MCHS discusses Gabel House and Hopewell Church future

By Terry Bailey

An open invitation was extended to interested citizens of Mitchell County to attend a public forum at the Mitchell County Museum on North Independence Street on Tuesday evening, September 27, 2022. The purpose of the meeting was to gauge community interest in determining the future of two historic Mitchell County landmarks - the Hopewell Church located and owned by the Glen Elder State Park and the property known as the Gabel corner at the junction of Highways 24 and 14 on the northwest edge of Beloit, owned by the Mitchell County Historical Society (MCHS).
Kyle Peterson, Director of the Mitchell County Museum, moderated the discussion. About 20 people attended the meeting to listen and comment. Peterson reiterated, "This is just the beginning step of the conversation. Nothing will be determined tonight. However, the clock it is ticking, and a plan will need to be developed so action can be taken."
Peterson began the evening with a review of the history of both locations. The Hopewell Church was a Presbyterian Church located southwest of Beloit. As the rural population diminished, as it seems to do everywhere in rural Kansas, the church halted Sunday services due to a lack of an audience. Rather than watch it fall apart around itself, a group of determined citizens planned a move to its current location at the Park in the mid-1990s. Carl and Betty Fitzgerald, Kurt Reed, John Bottom, John Cashatt, Warren Inskeep and others formed the Waconda Heritage Village, a 5013C tax exempt organization to oversee the move and to gain permission to relocate it on State property at the Glen Elder State Park. The endeavor was a testament to their tenacity. They worked their way through several layers of bureaucracy at the state level before finally gaining permission to move the church to the park. Fundraising was a challenge. They kept their eyes on the prize and eventually the church found its new home. Their dream of the church being utilized for church services, family gatherings, civic meetings, and cultural events was never realized to the extent they originally hoped. Because the building is located on state property, it cannot be insured. When storm damage occurs, the State Park has to find room in its meager budget to do the repairs.
Both of these structures have had funding in grants, private and public over the last 20 years. These funds have fallen short for long term sustainment.
Hopewell Church was donated to Glen Elder State Park in the mid 1990s and moved to its location via funding provided through the Waconda Heritage Village, a 501c3. When this group disbanded going on more than 10 years ago now, the mechanism for fund raising ended. An annual stipend of just 1,200 a year is provided through the Solomon Valley Community Foundation. "Even though the Church is listed as an asset on the Kansas state Park inventory, there is no budget for maintenance," said Park Manager Scott Waters. He also stated, "There is no insurance on the structure if major damage occurs from storms."
Glen Elder State Park has asked the Mitchell County Historical Society to facilitate discussion to see what public interest exists of preserving the structure. "It is going to take a lot of money to get the building back up to code and a mechanism in place to maintain it for the future. It is going to need a purpose and a committee to work with the park to see that this happens," Museum Director, Kyle Peterson, stated.
Attendees voiced concerns at the initial cost to get the church up-to-date but Scott Waters felt that around $50,000 would be a rough estimate. Lucille Heller, President of the the Waconda Cultural Association, said her organization could be a pass through for funding and it would be tax deductible.
Scott Waters, Glen Elder State Park, said they were looking at three options: 1) The church could be totally renovated with a new roof and other needed repairs if money was available, which it isn't. 2) The property could be stabilized by demolishing the church building and renovating the basement to be used by the community. 3) The entire structure could be demolished.
Waters said, "We are starting to get pressure from Topeka to solve the problem. It is not critical at this time, but we need to develop a plan. We cannot maintain the status quo forever."
The group's attention was then fixed on the Gabel property. Peterson said the Mitchell County Historical Society gained ownership of the property in 2000. 
"This property is the main northwest gateway to the city of Beloit. It was a stagecoach stop in 1874 with a dugout dwelling. It is listed on both the State and National Historic Register."
"Our job tonight is to begin a discussion of what to do with the property. When we first acquired the land, we had thoughts of developing a ‘living history farm' as a historical site. That fell through due to a lack of funds. At one point a collaboration with the City of Beloit to develop a visitors center for Beloit and Mitchell County was held The price tag was in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars."
Peterson also said, "A complicating factor was that hospital wanted us to move the museum from the old nurse's quarters to somewhere else. Moving a museum is very expensive. We were able to gain ownership of the old American Legion building, but it has been very expensive to renovate the building. All of our resources have been committed to fixing up the building and turning it into a museum. We simply have not had any cash to put in the Gabel property."
The possibility of simply cleaning up the property to make it more attractive to visitors driving by was discussed. When Peterson was asked about a rough dollar amount to clean and stabilize the property, he offered an estimate of $50,000 to $100,000.
One course of action simply offered in passing was to sell the Gable property and use the money to finance other cash-strapped projects of the museum.
Peterson was asked, "What is the value of the Gabel property?" 
He answered, "We have never had it professionally evaluated. We many need to have that done sometime in the near future."
Peterson summed up the situation saying, "The house is in bad shape and getting worse. It is falling into disrepair. We have no money to conduct repairs. We need to find out what the community wants to do with the property. We at the museum are simply managing the operation. The property belongs to the citizens of Mitchell County. We need to determine how you want us to proceed. You need to tell us what to do."
Peterson said the MCHS has owned the Click/Gabel property since 2000 with a dream to have a living historical farm dedicated to the way of life our homesteading ancestors experienced. A capital campaign was leveraged in 2005 providing enough fund raised to pay for a new roof on the house, repair to the windows, demo several collapsed structures, clean the rock barn out and have the granary repaired. The Thrivent Lutheran Charity organized by Cliff Vetter  payed to have the granary painted. From 2006-2010, events were hosted to pay for upkeep and taxes. In 2010, the Kansas Barn Alliance held their annual festival there. It helped making the state aware of the importance of vernacular greenhorn limestone construction with the gothic revival house being the highlight of the tour. An expensive three year long research project was started ending in 2013 with the property being listed to the National and Kansas State historical registers.
The 2010's were very hard on the property with four major storms hitting it. The summer kitchen, water tower, granary and barn are just ruins and have to be dealt with very soon. This takes money as well. This year at the Mitchell County Commissioners meeting it was made known that the commissioners were not in support of MCHS spending anymore funds on the property and would like it cleaned up.   Mitchell County Museum has taken many steps at fundraising for the property and funds have not been offered to make the living history farm a realization. Now is the time to start the discussion of next steps with the Gabel Property. It is the North and West gateway to Beloit and that location needs to be a fitting entrance.
Charlene Yeager asked about grants for the property but Peterson said that they are a matching 60/40 and that we still need many thousands of dollars to make the house usable. MCHS board member, Fred Smith and public attendee, Betty Drake, told the group that they would still like to see efforts made to use the property for an educational living history farm. 
A committee has been established with representatives from the Beloit City Council and the Mitchell County museum board to give ideas to the MCHS board concerning this property. Please contact the museum at 785-738-5355 if you like to help in the formulating directives for the Gabel farm corner.


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