When Pastor Mike Boston first moved the congregation of the Joshua Tree Bible Church into a modest chapel on the corner of Platinum and Idaho streets in 2012, he noticed something that didn't seem to fit in with the cracked stucco facade of the building: a cornerstone engraved with the words "SHAFFERS CHAPEL / A.M.E Church / Erected 1901."
Curious, Boston began to search for more information online.
He found scraps and clues — A.M.E. stands for "African Methodist Episcopal," an African-American denomination founded in the United States; Booker T. Washington, a pioneering advocate of civil rights for blacks, spoke in the church in 1913. But mostly, the story the cornerstone suggested remained murky.
"There's not a whole lot of information," Boston recently said.
But that has changed, thanks to the work of the Montana Preservation Alliance, a Helena-based nonprofit that has told the story of Shaffer's Chapel with new clarity in an application to list the building on the National Register of Historic Places that is currently moving toward approval.
The effort to get the chapel listed is one of three related projects the alliance is pursuing — with the aid of a $56,000 grant from the U.S. Interior Department — to recognize sites associated with communities that are considered underrepresented in the historical record.
"The Butte-Anaconda area has a lot of stories that have yet to be told," says Chere Jiusto, executive director of the alliance. "This gives us an opportunity to tell the story of people whose stories weren't always told but who played an important role."
The other two projects focus on a Chinese mining community that existed in German Gulch and a predominantly Italian community that remains in Browns Gulch.
But the work at Shaffer's Chapel is the nearest to being completed.
According to the alliance's application with the national register, the building's origins can be traced to the late 19th century, when blacks — many of them freed slaves — began to migrate to the West, searching for opportunity. By 1890, just a year after statehood, 1,490 African-Americans were living in Montana. Of those who came to Butte, many worked in mining-related occupations.
While Butte's turn-of-the-century African-American population lived in various neighborhoods, the black community was concentrated most heavily along South Idaho Street, between Mercury and Platinum streets. In 1892, members of the A.M.E. Church built Butte's first black chapel at the corner of Mercury and Idaho streets. When that congregation outgrew its original facility, they raised money from within and without the local black community to build a new chapel. Even William A. Clark contributed to the fund that paid for the construction of a new church on the corner of Platinum and Idaho streets that featured a one-and-half-story bell tower topped with a cupola.
Work was completed in 1901, and a year later, Rev. Thaddeus Shaffer, a prominent figure in the A.M.E. Church, gave a dedication speech. The chapel was subsequently named in his honor.
For the next half-century, Shaffer's Chapel served as a hub of the local black community's religious and social life. Perhaps the most well-known manifestation of the church's importance was Booker T. Washington's 1913 speech, in which he "emphasized the need for African American communities to become financially, socially and intellectually strong in the face of Euro-American oppression," according to the alliance's application. But the chapel's congregation made many lasting contributions to the early Civil Rights movement.
According to Kate Hampton, community preservation coordinator for the Montana State Historic Preservation Office, "They [the congregation] were an incredibly important political and social force across the state throughout the 20th century."
Female members of the congregation were instrumental in the founding of the Montana Federation of Negro Women's Clubs, which worked to pass anti-lynching legislation, combat Jim Crow laws, and desegregate Butte businesses that discriminated against blacks.
But as Montana's — and Butte's — black population declined after World War II, so did the size of Shaffer's Chapel's congregation, and the church closed in 1964.
Since then, several congregations have used the church off and on, and the building has undergone various changes. A parsonage and a belfry have been removed. The brick walls were covered with stucco. A ribbed metal roof was installed.
Despite such physical alterations, the alliance's application for listing argues that Shaffer's Chapel "retains strong integrity of setting, feeling and association" — elements that seemingly qualify it for the National Register of Historic Places.
Executive director Jiusto is also optimistic that a several-mile-long section of German Gulch will soon be listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district.
For this element of their work, the alliance has been building off of archaeological research conducted in the 1990s that uncovered the remains of a Chinese mining settlement up German Gulch. According to Ellen Crain, director of the Butte Archives, which has worked closely with the alliance on the three projects, that archaeological research turned up "thousands and thousands of artifacts."
The proposed German Gulch Historic District lies on National Forest Service land and is focused primarily on German Gulch Creek, which Jiusto says contains "a series of stone alignments that reflect the process that they [Chinese miners] used to process the ore" at the turn of the 20th century.
In Browns Gulch, the alliance is at work on a landscape survey of the architecture of Italians who came from the Alps and set up small-scale agriculture operations that helped feed the early settlers of Butte.
"No historians have effectively looked at Browns Gulch in terms of its cultural development until the Montana Preservation Alliance did this project," Crain says. "And I think it's really important, because many of the same families have those farms; they're still in those families. They have a great deal of respect for their place and who grew up there and what their contributions were to Butte."
But while Crain hopes Browns Gulch eventually is listed on the national register, she acknowledges it may not happen: "That's a little more problematic, because you're dealing with people's property rights. Sometimes people who own their property, they just don't like any layers of federal government activity near them."
As for Shaffer's Chapel, its listing is seemingly imminent. The Montana Preservation Alliance's registration form for the site cleared some administrative hurdles in Butte-Silver Bow last month, and next month it will be presented before the Montana Historic Preservation Board. If it meets approval there, the application will be sent to Washington D.C., where the keeper of the National Register of Historic Places will make the final determination about whether to list the site.
John Boughton, the national register coordinator for the Montana Historical Society, says the hurdles that lie ahead should be easily cleared: "By the time they go through our office, we're 99.9 percent sure we're good enough to go to the keeper."
When combined with the alliance's other projects, Crain says the preservation work at Shaffer's Chapel will help amplify voices that might otherwise get lost.
"Our National Historic Landmark District is for our industry and labor…and our giant contribution to war efforts and electrification. But sometimes when you start to talk about those big industrial accomplishments and labor in the American West, the individual people get lost," Crain says. "So looking at the Italians, the Chinese, the African-Americans adds greater depth to our landmark district's paperwork; it personalizes that big industrial contribution in a much more intimate way."
According to the current congregation's pastor, the history of Shaffer's Chapel is alive — and palpable.
"I sit in that building at times by myself and just think, 'I just wish these walls could talk,'" Boston says.
While the walls of Shaffer's Chapel will never reveal all of their secrets, those who have been working to preserve its history hope listing it on the national register will encourage people to listen more attentively to the diverse voice of Butte's past.
"I think its significance kind of transcends the landmark district, and that's why it's great to have it recognized as independently eligible as well as a contributing element of our landmark district, because it's this great manifestation of an under-recognized community in Butte," says Mary McCormick, Butte-Silver Bow's historic preservation officer.
"The blacks that came here, just like so many people from all over the world and all over the country, they saw Butte as a place of opportunity," McCormick continues. "That church really was their social center. To read that nomination, the history they provided on Butte's community just was astounding to me. I had no idea. And I think those kind of important aspects of our past, they really add new meaning to what it means to live in and be a part of this community."