WEST BADEN SPRINGS, Ind. — The history of the Springs Valley community stretches beyond the famous — and infamous — who stayed at the luxurious resorts that beckoned visitors to Orange County. History also envelopes a darker side — a time when the segregation separated the visitors from the men and women hired to serve them.
That history is now seeing the light as a group of volunteers sets its sights on the restoration of the First Baptist Church (Colored) of West Baden Springs.
The story goes that Lee Sinclair, the man who owned and operated the historic domed West Baden Hotel, didn’t want his black employees attending church services in French Lick because of the competition he had with the neighboring French Lick hotel. He sold land on Sinclair Street for $1 and the men began building their own house of worship.
The church opened in 1909, and today, more than a century later, it still stands as what is believed to be the only building left in Orange County directly relating to African-American history.
“There was a large black community because that was the service community for the hotels,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, a Bloomington woman who is helping with the church restoration as a history buff and member of the Second Baptist Church of Bloomington. “They came to this area because the hotel jobs were good jobs, with good pay, at least for African-Americans at the time.
“One of the most astonishing things I’ve learned is that even though the church was a segregated church, it did not practice segregation. The church would help anyone who was poor or in need, regardless of color.”
About two years ago, the town of West Baden Springs gave the structure to the Southeastern District Association of the Indiana Missionary Baptist State Convention in return for a promise that within seven years, the church will once again be home to church services.
Time went by, and nothing happened with the historic church, which is listed on both the National Register of Historic Places and the Indiana Register of Historic Places. Its future remained in limbo.
Pastor Bruce Rose of the Second Baptist Church in Bloomington feared the worst. Seeing that nothing was being done to save the piece — and place — of history, he put a plea out to his congregation, and it answered the call.
“When I mentioned it, they said, ‘Let’s go,'” Rose said. “I’ve got a great congregation full of wonderful volunteers.”
Every Wednesday and Friday, the sound of laughter mixes with the noise of construction equipment as men from the Second Baptist Church in both Bloomington and Bedford work to save the relic. The men, Mitchell said, are mostly retired. They have the skills needed to provide the sweat equity that will one day allow the church to open again.
“We’re way ahead of schedule,” Mitchell said.
That’s because of people like Thomas Brashear, who is a Bedford native now living in Bloomington. Retired as a plumber and pipe fitter from General Motors, he heard of the project through his church, Second Baptist Church of Bedford. He now makes the drive to West Baden Springs at least once a week.
“I like working in the church, and I like to keep busy,” Brashear said. “I love it. It’s something to do while serving the Lord, too.”
Even though it’s more than 100 years old, the church has remained surprisingly intact, despite the threat of flooding and its nearly 30-year vacancy. The original lectern and Bible is on display at the French Lick West Baden Museum, the original pews are in storage and the original baptismal font remains submerged under the pulpit, although its now covered by construction boards and equipment.
Still, despite those genuine features, the project is an extensive one.
When volunteers started, the building was bowed outward. The men had to use their expertise to bring the walls back in, then secure them to avoid the bowing from happening in the future. The inside has practically been gutted as damaged drywall was removed and volunteers replaced fire-damaged lumber in the rafters.
The bell tower was restored and replaced. The wood siding has been sanded down and new coats of white paint are being slathered on the boards. Men’s and women’s rest rooms will be constructed at the front of the church, the ceiling will be dropped and a new heating and cooling system will be installed.
Even with the volunteer sweat equity, the renovation has a price tag of about $200,000 — $43,000 of which has been raised to date through donors and community development funds from Hoosier Uplands.
“This community has been amazingly supportive,” Mitchell said. “I can tell you there’s not a day that goes by when the men are here working that people don’t stop by and bring us donations or refreshments. They have truly made us feel a part of this community. I can’t say enough about this community’s support of what we’re doing here. You can tell this building is important to them.”
“It’s the last African-American historical site in Orange County,” Pastor Rose said. “The rest of the buildings from the black community have been destroyed. I can tell you this church is not here by accident, but by God’s divine providence.”
Proof of that has been found everywhere, throughout the project, Mitchell said. Once, she said, a Bible sat on the lectern. A breeze blew through an open window, opening the Bible to Genesis 2:7 when it talks about God granting the “breath of life.”
“Things like that give us assurance that this is something that needs to go forward,” Mitchell said.
The goal is to start worshipping inside those walls by the fall of 2018. However, before it opens, the Southeastern District will have its annual convention in the Valley community as a way of continuing the momentum, Rose said.
“This project has been really rewarding, that’s for sure,” Rose said. “I’m so proud to be their pastor.”
Source: The (Bedford) Times-Mail, http://bit.ly/2w2rP28
Information from: The Times-Mail, http://www.tmnews.com
This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by The (Bedford) Times-Mail.