East Holbrook Mennonite Church (Cheraw, Colorado, USA)
Attracted by cheap farm land, in June 1896 the Christian Rich family moved from Cambridge, Nebraska, to the East Holbrook Valley, some 12 miles northeast of La Junta in southeastern Colorado. Because no other Mennonites were in the area, the family joined a Union Sunday School in the East End School, a one-room schoolhouse three miles (five km) east of present-day Cheraw (the town of Cheraw was established in 1907). Following development of the Holbrook irrigation project in the East Holbrook Valley during the early 1900s, John M. Nunemaker, a native of Elkhart County, Indiana, who had been ordained as a Mennonite minister at Roseland, Nebraska, in 1894, and William H. Snyder, a farmer in Neutral, Kansas, decided to move their families to the East Holbrook Valley and establish a Mennonite colony. They selected the valley because its attributes included an area open to evangelization, a healthful climate for those suffering from pulmonary disease, and cheap farm land within a sparsely populated and well irrigated region. After the Nunemaker and Snyder families settled in the East Holbrook Valley in 1903 and 1905, respectively, some 14 Mennonite families moved from Missouri, Pennsylvania, and other eastern states to the valley during 1905-07.
Meanwhile, in April-May 1903 Bishop George R. Brunk and M. R. Weaver of Newton, Kansas, in company with R. J. Heatwole of Windom, Kansas, conducted a series of Gospel meetings at the Fairview School House, some six miles (10 km) west of La Junta, as well as at the District No. 5 School House in the East Holbrook Valley. Union Sunday Schools were organized at both locations following the meetings. On 4 May 1903 a meeting was convened at the District No. 5 School House during which a congregation with 20 charter members was formally organized with preacher John M. Nunemaker as chairman protem and Bishop George R. Brunk as secretary. The new congregation—named “The La Junta Mennonite Church”—was recognized by the Kansas-Nebraska Conference upon application, and Bishop Samuel C. Miller of Windom, Kansas, was given charge over the church. During these years an East Holbrook Sunday School under Christian Rich as superintendent continued to be held in the District No. 5 School House.
By the spring of 1907 the East Holbrook group had outgrown the District No. 5 School House. Thus the group decided to construct a church building in the East Holbrook Valley on a donated three-acre plot two miles east and one-quarter mile north of Cheraw. John Shank, a carpenter, was asked to build the church; thus he moved his family into a tent on the church site while he constructed the building. After the building’s lathing was completed in June, strong winds blew the structure off its foundation, but within several days it had been maneuvered back into place. Iron rods were added to the foundation to keep the structure in place. When the carpenters constructed the benches for the church building, they called in different people and made benches to fit people of varying heights. The $4,000-building—a two-story frame (cherry red) structure on cement blocks with a gallery, basement, and seating capacity of 300-400—was dedicated on 13 October 1907. Immediately after the building’s dedication, the annual sessions of the Kansas-Nebraska Conference were held there, 17-19 October 1907, during which the delegates voted to establish a new Mennonite educational institution—Hesston College—in Kansas. Subsequent Mennonite conference affiliations of the congregation include Missouri-Kansas (1920-21); South Central (1946); Rocky Mountain (1961); and Mountain States (2006).
On 9 May 1908, the La Junta Mennonite Church decided to divide into two congregations, one of which would reorganize itself as the La Junta Mennonite Church and the other would organize as the East Holbrook Mennonite Church. After the East Holbrook group elected trustees, it was agreed that the congregation would be given a deed to its property. The 100-member East Holbrook Mennonite Church was formally organized at a business meeting held on 17 June 1908. The undefined prairie between the Arkansas and East Holbrook valleys was determined to be the dividing line between the two congregations. The following individuals took charge of the pastoral work at East Holbrook: David Garber, bishop; John M. Nunemaker, pastor, and J. M. Brunk, deacon for both congregations.
On 30 May 1913 the East Holbrook church building was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. While a new church building was constructed, the Cheraw School House was used for Sunday morning services. A smaller, less costly church building—one-story frame with a seating capacity of 250—was erected on the same site as the former structure and dedicated on 14 September 1913.
Although the church periodically lost members during extreme droughts, such as those in 1908 and 1934, the congregation’s membership continued to increase, reaching a high of 152 in 1938. In 1954 the congregation had 134 members, and in August 1955, a 14-foot addition was added to the front of the church to provide more Sunday school space. On 1 June 1958 a dedication service was conducted to commemorate renovation of the church structure and addition of a fellowship hall. By 1959 the congregation, which had a membership of 137 and an average attendance of 100, was working on a visitation and service program to the community through its Women’s Missionary and Service Association.
The East Holbrook congregation conducted various outreach programs to minister to the surrounding community. They began a Summer Bible School program in 1934. After several years the school grew so large that it was moved to the Cheraw School building and buses were used for transportation. Under the leadership of Joseph Shank, a mixed quartet and a men’s quartet presented Gospel programs over Lamar, Colorado, radio station KIDW for a number of years beginning in 1933.
The East Holbrook and La Junta Mennonite church ministers were “missions-minded” and frequently conducted Gospel services in outlying areas of the Mountain States region. As an outgrowth of the Sunday School Workers’ Conferences, Sunday Schools were organized at the Horse Creek Hall in the fall of 1910 and in a school house near Limon during the summer of 1917. During 1923-36 services were conducted in the Houghton and Fairview schoolhouses and at Packer’s Gap, Higbee, Kim, Timpas, Brandon, Manitou Springs, and Pueblo, Colorado; Protection, Kansas; Las Vegas, Farley, and Nolan, New Mexico; Plainview and Perryton, Texas; and Guymon, Oklahoma. The outreach efforts of the La Junta and East Holbrook churches established a number of Mennonite churches in Colorado, including those at Limon, Perryton, Manitou Springs, Denver, and Pueblo.
During the early 1920s the East Holbrook and La Junta Mennonite churches, in conjunction with the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, established a Sunday school for Spanish-speaking people who worked in the sugar beet fields in the Cheraw area. This work, which was the first Mennonite outreach to Hispanics in the region, began through the efforts of William Nunemaker, the son of John M. Nunemaker who was appointed superintendent of the Mexican Mission work in Cheraw by the churches of Colorado in the fall of 1922. On 11 March 1923 Nunemaker took charge and organized the Cheraw Spanish Sunday School, the first meeting taking place in the Cheraw Hall on 5 April 1925. With the help of others in the East Holbrook Mennonite Church he superintended the Spanish Sunday School work until 1939.
In August 1940 David and Elsie Shank Castillo, who had been providing pastoral leadership for a Mennonite Mexican Mission in Chicago, moved to Cheraw at the invitation of the La Junta and East Holbrook congregations and the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities to conduct an outreach effort among the Arkansas and East Holbrook Valley’s Spanish-speaking people. After many of the Hispanic families in Cheraw moved away to take advantage of employment opportunities, the Cheraw work was closed. In October 1940 the Castillos began holding worship services and Sunday School in the former Baptist Spanish Mission in La Junta that had been turned over to the Mennonites by the Baptist mission board. Members of the La Junta and East Holbrook churches quickly rehabilitated the deteriorated building and began transporting the remaining Hispanics at Cheraw to the La Junta mission. With the aid of persons from both churches as well as staff members and nurses at the La Junta Mennonite Sanitarium and Hospital and School of Nursing, the Castillos soon initiated a full array of Spanish church services. From its beginnings this mission effort, at first variously known as the Mexican Mission or La Junta Spanish Mission but ultimately as the La Junta Spanish Mennonite Church, was financed by the La Junta and East Holbrook congregations along with the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities.
The East Holbrook Mennonite Church has participated in various inter-Mennonite ventures in the Arkansas Valley, including annual Mennonite Central Committee relief sales beginning in 1976 and the Casa del Sol Mennonite retirement center in La Junta beginning in the 1980s. In 2007 the congregation had an average attendance of 60. The congregation is the oldest continuing Mennonite congregation in Colorado.
The East Holbrook Mennonite Church maintains an active cemetery adjacent to the church building. Based on a 2002 inventory the cemetery contained 349 interments. There were a least 21 unknown burials in the cemetery denoted by some type of marker. The earliest burial was that of Reuben Ray Snyder, 6 August 1907, son of William and Laura Snyder, aged 8 months, 23 days. Surnames with five or more interments include Bangert, Enns, Evers, Hansen, Hartzler, Headrick, Houck, Kauffman, Kulp, Lance, Nunemaker, Plank, Shank, Singer, Smith, Snyder, Switser, Vasquez, and Wadleigh.
“Celebrating God’s Faithfulness and a Mennonite Presence in the Arkansas Valley, 1903 -2003.” (Provided to Harlan D. Unrau by Edwin F. Rempel).
F[roese], L[etha]. “East Holbrook Mennonite Church.” The Echo, May 1984, pp. 3-5.
Miller, Adrian. "History of the La Junta and East Holbrook Mennonite Churches, 1903-2003,” 1940, edited by Nelda Rhodes Thelin for the 100th Year Anniversary, November 15-16, 2003, (including Addendum—“The Coming of the Mennonites to the Arkansas Valley.” April 1978, by Carolyn Stutzman; Addendum, “Spanish Mission Work (1939-1967),” by Elsie Shank Castillo; Addendum, “There is a Baby on the Doorstep,” by Paul Rhodes; and “Supplementary Photographs Inserted into the 100-year Anniversary History of the La Junta and East Holbrook Mennonite Churches, 1903-2003”).
Unrau, Harlan D. In Pursuit of Land, Health and Mission: A History of Mennonites in the Mountain States Region. Printed in Canada by Blitzprint, Inc. 2007.
Mailing Address: Box 68, Cheraw, Colorado 81030Meeting Place: 32723 Road 33, Cheraw, Colorado 81030
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MLA style: Unrau, Harlan D. "East Holbrook Mennonite Church (Cheraw, Colorado, USA)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. March 2010. Web. 18 June 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/E23825.html.
APA style: Unrau, Harlan D. (March 2010). East Holbrook Mennonite Church (Cheraw, Colorado, USA). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 June 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/E23825.html.