Centennial Celebration: Blackfoot Church marks 100 years of faith in small ranching community
Centennial Celebration: Blackfoot Church marks 100 years of faith in small ranching community

POTOMAC - It's a little brown church in the middle of the valley, one you might miss as you spin around the corner from the school to community center.

These Sunday mornings, a good turnout at the Blackfoot Church of Potomac fills up maybe one-third of an unmatched set of folding and wooden chairs.

"We might have 10 parishioners some Sundays and 25 the next," said Clyde Weller, the lay pastor who drives out from Missoula each week.

But to this old ranching community, it's an anchor in a hurry-up world.

To the east is the Hall Ranch, homesteaded by Albert Hall in the 1880s. Hall donated the lot for the first church on this site, which was built in 1907.

Down the valley toward Missoula are the Hayes and Wills ranches. Both surnames pop up in the early history of the community church.

Today, two of the church's three elders are Albert Hall's great-grandson, Phil, and Loretta Hayes.

"We're all still here," said Jody Wills, who says she "married into the valley" when she and Sidney Wills were wed in 1972.

The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, Wills is a driving force behind the humble church as it struggles into its second century. Her daughter, Heather, leads a successful Wednesday evening youth group for sixth- through eighth-graders that sometimes draws more people than the Sunday service.

"You know, the community of Potomac is changing," Jody Wills said. "The people who are moving in don't have that core that the original rancher/logger families had. There were so few of us, we had to stick together, and now you have lots of other influences and ideas."

That won't stop the Blackfoot Church from celebrating next Sunday. More than 150 friends, former pastors and parishioners are invited to the centennial doings that will start with a service at 1 p.m. A potluck follows across the street at the Community Center, which these days doubles as classrooms and cafeteria for the Potomac School. After that, what Dr. Robert Curry calls "an open-ended chat."

The first Potomac church was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, 1907. Rev. B. Z. McCullough of Billings gave the sermon, and three children were baptized.

Then, McCullough told the Daily Missoulian, "the congregation adjourned to the school house, where a sumptuous Thanksgiving repast was served to all."

He added: "The services were witnessed by a large congregation, nearly all of whom are ranchers in that immediate vicinity."

Curry is what Weller calls "one of our famous parishioners." The Montana Grizzly team physician for 30 years, he directed the student health center on the UM campus in 1965. It's no coincidence that it's now called the Curry Health Center.

Curry isn't an overly religious man, he'll tell you. But wife D and he are the first to jump in when something needs doing, and they've been stabilizing influences in the church's ebbs and flows since they moved here in 1971 to raise a family.

He's an elder, helping out with the readings and greetings. She's a wonderful musician, and accompanying the praise songs on autoharp at most services.

The Potomac church's yo-yo of an existence began even before the first church building. Sarah Beaton organized weekly Bible readings in the unfinished schoolhouse in 1889, but after an initial surge, interest dwindled in a valley of scattered families and harsh winters.

Beaton, by then the official Sunday School superintendent, found herself carrying on virtually alone. But her prayers for help were answered one day in 1896 or 1897 by a little girl.

Lavina Slocum was 10 or 11 years old when she took her place in front of a class the next Sunday. Beaton died a few years later, and Lavina, still in her mid-teens, was unanimously elected superintendent of the Potomac Sunday School in 1902.

Later that year, a petition with 30 signatures called for the organization of a Presbyterian congregation. The church retains that affiliation today, though worshippers of all denominations are welcome.

"If you come to our church, and come to worship every Sunday, you probably would not know whether you were at a Presbyterian church," said Wills. "For so long we were the only church in the community, so you tried to appeal to everybody and didn't make it so obvious that you were Presbyterian."

Not much is known about the Potomac Church in the two decades after World War I, but rocky times must have prevailed. In 1934, the church disappeared.

"It was dismantled completely and torn down," said Bob Hall, who has lived an entire life that started in 1919 within a stone's throw of the church. "The lumber was salvaged by Kenny Freshour out of Missoula, who built the first saloon in Seeley."

Ouch.

But Potomac bounced back. The Butte Presbytery reactivated the church in 1944, and for the next 20 years and more, monthly services were held in a multi-purpose room in the brick schoolhouse.

In the mid-1950s, the Kalispell Presbytery formed the Blackfoot Church of Potomac, Ovando and Seeley Lake, all under one council, one minister and one budget. The affiliation lasted until 1995.

Meanwhile, Potomac wanted another church building. The present one was delivered, already assembled, by Anaconda Forest Products in November of 1966. It was the fruit of years of fundraising.

"Our church is made of dish towels, aprons, pillowcases, holders, tree ornaments, decorations, canned fruit, candy, bread; you name it," wrote the late Verla Wills in a 1997 church history.

The ups and downs continue to this day. Phillip and Jane Hall are building on Heather Wills' success with the junior high youth group by starting a high school group. But a three-day-a-week preschool in the church basement will take a year off, after the teacher moved away and its prospective numbers dwindled to three.

Churchy or not, you're welcome to be part of the Blackfoot Church of Potomac.

"We do lots of things for the community," Jody Wills pointed out.

They raise $2,500 to provide area families Christmas gift certificates, usually to Wal-Mart. The Mark Pattison Children's Fund was established in the 1980s in memory of a past church member who loved children. It helps pay medical costs for broken bones, fire-stricken families, and, just last week, a girl who underwent eye surgery.

The church and school, within a few dozen feet of each other, share a parking lot, water system, chairs and Christmas programs.

Verla Wills died last winter in a tragic auto accident on the Blackfoot Highway at age 94. She settled on the family homestead after marrying Ernest Wills in 1936, and Verla was instrumental in the revival of the Potomac church, in the 1940s and several times thereafter.

"She just worked so hard to keep this church and to keep it going," said Jody Wills of her mother-in-law, who was known by most everyone as Grandma.

"She knew what her faith meant to her and she thought others ought to have that opportunity to know about God and to know about what he could do in your life."

During the good years -"If we didn't have 45 people, nobody was there," recalled Jody - Verla campaigned to expand the church. She mourned the breakup of the three-community Blackfoot Church in 1995.

"We do miss our many friends in Ovando and Seeley Lake," Verla wrote. "We seldom saw them before the Blackfoot Church was organized, and we don't have much contact with them now. The Parish was indeed a strengthening and unifying force in the Blackfoot Valley for nearly 40 years."

Churchgoers from the valley, some of whom have long driven to services in Bonner or Missoula, have even more options now. The Potomac Bible Church, on a hill above Highway 200, has been around for close to 30 years. The Clearwater Alliance Church, formed in part by past parishioners of the Blackfoot Church, is building a large center at Clearwater Junction.

But Verla Wills' little church in downtown Potomac perseveres. In a way, said her daughter-in-law, the centennial celebration is a way a tribute to Verla and her perseverance.

"With her just passing away," said Jody Wills, "it's something we can do to continue what she believed in."

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