records, everything the church has will be located in one place. He also would like to post the church's history in chronological order and post it to Facebook page. He is asking church members and the public to share any family photos, records or memories of the church that they may have.
Fortunately, said Pastor Dunkel, past and present church members have taken care to document and preserve the church's history. "Now it's our turn."
UMW Thrift Store
In 1956, the United Methodist Women Thrift Store was established in Paonia. Since then it has filled a need in the community, providing a place where low-income people can shop for clothing and other goods. The store operates separately from the Paonia United Methodist Church, and solely for the purpose of benefiting women, children and infants.
Jan Probert, one of the store's many dedicated volunteers, said there is a misconceptions that UMW stands for United Mine Workers. The United Methodist Women is an international organization that began in 1869 and today has more than 800,000 members. Locally, they work to ensure that the money raised addresses the current needs of the community. Over the years, proceeds have helped support the Dolphin House Child Advocacy Center in Montrose, provided mammograms through the Delta Doves organization, and purchased computers and programs for children at the Paonia Public Library.
The store has had a number of homes and is currently located in the alley behind the Paonia United Methodist Church. Because it is severely very limited in space, it mainly accepts small items including clothing for all ages, household items and jewelry, said Probert.
Luella Wolverton, who died in 2004 just shy of her 102nd birthday, recorded her memories of the store. At one time it was heated by coal and a wood stove and had no running water. In the early days almost everything sold for a dime or a quarter, and for a time was lucky to bring in $5 a day; in a good month it cleared $50. The community has always been generous with donations, and once a month the Goodwill and Salvation Army stores picked up their overflow.
At one time most of the shoppers were seasonal migrant farm workers. In the 1970s, recalled Wolverton, a "surge of hippies" came to the North Fork area and business doubled. "They were always so polite and appreciative that it was a pleasure to sell to them." They could also be trouble. One young mother with a baby filled bags with clothing and ran out the door with the bags without paying, but forgot her baby. (She, of course, returned for the baby.)
The donations themselves have changed over the years. Early on most donations included clothing and utilitarian items. Lately, said Probert, they are items from grandma's house. "You just have no idea what's going to come in."
Among the more interesting items to come in over the years, said Porbert, was a box of craft items like glitter and pipe cleaners, along with several Christmas tins filled with silver dollars. The store saved them for a long time in case anyone claimed them, she said, but no one ever did.
The clientele has also changed greatly since 1956. Today, said Probert, "Most are shoppers looking for a good deal."
The store's location also changed over the years. Today it's located in the alley behind the church just off of Third Street between Onarga and Poplar. The store has always had dedicated volunteers, said Probert, an 11-year volunteer. About a dozen of the current volunteers were there when she started. One reason they volunteer is because its interesting and fun, said Probert. "But the main reason is because it's for a good cause."