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The big house is gone

By October 17, 2014 One Comment

It is no more, but for a 100 years in Zuni there was only one “big house.” 

To say it loomed over the pueblo risks understatement. Even in its declining years nothing in town could rival its massive triangular bulk. It was not just one-of-a-kind, it was defiantly so, as if some miscreant Kansas tornado dropped it in the middle of town.

The first buildings the Christian Reformed Church built at the Zuni pueblo were hardly spectacular, but the denomination hadn’t been in the mission business long. In fact, Rev. Herman Fryling and Andrew Vander Wagon were just about the first to leave west Michigan for mission fields teeming with what they called “the heathen.” The CRC itself was only 50 years old; there wasn’t money for a mansion.

But the big mission house had to look like a mansion to Zunis, who lived in adobe homes of square-cut Zuni brick. When the big house sprouted up in 1914, nothing looked anything like it in the pueblo, nor has there been anything like it for the entire next century. Nobody else had colonial windows, a spacious front porch, or a peaked gable jutting from a huge, swooping roof line. 

The Zunis must have been as ashen-faced as those first missionaries were when they peeked at the Shalako dancers from those three upstairs windows. It’s just about impossible to imagine a cultural statement as in-your-face as “the big house” must have been when it went up, stud by straight-cut stud.

If you want to megaphone your intent to change people’s lives and hearts and their whole way of life, what on earth could the missionaries have done more effectively than put up the biggest, whitest house between Zuni and Gallup—or Zuni and Albuquerque? “Here we are,” that house preached. “Aren’t we something? Wouldn’t you like some of this too?”

Nothing could be more “American,” nothing more foreign, an American Craftsmen design that could have been from a Sears catalog but was likely created from a pattern by J. H. Davermen and Sons, house and church builders who just happened to be Dutch and CRC. Another sprawling Daverman home, probably the same floor plan, still stands at Rehoboth, just a bit east of the post office. 

That big house was an icon of the cultural aggression missionary endeavor often was—or at least facilitated—a century ago. For someone like myself, a descendant of those who exercised sometimes unyielding control over the work at the turn of the 20th century and beyond, the big house, and what it so aptly symbolized, is something of an embarrassment because nothing could be more out-of-place than a hulking Midwestern frame house smack dab in the heart of a New Mexico pueblo. 

Maybe it was high time that big house came down. Maybe it’s a crime it took an entire century.

But a house becomes a home once it’s lived in, no matter how monstrous its style.  Zuni Mission’s two-story Daverman has been home, not only to dozens of families, but hundreds, even thousands of guests, Native and Anglo. It’s heard a couple million prayers, lots of them said aloud and a gazillion more uttered in silence. 

Real people lived in “the big house,” and real people have loved there too. They laughed hard I’m sure, and cried and fought hard too, and some, regrettably, left in huff. It’s seen more than its share of life.

But a thousand heart-felt reconciliations have been made beneath its broad, sloping roof, lots and lots of human stories, some maybe a bit too intimate to retell, all of that life sheltered and sustained within those four wide walls. One early missionary conducted a good business as a dentist by pulling teeth right there in the kitchen.

One sad night in 1971, the fire that ravaged the mission threatened the big house next door. Zuni residents came to the rescue and hauled everything out to the river. Kathleen Klompien remembers seeing her refrigerator tip when it was lifted it up and out of the kitchen; she will never forget what was inside spilling out as they dragged that monster outdoors amid the smoke and heat so intense it broke windows and blistered paint. 

After that devastating fire, those who worshiped in the sanctuary that burned down moved their worship to the big house basement, where the ceiling was so low that the hymns they sang had to rattle even those cement walls. 

Verna Chimoni is downright disgusted about its demise. She claims it really should have become a museum because so much history was lived within its walls. She hasn’t forgotten professing her faith in the basement, where she also baptized her daughter. The big house wasn’t a symbol of suppression or degradation to Verna Chimoni; it was a holy place. 

People lived life there, ate and drank, played Monopoly and Rook and Uncle Wiggly, raised kids, had friends over, drank endless cups of coffee, baked a hundred thousand cookies. Old Zuni women used to knit together in the dining room.

When demolition of the big house began, dozens of tiny holes showed up in old cardboard insulation upstairs, where a couple of residents, boys, shouldered their BB guns and shot at targets and once in a while even themselves. Some of those BBs were still there years later.

Bannisters became slippery slides. The boys from the preacher’s downstairs apartment once strung wires up and a pair of tin cans so they could talk to the boys from the teacher’s family upstairs.

One young teacher kept a pet crow in a back room upstairs until that crow took off and got thumped by a car at the intersection just outside the front door. Ouch. In a flash, that dead crow was salvaged by a Zuni who had to think himself as blessed to come heir to a supply of sable feathers for Zuni ritual. Pity the poor teacher.

That big house may well be a symbol of cultural oppression; but most of those who lived there in the last century can remember times when someone—male or female, young or old, Zuni or Navajo or Anglo—showed up, any hour of the day or night, in a fit of turmoil that made being anything less than a good Samaritan unthinkable.

In the early 90s, a number of factors merged to put the whole Zuni Mission at great risk—low school enrollment, lack of funds, and other factors. News got out that the whole mission was tottering. People from the pueblo told Pastor Mike not to let it happen, not because they were Christians, not because they’d ever professed the name of the God those missionaries have talked about for an entire century; but because, they said, the big house and the mission downtown was a citizen whose presence, they said, would be sorely missed. 

Such unsolicited comments were a joy, he says. When he asked them why they felt that way, some claimed they like to think of that big house and the mission itself as “a place of peace.”

Think of it this way. The big house fit in the pueblo like wingtips jutting out from a Navajo blanket, an ungainly symbol of perceived cultural superiority that could have made mission work doubly and triply difficult.

But it was still sad—for everyone who has ever been there, inside and out—to see that massive icon tumble because through a century at the Zuni pueblo the big house became a home for hundreds of real people, even a church when it had to be. 

Through an entire century of mission life, it has done far more than the old Heathen Mission committee ever asked. It became a great big, ungainly place of peace. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

One Comment

  • Alfred Ruggiero says:

    Great essay, Jim. I've saved it along with your piece on Dowa Yalanne. I'm enjoying reading and finding inspiration in "the 12," which I now receive daily. It will be Interestong to see what that corner looks like without the big house.

    Hope to see you in Zuni again sometime.

    P.S. Beware of Zuni boys bearing bowls!

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