By Ken Zurski
The lone hammer fell with a mighty bang as the crowd of “thousands” let out a joyous roar. The first nail into board had gone in victoriously. Soon a volley of arms swung down furiously and with each strike a quickening of the next until it sounded “like an infantry regiment firing at will,” the papers noted.
Ashley J. Elliott, the mastermind behind this volunteer army of builders, was one of the hammer men. A man of faith who served the Peoria Christian Church as headmaster of the bible class, Elliott was on a business trip in Indianapolis when an Episcopalian rector explained that the men of his parish had built a church addition in a day – on Thanksgiving Day, in fact. Elliott was intrigued. The Christian Church was in desperate need of a new chapel on the city’s West Bluff. So far time and expense were lacking. He had an idea and immediately wrote to his bible class students back home. Within a few days the plan or “scheme,” as the papers called it, was set.
On Memorial Day, May 30, 1910 at 7am, with the sound of hammer against nail, Elliott’s plan became reality. “Peorians will witness the unusual spectacle of seeing nearly 100 churchmen, under the direction of fifty carpenters, building a church in one day,” the Peoria Journal-Transcript reported.
Elliott keenly supervised the start of operations, but was inherently too anxious. He grabbed a hammer and began wildly striking away. His tact was steady, many observed, but his aim was not. “The first man to come to grief,” the papers teased. Elliott had struck his thumb.
“Did he swear? Did he jump up and down and give utterance to his feelings?” the Peoria Evening Star reported. “No Indeed! He stood up and shouted ‘Hallelujah,’ in a loud voice, sucked his thumb and went to work with renewed vigor.”
The work actually began in earnest a day before when the foundation was laid and the chimney set. The lumber was brought in by horse carts and laid side by side in large piles. A temporary bleacher and stand was built. Telephone companies donated lines “free of charge” in the worker and dining tents and a new automobile garage said to be just a few yards from the site would be used for shelter if the skies opened up.
Weather was a concern but not a deterrent. There would be no delay or schedule change. Elliott was adamant that the work commence - and conclude, of course - on the next available holiday. In this case, that date was Decoration Day, now formally known only as Memorial Day, or as the papers called it “Memorable Day!” in honor of the church building.
Fearing backlash or defection, Elliott excused those who might be susceptible to conditions. “Old men will not be expected to work in rain,” he announced. “Nor any man asked to do so against his will.” But few were willing to walk away. And as it turned out, the weather was never a factor.
“While one gang is laying flooring another will be busy with the siding…and another will be busy with the rafters”, the papers reported. More than sixty carpenters showed up to “donate their day’s work.”
The women worked too. They served meals so the men could keep up a constant work schedule. Elliott obliged their curiosity and spirit, however, by offering each lady who wishes “a chance to drive in a nail.”
With determination and resolve the workers and volunteers continued their steady pace. Then the lumber ran out. Due to a miscalculation in counting, there was a shortage of materials. The men were relieved. They put down their tools and took a much needed break. The papers noted the apparent embarrassment with grace: “In the middle of the afternoon came a lull in the hammer harmony.”
In quick order, more lumber was carted in and the work carried on. “If they hadn’t run short of lumber they could have cut a couple of hours off,” the Peoria-Journal Transcript kindly opined.
Soon the walls were up, the roof was set and the buckets of paint ready. The frame of the 24-by-60 foot building was finally visible. The ceiling stood 12 foot high with a total building height of 25 feet. Three hundred people could fit inside. There would be no benches, only chairs.
By nightfall, the work was complete except for some painting. “It stands this evening at Main and Underhill, where no church has stood before,” the papers reported with unsparing praise. “It is no mighty structure of brick and stone, of marble façade or illumined windows, but it is more. It is an inspiration and an example. It is the work without which faith counts for nothing.”
At sunset, the first service was held at the new church. The weary men bowed their heads and prayed. On this Monday, Decoration Day 1910, they had done their job. “They had blisters on their palms and splinters in other places,” the papers reported, “but there was gladness in their hearts.”
“Church Built in Day” the headline read.