The History of "The Little Stone Church in the Desert"

Tanque Verde Baptist Church

Steady as a Rock

Rock buildings fascinate me and every time I drive by the old Baptist Church on the Tanque Verde Loop Road, I'm amazed at the workmanship. There are several stone buildings in the area, but none is as well known or as beautiful as the church. The church was built in the late thirties and dedicated in 1939 on land donated by a local farmer, Howard Smith, who also donated the land for Tanque Verde School.

Building the church was a community effort and everyone in the area pitched in. Homesteader Bryan Lyerly said, "Lee James Huston and I helped build the rock church next to the school. Elbridge Smith came up to our ranch in a big old Dodge truck. We helped get rocks up on my place at the mouth of Milagrosa Canyon and carried those rocks down for them to build the church."

According to Dan Smith, son of Howard Smith, he and his brothers worked on the church for a couple of years, especially during the summer. First they dug the basement and poured concrete for the floor and walls. When the basement was completed, work began on the stone walls. Each stone was painstakingly set and mortared on the concrete stem wall. Leroy Taylor, a winter visitor from Missouri who stayed in the Tanque Verde area, selected and set the stones. Mr. Taylor was obviously a talented craftsman because the walls are as beautiful today as they were in 1939.

John Sheley, former church Pastor, said that the frames and headers in the windows were made from automobile frames which were cut down and re-welded. Restrooms and storage closets were built a short time later and the parsonage was built in the late 1940s or early 1950s.

Lee J. Huston sent me an old, yellowed newspaper clipping that shows a crowd of people in front of the newly completed church. The caption reads, "145... parishioners . . . under the leadership of the Rev. Claude W. McCorkle, ...raised subscriptions toward the erection of the native stone building, placed on four acres of land donated by Howard Smith, a Tanque Verde farmer. A building loan of $2,400 was guaranteed by the First Baptist Church, and much of the labor on the building was furnished by members...."

The pastors over the years were: McCorkle, Eversol, Don Kirk, and George Rupp. In 1997 the church added a parking lot and completed renovations, but the basic stone structure remains the same.

A Tower for Tanque Verde Baptist Church, 2005

For twenty-six years master carpenter, Chuck Ledden, had a picture in his mind of a perfect, simple, white bell tower. "“I came to Tucson in 1979,"” Chuck recalled. “"I found this church and I thought it was one of the most beautiful churches I’'d ever seen. It was homey and it reminded me of the churches I'd grown up with in Southern Georgia, but I noticed immediately that it didn'’t have a steeple. From that point on, I wanted to build one for it.”"

The Tanque Verde Baptist Church, a local landmark, was constructed by hand in the 1930s on donated land. Members of the church laboriously hauled rocks by wagon from the foothills of the Catalina mountains and built the church over a period of several years.

To Chuck'’s trained eye, the church wasn’t really finished without the bell tower. Late last fall, he was finally able to realize his dream when the congregation felt they could afford the materials for the tower. Chuck volunteered to donate his time and skilled labor. Bill Blaine, a deacon in the church, offered the use of his shop as a construction site and partnered in the project.

They used Honduras mahogany and marine plywood. "“We used the very best materials we could find.” The blueprint started out as sketch on a paper plate and “one thing led to another until it was completed.”"

Construction involved complicated cuts and joinery. The angles of the tower and fitting it to the pitch of the roof was challenging. Over a period of several months, the twenty-six foot tower was built in sections, joined together, and hauled to the church where it was lifted by crane and attached to the roof.

The serene, white tower represents hundreds of hours of labor and adds the perfect, final touch to the old church.

Jorga Riggenbach, a Tanque Verde resident, is a

writer, photographer and an enthusiatic amatuer

historian. Her first book, Agua Caliente Chronicles is

a collection of stories from the people and places of

Tanque Verde. It is currently out-of-print, but is

scheduled to be republished. She is also the co-

author of A Red Howell Fit, and The Empire:

Cowboys We'd Love to Know. Jorga works as a

photographer and teaches photography for the City

of Tucson, Leisure Classes. She also does a wide

variety of photography-related freelance work.

Contact Jorga at Jorga@RagingBrookPress.com.

Rounded Edge