Sunday, March 01, 2009
Lonely church a reminder of once-robust town
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
TAIBAN — For the 20 years I've been traveling across New Mexico digging up stories for the Journal, a number of panoramas have come to stand out as my favorites.
There's the heart-skips-a-beat scene when you're northbound on N.M. 68 heading to Taos and you crest the hill and see the earth split open along the gorge.
There's the view from Emory Pass, where you can see the Caballo, San Andres and Sacramento mountains march out like blue-tinged soldiers defending our eastern flank.
Then there's the old white church in Taiban, set on a little rise on the big open plains. Every time I drive by on the way to or from
the state's east side, it catches my eye and I wonder: How did that white frame church — looking straight out of a Willa Cather landscape — end up here? When's the last time a sermon rang out from its pulpit? And where did Taiban go?
Susanne Eldridge, who runs the grocery store in Fort Sumner with her brother, and who bought the old church for $800 in 1992, agreed to meet me in Taiban one morning to answer some of my questions.
"I'll be driving a blue Toyota," I told her when we were setting up the appointment and she laughed out loud and said, "I think I'll be able to spot you." Taiban, with only a handful of buildings still standing and eight current residents, isn't exactly Times Square.
Sure enough, when Eldridge pulled up, she and I and some mesquite bushes wagging in the wind were the only things moving in Taiban.
We walked together into the First Presbyterian Church of Taiban, almost exactly 100 years old, and Eldridge looked over the broken out windows, the broken out doors and the pried up floorboards and said, "Oh, my."
As we looked it over, I thought about why I've loved that old church for so long. Mostly, I suppose, it's because I'm naturally drawn to sad sacks and faded glory. But it's also because the building conjures up a homesteader past that I can only imagine.
Eldridge says that past was a humdinger. Taiban, named for a nearby creek, was laid out as a town in 1906 as the railroad was being built. It grew up fast, and three years later had a bank and a hotel and shops and the church and a school and about 400 people.
And it faded almost as fast. Homesteaders were driven away by cycles of drought. Taiban lost its bid to become the county seat and attention turned to Fort Sumner 14 miles down the road. The bank failed in 1929. The railroad eliminated Taiban as a train stop in 1933.
The population dropped to about 100 and in 1936, the church ended its regular services. Eldridge has a soft spot for the church because it is one of the remaining buildings in Taiban, where both sets of her grandparents settled and where her mother grew up.
Annie Bailey, now 90 and living in Fort Sumner, remembers sitting on the cane-bottomed chairs that served as pews on Sundays and listening to hymns played on the piano.
And she remembers Taiban's second wind in the 1940s and 1950s when geography conspired to make little Taiban the liquor capital of eastern New Mexico.
With West Texas and western Oklahoma dry, Taiban happened to be the closest place to buy booze. The town accommodated with four bars and liquor stores.
"Taiban was really wild," Eldridge says. And to prove it, she goes into the back of her PT Cruiser and gets a black and white photo, circa 1950, of three airplanes parked in the dirt next to the Presbyterian Church.
"They used to fly in from Texas and Oklahoma to get liquor," she says. "Back then, there were a lot more people and not as many snakes."
As it happens, architectural historian Diane Williams drove by the Taiban church for years and loved it, too. She looked up Eldridge on one of those trips, secured a research grant from the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division and documented the church and the town in an inch-thick package that will serve as support for preservation grant requests and for a petition for listing on the state Historic Register.
"It's a favorite building of mine," Williams says. "It's a survivor and it's an important building, I think."
She has ideas for its possible reinvention: maybe a local museum, a shop or gallery, or a home for an artist.
Until then, the First Presbyterian Church of Taiban will sit like a winsome reminder of more interesting times on these eastern plains.
UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. You can reach Leslie at 823-3914 or firstname.lastname@example.org and read all of her columns at www.abqjournal.com/upfront.