REMEMBERING THE 1923 TABERNACLE
Remembering the Mennonite General Conference
JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
1: a house of worship
specifically: a large building or tent used for evangelistic services
2: a receptacle for the consecrated elements of the Eucharist
especially: an ornamental locked box used for reserving the Communion hosts
3: a dwelling place; a temporary shelter
As is the case with many communities within a community, when South Dakota Mennonite College — later renamed Freeman Junior College and Academy — opened as a single, two-story white wooden structure on the south end of Freeman’s Main Street in 1903, a growth plan followed that led to an ever-changing campus.
Next came student housing in 1905 and 1915, then a gymnasium in 1923 and then the largest structure to that point — a new administration building with classrooms in 1926. After that came Pioneer Hall in 1950, additional dorms known as “The Barracks” in 1947, Frontier Hall in 1965, Heritage Hall Museum in 1975 and, most recently, Sterling Hall in 2008.
(Incidentally, the original dorms and first gymnasium — later known as the IA Building — are no longer standing.)
But the most obscure of all the construction projects taken on was one that few today know about — a temporary structure built 100 years ago to use during the once-ever-three-years Mennonite General Conference of North America coming to Freeman.
It was called “the tabernacle.”
The board of directors had already prepared for an influx of as many as 5,000 by postponing plans to build the administration building — formally known as Memorial Hall — and instead construct the gymnasium for use as a dining hall to accommodate the conference-goers.
However, with additional space needed, in March of 1923 school leadership decided to build a tabernacle measuring 95 feet x 108 feet in the space that would eventually be used for Memorial Hall — the three-story brick structure that still stands as Freeman Academy’s primary classroom and administrative office space.
Work on the temporary structure that would seat several thousand began the last week of July when lumber began rolling, and it was ready to go with a week to spare before the week-long conference began on Aug. 29.
Here are two accounts published in the Freeman Courier — the first on Aug. 30, 1923 and the second on Sept. 6, 1923.
Freeman takes great pride in acting as host for the 23rd General Mennonite Conference of North America. The spirit of welcome can be read on every Freemanite’s face and the town is turned over to the visitors.
“Make yourself at home” is what Freeman tells them. With open hearted hospitality every visitor is received. The different committees having charge of affairs have worked indefatigably for weeks to make it as pleasant as possible for the visitors and provide for their comfort. Everything is so systematically arranged that the big crowd is handled with great efficiency.
All the delegates are housed in Freeman and immediate vicinity. Meals are served in the gym which is large enough to seat about 500 people at one time. Three meals a day are served at the dining hall. The sessions of the conference are held in the tabernacle which has a seating capacity of about 2000.
Visitors and delegates began to arrive a week ago but yesterday was the day when most of them arrived because last night was the opening session and close to 2000 people were present. About eight acres west of the campus are used for parking cars. J. M. Huber is policing the grounds. It was amusing to read the different reports in the press of the state the past few weeks and months or since the announcement has been made that the Mennonite General Conference will be held in Freeman.
One report said that the Wolf Creek Colony was instrumental in getting the conference to Freeman being a large colony they were able to swing the matter in Freeman’s favor as this is their closest town. Another report said that there are only few hundred Mennonites left in the state because most of them left for Canada and even Mexico. The real estate men of Canada and this state were playing football with the colonies several years ago and after the game was over most of the colonies were left across the border at the end of the game but nobody outside the colonies went to Canada to live. Some give the number of the Mennonites in North America 20,000 etc. So after you read all these reports you know a little more than nothing about this denomination.
The fact that these communistic colonies do not associate with the Mennonites and have absolutely nothing to do with them causes the confusion. There are seventeen different branches of the Mennonites; about 120,000 in all in North America. The General Conference Mennonites now in session here is one branch of the seventeen and is an organization of 23,000 members.
There are a large number of outsiders in the city who are anxious to come in contact with this denomination and learn to know what they are; how they do things; how they look and how they act.
This office received many inquiries by mail the past few weeks regarding this conference all intending to come for the purpose of familiarizing. A large number of outsiders have, by this time, discovered that some of the reporters were not particular about speaking that they do know and testifying that they have seen. They were under the impression that there is no such a thing as college graduate amongst Mennonites but now find a large number of literary men of the highest rank amongst them.
This is Thursday noon; the time we go to press and the crowd keeps on swelling. Only a few seats were not occupied last night and it’s easy to see at this time that the tabernacle will be too small for some meetings especially on Sunday. There will be no services at the two East Freeman churches Sunday as both congregations will attend the services at the tabernacle.
Reported by A. J. Krehbiel of the publicity committee Sat. Sept. 1
Even the most casual passer-by, the tourist sated with scenery and novel experiences, must mark the unusual buzz of humanity which stirred this little city these few days. The hurrying feet of busy committeemen, the leisurely stroll of the delegate and the visitor who are seeing the town between sessions, the metropolitan whirl of autos, yes, even the additional lighting facilities of the week are but surface indications of the great gathering which the 23rd triennial general conference of the “General Conference” Mennonites of America occasions. Over 600 delegates and visitors are registered up to Saturday noon. It was stated, however, that many visitors are not registering at all.
Weather, somewhat lowering and even threatening at times, marked the opening days of the conference. But, as nothing worse than a light shower has developed to date Saturday noon this type of weather has only served to make for pleasantly cool sessions.
Never before have the doors of Freeman and surrounding community been so generally opened to any visiting group. Practically every home has its quota, and this a figure which would in many cases have been considered an impossible figure under ordinary conditions. The people of Freeman are certainly giving the strangers now no longer strange a royal welcome.
The tabernacle seating nearly 3000, has been almost comfortably filled as several of the evening sessions. It is expected that this capacity will be taxed at some of the later sessions of the conference.
Large groups have also been housed in the college dormitories. The Ladies Cottage has become a center for Mission workers and committeemen. The Main building houses a large number of visiting men several of the larger rooms having been arranged so that over 20 men should be lodged in each room. All of these, and many others, take their morning meals at the conference hall, this as well as noon and evening meals being the newly erected gymnasium, a structure 56 x 90 and having a capacity of 528 per sitting.
When the dinner bell begins to ring at 12 o’clock, a great crowd pours up to the ticket booth, and then surges on into the north door of the dining hall. Not many minutes later a stream of squelched appetites begin to emerge at the south door, and by one o’clock as many as 525, the number fed Thursday noon, have joined the chatter groups which inevitably collect at almost every point of the conference grounds and buildings.
During the time remaining until the afternoon session convenes at 2 p.m., committees meet, delegates talk thru the various propositions being discussed, other do the town, while all are at all times engaged in a grand round of handshaking, making of acquaintances, and having the satisfying feeling of heart to heart talks, or perhaps little conversations, with friends of long ago.
Oh, such a conference is a communion of people, of hearts, rather than a mere gathering where the vital interests of Mennonites are formally taken up. There is a catching spirit accompanying such a conference; small doubt is there but that it has swept the community, and pervades the atmosphere.
The conference, of course, ended and the tabernacle, as designed, came down. More on that — and some perspectives — next week.