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Standing the test of time: Old Rock Church is still a monument to pioneers' faith, talents

PROVIDENCE, Cache County — When we look for connections to our past, so often we turn to old buildings. Not only because brick and stone and mortar tend to outlast their times, but because we can often find the heart and soul of their builders and their eras within those walls.

So it is with the Old Rock Church in Providence. One of the oldest structures in Cache Valley, if not the entire state, and listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings, this edifice has changed and adapted with its circumstances but remains a tangible embodiment of faith and fortitude.

Started in 1869 — just 10 years after the first settlers made their home near Spring Creek (the name of the town was later changed to Providence at the suggestion of Orson Hyde) and 15 years before the Logan Temple was dedicated — it was built in a time when pretty much everything had to be done by hand. "The rock was quarried by hand, the iron was forged by hand, the wood was milled by hand," noted Karl Seethaler, current owner of the building, which is now a bed-and-breakfast inn. "They did an amazing job."

Suitable rock for the building was located in Dry Pole Canyon directly east of the community. Under the direction of James Henry Brown, a stonemason from England, ward members cut the rock and hauled it to the building site in the center of town. Workers were paid either a bushel of wheat or $1.25 per day (a man with two teams could collect two bushels of wheat or $3 per day).

Temporary ramps were constructed, and rocks were hauled in wheelbarrows up to the masons working on the walls. Rocks were lifted into place with pulleys and were held together with a mortar made with lime burned in kilns up Providence Canyon.

Brown was asked to hire enough masons that the stonework could be completed during the summer of 1870. That may be why, said Seethaler, that if you walk around the rock portion of the building today, you will notice that each side has a slightly different pattern of stonework.

The large timbers used in the building were held together with wooden pegs and leather thongs. Some of those timbers are still visible in the inn's upper rooms. If you look closely, said Seethaler, you will see that three sides of the beams are sawn, while the fourth side is axed. An old drawing in one of the rooms demonstrates the process. After a log was cut, an ax was used to create a flat surface, which was placed on sawhorses, while a man standing on the log and a man standing under it used a hand-driven saw to cut the beams.

"The pioneers were amazing people," said Seethaler. "They were not averse to hard work, and they had very real skills."

Those skills resulted in a building that, when finished, was a focal point for not only worship but also entertainment and social gatherings for all of Cache Valley.

On many a Saturday night, the handmade wooden benches were pushed back for community dances. The dance floor was considered the finest in the valley, and folks came from all over for the famous all-night dances.

A stage occupied the east end of the building, and it, too, had use beyond church meetings. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a group of pioneer dramatists called the Providence Players performed plays and musicals. The stage, proscenium, paintings and curtain were also considered the nicest in the valley, and the best actors from Salt Lake City also came to perform, noted Seethaler.

In the 1920s, a south wing was added onto the church, done in a gracious Georgian style. It added a bishop's office, kitchen, Relief Society meeting room and Sunday School classrooms.

In 1947, when George Albert Smith came to dedicate a pioneer monument in front of the building, he suggested further remodeling to the chapel. The orientation was changed from east to west, with a stand for speakers and choir built along the western side of the building.

The plan also called for a recreation hall to be added on the east side of the building. But when an earthquake jarred the foundation and did some minor structural damage in 1962, it was decided that a new building would better serve modern needs of the ward. Completed in 1968, it signaled the beginning of a new era for the Old Rock Church.

For the next decade, the remodeled building would serve as first a wedding reception center and then a fabric store. In 1979, Cliff Mayfield created a residential care facility for the elderly.

Mayfield undertook extensive renovations, turning the attic level into rooms and adding an elevator, among other things. But he did it with care, preserving the overall structure and even replacing windows (which were no longer original) in the rock part of the building with windows made of hand-poured glass imported from Germany.

In the early 1990s, however, Mayfield's health began to fail, and that's where Seethaler came in. "Essentially, I bought the building in 1993 to save it."

Seethaler grew up in Southern California and ended up in Cache Valley in 1970 as a graduate student in wildlife ecology at Utah State University. He became acquainted with the building during its fabric store period. He loved it on sight but didn't think much more about it.

"I was in Peru at the time Cliff's health started going downhill. He had found a buyer, but that buyer wanted to gut the building and put in apartments." A petition drive in the community against that proposal led the City Council to deny the zoning variances it would need. "And that's when I got back from Peru. I decided to look into it, and eventually to buy it. Then I had to decide what to do with it. I knew it had to be open, so people could enjoy it. We decided a B&B was the way to go."

That project also required extensive remodeling, both structurally and cosmetically to enhance the aesthetic appeal of the inn's 15 rooms. Elizabeth Rogers, an interior designer specializing in historical restoration at USU, was brought in to do period decorations for the rooms.

"It's been a labor of love," said Seethaler. Not just for him but for his staff as well. Nina DeSpain is the general manager for the inn, "and really the heart and soul of the place," said Seethaler. Her husband, Kent, helps with maintenance. Trina VanderLouw is the office manager/bookkeeper, and her husband, Jez, does all the cooking for the inn's breakfasts. "This building has been a labor of love going back to 1869," Seethaler said.

In 2000, Seethaler acquired the home just east of the old church. "It's an excellent example of an early 20th century arts-and-crafts bungalow." It has been remodeled and added onto to create additional suites for the inn.

Seethaler estimates that they have about 100 weddings a year in the old rock meeting hall. "It's a grand assembly hall where its vaulted ceiling, Palladian windows, cascading staircase and mirrored backdrop lend the perfect setting for weddings, receptions and other events."

They have created a place that serves as a romantic getaway for honeymoons and anniversaries as well as a place that accommodates both the business and leisure traveler, said Seethaler. But most of all, they have preserved "a Cache Valley treasure."

The building, he said, needs to remain so that future generations "will enjoy it as a cornerstone of our heritage."

To that end, Seethaler has been talking to the American West Heritage Center about the possibility of donating the building to that group. "I'm now 70, and I'm not going to be here forever. So I'm trying to find a way where the historical integrity of the building can be preserved. They would continue to operate it as a bed and breakfast."

The center, which is based on U.S. 89-91 in Wellsville, "does a great job of re-creating history. But this is history. It's important that it be here."

Though the Old Rock Church has adapted to changing times and needs, it still serves as a monument to the faith and ability of early pioneers, he said. "You can never take the church entirely out of it. There's a spirit here that is very real. This has always been a people place. That's what it needs to be."