GAMBIER -- The first glance might make you blink your eyes. It looks like a little British church from long ago, inexplicably dropped down on a Knox County hill surrounded by cornfields and woods.
You might think you're hallucinating a scene from an old fairy tale. But your eyes do not deceive you. You've encountered Quarry Chapel.
While it's true that the entire village of Gambier comes across as a sort of enchanted Brigadoon, no site is more unexpected than this small stone church which sits about a mile outside the town that serves as home to Kenyon College. The college was created with contributions from England, and its founders brought stonemasons from the British Isles to build the school buildings.
In the early years, according to Quarry Chapel enthusiast Tom Hoffman, the stonemasons attended church at Rosse Hall on campus, but weren't comfortable amongst the priests, professors, and students.
“It was intimidating to the stonemasons with callouses on their hands,” Hoffman said.
The workers began holding services in a wooden church building slightly outside of the village, until that structure burned down.
A new wooden structure was planned for across the street, at the very top of the knoll, on land donated by the Bateman family. Just down the hillside, however, lay a stone quarry owned by William Fish, and he offered to donate stone for a more permanent structure.
It is likely that the architect William Tinsley, who designed Ascension Hall on Kenyon's campus, also designed the church. Even with stone and design provided, the stonemasons could not afford to take time away from other jobs to build the place, so the plan only became a reality when Mount Vernon political mover-and-shaker Columbus Delano offered to donate the cost of their labor to build it.
Construction began in 1862 and finished early the following year. Bishop Gregory T. Bedell consecrated it on January 18, 1863, but he wasn't too pleased with the project as it stood at that moment.
“I baptized seven children and addressed the people,” Bishop Bedell later wrote, “but the need of further effort on the part of friends to furnish it before the next winter may be felt when I state that the church was not plastered, the window frames and sashes merely set in, the wind blowing in every direction, only a small fire in the one stove whilst eighteen inches of snow was lying on the ground, the thermostat standing at 12 degrees.”
The Bishop didn't return until the church members had weatherproofed the chapel. There were regular visits from the Bexley Seminary over the years, however, as priests-in-training were sent to the chapel to make their first attempts at conducting services. And the congregation was by no means isolated, either, with members often attending church events in Gambier at the Church of the Holy Spirit after it was built in 1867, but always returning to “their” chapel for Sunday evening services.
The building boasted tilting pews original, that could be set upright as seats for services, or tilted for use as desks during Sunday school. The families that flocked to the little chapel included the Parkers, Rowleys, Estabrooks, and Mansfields.
For decades, the place thrived. But as the years went by, some families moved away and others died out. In the 20th century, automobiles became commonplace, allowing people to quickly drive wherever they wished to for church services, further depleting the congregation.
By 1937, there was simply no one left to attend services at Quarry Chapel, and Harcourt Parish discontinued the venue.
For the next few decades, the chapel sat empty, visited only by Kenyon students who would bring dates (and perhaps a few alcoholic beverages) to the building, oftentimes late at night. Students left traces by carving their names and initials in the church's old wooden door.
In 1967, the Ohio Diocese of the Episcopal Church transferred the chapel to the College Township trustees, who appointed a restoration committee in 1972. Money was raised in tandem with the Knox County Historical Society. One of the clever fund raising approaches taken was to send a letter to the Kenyon alumni whose names were found carved onto the old door, netting the project over $500.
Three waves of restoration have gotten the chapel to its current gem-like status, including new pews and stained glass windows, including a large window designed by Susan Ramser that includes local flora and a red cardinal. Extensive work was done tuckpointing the building's stone work, as well as filling in the basement and laying a new floor.
While College Township maintains the adjacent graveyard, it does not provide money for the upkeep of Quarry Chapel. While the building has electricity, there is no heat, restricting its use to the warmer months of the year.
“Just like you would expect a castle in Scotland to be, this place is cold in the winter,” said long-time volunteer Fred Baldeschwiler.
That rules out part of the year, but at other times the chapel is opened for weddings and concerts.
Saturday, Oct. 5, and Sunday, Oct. 6, the venue will be open during this year's Heart of Ohio Tour, where interested parties can drive along a tour of interesting and culturally important sites. For further information about the tour, visit the Knox Soil & Water Conservation District website at https://knoxswcd.org/index.php/programs-services/hoot/.
For a wealth of history, photos, genealogy, and more, visit the website http://quarrychapel.com/, maintained by the Friends of the Quarry Chapel.