Going for Gold
The Hearst Church in Pinos Altos has gone from a haven for miners to a gallery where artists seek purchase prizes.
by John Catsis
On May 18, 1860, gold was discovered in Pinos Altos.
On May 18, 1898, the Hearst Church was dedicated there.
On May 18, 1968, a group of artists was planning the creation of the Grant County Art Guild.
Obviously, May 18 is a significant date in the history of Pinos Altos, the Hearst Church, and the Art Guild.
The Hearst Church today (top, photo by John Catsis)
So, on May 18, 2014, the Grant County Art Guild will help observe the church's 116th birthday and the Guild's 46th. It also will mark the 39th year the Guild has displayed art at the historic church.
The Art Guild's annual Members Only Show will open the season at the church-turned-gallery with an artist reception at 5:30 p.m. on May 2. The show will also be available for viewing from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday through May 11. Among the members hoping to have their works selected is this month's cover artist, photographer Sandy Feutz of FeVa Fotos.
The Guild was started in 1968, when about 35 artists got together in Silver City to have a Fourth of July display at the Woman's Club. The show was so successful the artists decided to organize permanently, and thus was born the Grant County Art Guild. Its first president was the late Barbara White.
Various shows were held around town for the next few years, including at the Public Library and the Optimists Club, now the Agape Community Christian School. Guild meetings also moved about. In 1973 they were held at the Red Cross Hall, now the Mormon Student Center at WNMU. Three years later, the Guild established a scholarship for art majors at the university. It also held art classes for children at Gough Park and contributed funds for the construction of the park's pavilion.
In 1972, Frank Tatsch acquired the Hearst Church from the New Mexico Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. His ownership was fitting, as Tatsch loved both history and Pinos Altos.
In 1975, following extensive repairs, the church was ready for its second life when Tatsch invited the Art Guild to establish a gallery in its renovated interior. In May its doors opened to the public. (Could it have been May 18? After all, that day was a Sunday!)
The following year, a Purchase Prize Show was started, which continues to this day. Artists from across New Mexico are invited to submit their works, from which a single Best of Show is awarded. Frank Tatsch and now his son, "Dink," have purchased the winning art for public display elsewhere.
None of this, including the creation of Pinos Altos, would not have been possible if it had not been for the thirst of a California prospector variously known as Henry or Thomas "Three Fingered" Birch. As he knelt at the junction of Bear and Little Cherry Creeks on May 18, 1860, he spotted several chispas, or small nuggets of gold. He told his two companions, and within days the trio had told others. Everyone was sworn to secrecy. Yeah, right. By September, 700 prospectors had converged on what was now called Birchville,
The challenge of finding gold was made more difficult by attacks from Chiricahua Apaches led by Mangus Coloradas, or "Red Sleeves." The Apaches also gave the early settlers of Birchville fits, calling them "los god-dammies Americans." The nickname was based on what they overheard the miners frequently utter as they went about their panning and digging.
Residents' language and social skills improved when families began to move in. By 1866, Birchville became Pinos Altos. The town was incorporated the following year and became the Grant County seat in 1869.
Judge Roy Bean joined his brother, Sam, in operating a mercantile in Pinos Altos, complete with a "fine billiard table." This was before Roy became famous as the "law west of the Pecos" in Langtry, Texas.
Population figures are inconsistent for that time. One unofficial report says 9,000 folks called Pinos Altos home by 1880. There was no census report for 1880, but the 1890 census said the population was 1,015.
There soon became a need for a church in the community. Enter the Rev. Jacob Ruoff, Frank Bell and Phoebe Hearst. The Rev. Ruoff was a Methodist minister who lived in Pinos Altos, but conducted religious services in other nearby communities. He was the force behind the movement to build a new church in Pinos Altos. Bell donated a 50-by-100-foot corner of his Good Enough mining claim and $500 for its construction. Phoebe Elizabeth Apperson Hearst, widow of George Hearst, held an interest in two mines in Pinos Altos, the Pacific Mine and the Mina Grande.
George Hearst had died in 1891 (no, it wasn't May 18) in Washington, DC, where he was in his fifth year representing California as US Senator. At the time, he was worth $19 million (that's 1891 money, mind you), which represented 1/712th of the US gross national product. Not bad for a man born to a family of modest Missouri means.
He left behind his widow, Phoebe, 22 years his junior, who by then had her own investment plans. She apparently had never been to Pinos Altos, but she did have an interest in religion and good books. She matched Bell's $500 contribution, specifying creation of a reading room, so miners could spend happy hours there, instead of at nearby bars and taverns.
This was not the first time Phoebe Hearst invested in her own personal project. She had loaned her only child, William Randolph Hearst, the funds necessary to purchase the New York Journal newspaper in 1895. Indirectly, one might say, she was instrumental in helping to launch the era of "yellow journalism."
Besides the donations from Frank Bell and Phoebe Hearst, local residents did their part to raise construction funds. Ladies held box-lunch socials and bazaars. Men pledged money from their wages. And tavern owners were "tapped" for contributions.
The reading room was not popular at first, basically because miners who were Catholics felt uncomfortable in the building. So the ladies auxiliary sewed curtains to separate the reading area from the rest of the church. Voila! Instant acceptance. Popular magazines of that day, like Argosy, McClure's and Puck, were special attractions. McClure's featured a lot of pictures. The miners liked a lot of pictures. And there were newspapers, as well, but it's not known if Phoebe Hearst supplied copies of her son's New York Journal.
The 54-year-old widow arrived in Silver City by private railroad car to help dedicate the Gold Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, as it was then officially known. How she made it to Pinos Altos is not recorded.
The church dedication was the last official function for the Rev. Jacob Ruoff. He retired and was succeeded by the Rev. Henry Van Valkenburgh. Better known as "Brother Van," he stayed on for many years. Over the years, Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian ministers took turns conducting morning and afternoon services. In 1909 a special Easter Sunday service marked the church's 21st anniversary.
The church had been built with an external bell tower, made of wood. But when the tower began to deteriorate, it was removed sometime after 1942 and the bell given to a rural church at Mountain Park, northeast of Alamogordo.
As a religious center, the Hearst Church had a short life. The date of its last religious service is lost in history. But the building continued as a social center. Occasionally the Forest Service would show movies there.
As the 20th century began, the population of Pinos Altos waned, mainly because the mines were playing out. Soon, residents with automobiles would travel downhill seven miles to seek religion and diversions in the growing town of Silver City.
From 1909 to 1953, little more is known about the history of the church. We do know that sometime prior to 1927, Gold Avenue was renamed Golden Avenue.
In 1953, the church was considered abandoned. The New Mexico Annual Conference of the Methodist Church deeded the title to a new organization, the Grant County Museum. But the museum was only in the planning stages and never became reality. So the property was deeded back to the Methodist Church in 1964, and duly recorded in Grant County, but the church board did not learn of this until 1971. When church officials checked, they found most of the windows broken and the back door lying on the ground. On August 29, 1972, through a quitclaim deed, Frank Tatsch acquired the church for a reported $250. When asked about his church affiliation, Tatsch replied: "I don't belong to any of 'em."
Not everyone was happy with the transaction. Silver City Methodist Church members objected to the sale, stating a preference to have the church demolished instead. They were concerned about the potential future use Tatsch would put it to. But the deal had been done.
With the church reportedly in danger of collapsing, new buttresses were built, the foundation strengthened, and a new roof installed. From stained-glass shards found around the building, 130 panes were ordered to replicate the original. Only 50 panes had been found intact.
To accommodate the Art Guild in 1975, display alcoves and special lighting were installed.
In August 2012, Dink Tatsch sold the hearse that had carried Sheriff Pat Garrett to his grave, which had been an attraction inside the church. Garrett, of course, was known for shooting and killing Silver City's most famous one-time resident, Billy the Kid. Historian Cal Traylor of Las Cruces purchased the hearse and donated it to the new Historical Museum of Lawmen, located inside the Doña Ana County sheriff's office.
The departure of the hearse provided much-needed room for both visitors and additional art. Memories of the old reading area are still evident, as marked by the pot-belly stove near the front door. And overlooking the entire interior are photographic portraits of Phoebe and George Hearst, plus Frank Tatsch. It might be safe to say they are all pleased by the building's new and more permanent purpose. And by the way, there are still books and magazines off in the corner to read.
John Catsis moved to Silver City in 2007 after a long career in broadcast journalism.
He wrote about Alaska transplants in our April issue.