Failure in Maxwell, New Mexico, or Faithful Legacy?

Failure in Maxwell, New Mexico, or Faithful Legacy?

The story of frontier families and settlements is one of triumph in American mythology, creating civilization out of wilderness. The actual history of frontier life includes a lot of failure, however. Failed homesteads, with families moving on to start over somewhere else. Communities beginning, then declining and disappearing. Churches starting and then folding.

But how do we measure success and failure?

The story of Maxwell Christian Reformed Church is one of a late-nineteenth century community that despite sickness, economic difficulty, and isolation, left a legacy in its corner of the United States. In its fifteen years of existence, the congregation managed to establish what was widely reported as being the first (Protestant) Christian school west of the Mississippi River and a tuberculosis sanitarium.  Tuberculosis patients sometimes went to the West to recover, hoping the dry climate would make breathing easier. And, indeed, tuberculosis marked the lives of many families in the congregation.

Gerrit Berkhof (1865–1894), put off his dream of teaching and worked to help support his family. Photo courtesy of Heritage Hall.

The first Dutch settlers came to Maxwell, New Mexico as early as 1889. Rosy advertisements promising good, affordable property drew them to the “The Maxwell Land Grant,” as the area was called. Most of the settlers were disappointed by what they found, however. Feeling cheated by the Netherlands-based company that sold them the land, many left. The result was that plans for the formation of a Christian Reformed congregation there were put off from 1891 to 1893.

In 1893, the Interior Mission Committee of the Christian Reformed Church sent a young seminary student, Gerrit Berkhof, to preach and conduct meetings for those who had stayed in Maxwell. Berkhof, who suffered from tuberculosis, came from a prominent Michigan family. His older brother, Louis Berkhof, would become an influential member of the denomination’s Theological School in Grand Rapids. 

Under young Berhof’s leadership, the Maxwell group received permission from Classis Iowa to organize as a church on Thanksgiving day in 1893. The congregation’s first consistory consisted of elders Jan Joling and Jan Zwier, and deacons, L.M. Aadema and Hendrik Ungersma. 

Still a seminary student, Berkhof returned to school in Grand Rapids. He briefly returned to Maxwell in 1894. But he died later that year. 

Idzerd Van Dellen had emigrated because his fiancée, Margaretha Enter, left for New Mexico after contracting tuberculosis. They married in 1894 and she lived to be eighty years old. Photo courtesy of Heritage Hall.

The Maxwell congregation soon called Idzerd Van Dellen to be its first official pastor. Dominee Van Dellen would be the its only pastor, serving at Maxwell from 1895 to 1902.

Life for the congregation and pastor was difficult. Farming in the dry New Mexico territory depended on irrigation. The Maxwell community suffered regular conflicts over rights to the scarce water in the area. Even when irrigated, the fields often produced disappointingly low yields. 

Initially, the church had no building or parsonage, so Van Dellen and his wife shared living quarters with the Jan Zwier family. The Zwier home was also used for the weekly church services for four years, with Mrs. Zwier’s sewing machine case being used as a pulpit. 

Many came to Maxwell to ease their advancing tuberculosis symptoms in the “clean, pure, thin air.” It was not uncommon, then, for new members to join the congregation and die from their tuberculosis within a matter of months. Death was an ever-present and ostensibly discouraging reality. 

The Zwier house in Maxwell. John Zwier is in the foreground, feeding the chickens. Photo courtesy of Heritage Hall.

Van Dellen and the consistory of Maxwell CRC kept themselves busy with church work. They carried out and oversaw preaching, administration of the sacraments, and church discipline.

In addition to their official church-work, Van Dellen and other church leaders played an important role in the community. They often had to act as arbitrators in property disputes; as legal aid for foreign, poor, and sometimes dead settlers; and as administrative staff in the sanitarium they established. 

Later in life, Van Dellen explained that the work was overtaxing. In 1902, he and his frail wife took a call to Luctor, Kansas. Van Dellen recounted his experiences in Maxwell in an autobiography bearing the revealing title, In God’s Crucible (1950). Van Dellen’s departure was a bitter disappointment to the Maxwell congregation. In 1908, just six years later, the consistory would make the hard decision to disband. 

Amid the suffering and disappointment, however, the congregation in Maxwell did much good. Primarily due to the efforts of elder Jan Zwier, it organized a Christian school, purportedly the first west of the Mississippi. Mattie Hoogeboom, a young school teacher from Grand Rapids, ran the school. She lodged with the Zwiers (who again opened up their home) and she taught in a variety of settings. Atop an open-air buggy. In the small consistory room of the church building. And, finally, in 1902, in a simple wooden schoolhouse. Miss Hoogeboom returned to Grand Rapids in 1903 and died two years later, aged only twenty-six.

Maxwell Christian Reformed Church, built with adobe bricks. Photo courtesy of Heritage Hall.

In addition, the congregation took the lead in establishing the Bethesda Sanitarium (see the cover image for the post). It raised the necessary funds and promoted the hospital through speaking tours and by correspondence. It also helped in many of the sanitarium’s operational activities. The inflow of tuberculosis patients that the sanitarium brought to Maxwell presented additional bodies (and souls) that needed attention. By 1900 there were three staff and eleven patients. The sanitarium closed shortly after the Maxwell Congregation disbanded, however.

In its time, the sanitarium provided respite and dedicated care for its patients. A new tuberculosis sanitarium, also called “Bethesda,” opened in Denver, Colorado, in 1910. It inherited the Maxwell sanitarium’s assets, as well as its diaconal mission among the poor and ill.

The sanitarium in Denver, Colorado, pictured here in the 1920s. With the decline of tuberculosis patients after the development of antibiotics, it became a mental health facility and served until the mid-1980s. Photo courtesy of Heritage Hall.

Though dogged by tuberculosis, death, and disappointment, and isolated from the rest of the denomination, the congregation of Maxwell Christian Reformed Church worked hard to identify and faithfully carry out their duties as a community. In the years of its existence, they took hardship as an occasion for solidarity, dedication, and service.

Is the story of Maxwell, New Mexico, one of failure? Or one of a faithful legacy? The immigrant church and sanitarium lasted for only 15 years, after all. Or is that the wrong measure? Perhaps lives well lived and communities that serve others are never a failure.

Aaron Van Dyke is a student at Calvin University.


The cover image for this post is of the north façade of the Bethesda Sanitarium in Maxwell, shortly after it was completed. Patients spent many hours on the large porch on the south side where they were sheltered from the wind. Photo courtesy of the Archives, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan

This post is a summary of a story in the print version of Origins. For the complete story, check out “The Congregation of Tuberculosis Sufferers: Maxwell Christian Reformed Church,” by Angie Ploegstra and Paula Vander Hoven, in issue 26:2 (Fall 2008) of Origins: Historical Magazine of the Archives.

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