POLAND -- One year ago this week, in the early hours of the morning Poland Volunteer fire fighters responded to an alarm at the historic Poland Chapel in Clay County.
The little chapel, which stands on the eastern edge of a wide valley, is the first sight a visitor to the small town of Poland sees when arriving from the west on U.S. 42.
That view nearly changed forever in the early morning hours on June 9 if not for a nearby neighbor and her dog.
Donna Wells and her black lab Chas live across the street from the church and were the first to spot the fire. The dog was sleeping on the front porch of the home. He began scratching at the front door around 3 a.m. and woke up Wells. She opened the front door and saw the chapel on fire and called 911.
Poland Volunteer fire fighters were on the scene quickly and had the blaze contained in about 11 minutes. However there was considerable damage to the building.
Three long pews inside the chapel were badly damaged, but the rest remained intact. The insides of the four walls and the ceiling were black from smoke, and the former red carpeting in the building had to be removed.
Sadly, newly purchased windows for the church were leaning outside the structure and were destroyed. Earlier, the Poland Historical Society had raised nearly $8,000 to pay for the new window frames.
The church had insurance to help with repairs, but it wasn't enough and it didn't cover items inside the church.
It took additional financial support to complete the restoration. Contributions came from members of the society, community members and a grant from the Efroymson Family Fund of Central Indiana Community Foundation.
Contractors were hired to install newly handcrafted wood window sashes, repair siding, and rebuild the bell tower. Inside, workers scrubbed smoke-stained and soot-covered surfaces, repaired damaged plaster and wood flooring, installed new aisle carpeting, and applied a fresh coat of paint.
The historic pews, some scarred by char marks, will soon be reinstalled, and Men & Women of Action -- a faith-based service group -- is planning to paint the chapel's exterior later this summer as a volunteer project.
A new security system is now in place to deter vandalism. Additionally, the Historical Society made the difficult decision not to leave the chapel open 24 hours. The previous generous open-door policy allowed townspeople and tourists to visit the charming chapel at will.
A Clay County juvenile was arrested in connection with the arson shortly after it happened.
From 1869 to 1927, the church was part of the Presbyterian faith. One of the early attendees at the church was Samuel Ralston, who served as Indiana's governor from 1913 to 1917. His picture, along with other memorabilia, has been on display in the chapel for many years.
After 1927, the chapel sat empty for several decades and fell into disrepair until people in the local community decided to revive it. At that time, the floor of the building had collapsed to the ground below, and it appeared the structure might not survive.
In the 1960s, Marie and Marion Sendmeyer, late owners of the former Poland General Store, led the first efforts to restore the chapel.
For years, the Historic Society has maintained the building, keeping it open and available to the public. That policy has now changed, but visits can be scheduled by contacting Joyce Smidley, president of the Poland Chapel Historical Society, 812-986-2471 or firstname.lastname@example.org.