A Six Iron Away
August 26, 2020
Located an easy six iron from Tom’s house is the Bush Tabernacle. Or as it is known today, the Purcellville roller skating rink. Any building called a tabernacle that is now a skating rink deserves to have its history explored. Read on!
History of the Bush Tabernacle
Purcellville’s first “temperance” picnic was held in June 1877 by the Good Templars of Loudoun County. The annual “bush“ meetings began the following year in 1878 and every August an annual gathering of speakers, entertainers and evangelists would draw thousands of people. These sessions took place under a tent until participants erected the ”tabernacle.”
Constructed by local builder Arch Simpson, the 8,500-square-foot building was originally built to house the “Bush Meetings” that were conducted by the Prohibition and Evangelical Association of Loudoun County, Virginia. Measuring roughly 80 x 160 feet, the distinctive eight-sided, frame building was also used for a variety of community gatherings and recreational activities.
When constructed, the Tabernacle building was said to have the capacity for 3,000 people.
The Tabernacle design reflected the trends and design philosophy of the time. During the late-19th century, church architecture underwent fundamental design changes due to the needs of evangelical congregations. The evangelists were pragmatic, and as a result their architectural design requirements were practical. The buildings needed to be spacious, with each attendee able to see and hear the preacher in a comfortable environment.
The Tabernacle incorporated the pragmatic ideals of comfort, durability, and spaciousness.
…The great auditorium designed by a skilled architect for comfort and durability, with a seating capacity of at least 3,000 is the best structure of its kind to be found in any rural center in Virginia…
The building form allowed for a larger audience to be able to see and hear the speakers and other performers. It was originally constructed with sliding doors that could be opened on seven sides of the building to allow many more people to observe the meeting, albeit from the outside.
The building was an amphitheater-style auditorium. The floor of the auditorium was dirt, and it gently sloped down towards the stage. This allowed for better views of the stage. The builder probably selected the site and orientation of the building to take advantage of the natural topography to achieve the inclined floor. Long wooden benches with back rests provided seating for the audience.
A long elevated stage was constructed along the eastern side of the building. Its length allowed a speaker to fully engage a large audience. It was also able to accommodate the musical performances, often quartets, which were an integral part of the program. A truss was used in the timber framing near the stage to eliminate the need for a column that would have obstructed views.
At the northern end of the stage, stairs led up along the wall to the stage. A small room was situated at the southern end of the stage that had a window that looked out to the crowd. Natural sunlight entered the building through windows spaced along the exterior wall of the stage and through the open sliding doors along the perimeter of the building.
The interior of the building was unfinished, except for the eastern wall where the stage was located. This wall was clad with horizontal beaded siding. Vertical board siding around the lower perimeter of the stage enclosed the crawl space below. The stone foundation walls were parged with a cement-based mortar, except where the wall was not exposed beneath the stage.
The Purcellville bush meeting began to be known as a chautauqua beginning about 1904. Chautauquas started in 1874 on the shores of Lake Chautauqua, New York as an adult education summer camp. The idea was popular and spread to other areas where programs included lectures and entertainment. Many of the speakers and performers at the chautauquas performed throughout the United States and were booked by managers. In 1904, in order to organize the bookings, a manager of a Redpath chautauqua formed a circuit chautauqua that traveled from one town to the next. That is the same year that the bush meetings at Purcellville began to be known as a chautauqua, though it is unknown if the entertainers were booked by a national chautauqua manager. The Purcellville meetings did start to be promoted as intellectual gatherings, which is an aspect of the early chautauquas. This was combined with entertainments that became more colorful, including magicians, cartoonists, Indian war dances, and rope spinning by an Aztec Indian princess.
Temperance advocates succeeded in having legislation enacted in Virginia that prohibited the sale, use, and importation of intoxicating liquors. On March 10, 1916, the governor of Virginia signed into law the Mapp Prohibition Act. This law created the position of Prohibition Commissioner of Virginia, filled by J. Sidney Peters. He spoke at the 1917 Purcellville bush meeting on enforcement of the Mapp Prohibition Act. In January 1919, the 18th Amendment to the Federal Constitution prohibiting alcohol was ratified and came into effect a year later.
The enactment of prohibition legislation likely resulted in the discontinuance of meetings with the purpose of temperance lobbying. In 1921, the Prohibition and Evangelical Association of Loudoun County sold the auditorium and 3 acres to the Loudoun County Community Association who had purchased an adjoining 13 acres in 1918 for the Loudoun County Fair and other community activities.
Loudoun County Community Association
The Loudoun County Community Association, a Purcellville corporation, was chartered in 1918 by many of the same men who led the Prohibition and Evangelical Association. It was likely their intention to create this new Association to replace the obsolete Prohibition and Evangelical Association. The purposes of the organization, which did not include prohibition, involved:
... industrial, agricultural, educational and moral development and betterment of Loudoun County, to stimulate industrial production and exhibits by offering premiums and awards…to give fairs, to conduct chatauquas…to promote patriotic undertakings, suppress vice and to advance the moral, material and educational interests of this County…
Bush meetings continued to be held in the auditorium by the Loudoun County Community Association through the 1920s. Though the program continued to contain religious sermons, lectures, and entertainments, the meetings were no longer predominantly of temperance and prohibition themes. Some of the meetings were in cooperation with the chamber of commerce, included speeches by politicians, and had proponents advocating good roads.
The Depression brought an end to the Purcellville bush meetings, though an evangelical meeting was held in the Purcellville Town Hall in 1930. The next year, a group of churchmen brought the famous ex-baseball-player and evangelist, Billy Sunday, to the auditorium for a series of sermons. The auditorium was prepared with a “sawdust trail” which Sunday made famous. The trail was used by wrongdoers who, under the spell of Sunday’s words, usually repent and hit the trail leading to the pulpit.
In 1931 the fair grounds, including the auditorium, were sold to satisfy a defaulted loan at public auction to Clifton M. Warner, who purchased it on behalf of the Loudoun County Community Association. After a lapse of two years, the Loudoun County Community Association used the auditorium and grounds for the Loudoun County Fair and Horse Show.
In 1937, the Loudoun County 4-H Club began holding their annual fair at the Purcellville Fair Grounds. The Purcellville Volunteer Fire Department held a carnival on the grounds in 1939. Other events throughout the years included athletic events, dog shows, and a Mother’s Day meeting of the Ku Klux Klan.
Purcellville Lions Club
After the fair in 1944, Clifton Warner sold the auditorium and fair grounds to the “Trustees of Alexandria District Camp Association, The Methodist Church.” Warner was one of the trustees.
In 1946, the church offered to lease the property to the Purcellville Lions Club rent free, provided the Club used the property for community recreation. The Blue Ridge Herald, a Purcellville-headquartered newspaper, reported that the bush meeting grounds had been inactive for years, during which weeds grew long and buildings rotted.
Activities contemplated for the site included roller skating, pitching horseshoes, softball, volleyball, basketball, tennis, ping pong, showing motion pictures, and playing folk games. The terms of the lease prohibited the distribution or consumption of alcohol, use of the premises on Sundays except with the permission of the Alexandria District Camp Association, and dancing. The lease also stipulated that a priority list of improvements be developed.
Later that year, the Purcellville firemen got an option to buy the property. In January 1947, the Purcellville Volunteer Fire Department, Inc. purchased the property with the support of the community for $13,000.
The Purcellville Fire Department
The Purcellville Fire Department purchased the property with the intention of using the grounds for a youth recreation center. At the time, the area was experiencing problems with youth. A panel discussion took place at the Purcellville School where representatives of the school, church, and fire department came together to discuss youth problems. This discussion occurred at the time of the purchase, and representatives of the fire department were present to discuss their interest in creating a recreation center for the youth.
To prepare the facility, the Purcellville volunteer firemen spent $1,200 on cleaning up the grounds, grading, digging and installing a drain, and rebuilding a road entrance. In order to obtain additional funds for site development, the firemen held a carnival and promoted the event as a way for people to support the recreation center program. Carnivals were a popular fund-raising activity for local fire departments at that time.
A contest was held to select a name for the auditorium. Mrs. James A. Cummings submitted the winning name of “Firemen’s Community Center.”
The Purcellville Lions Club continued their role in facilitating the use of the center. Funding was still needed to make repairs, sand the floor, furnish music, and supply skating equipment.
To solve the problem, the Club sublet the auditorium to William E. Tabb. He opened the roller skating rink on June 6, 1947. The Purcellville Lions Club operated the concession. The rink was open every afternoon from 2:00 to 4:30 and every night, except Sunday, from 8:00 to 10:30. Admission cost 40 cents.
It is unknown when the floor was installed, or by whom. It likely occurred after October 11, 1936, when dogs in a show were paraded across the large stage for the judging. The stage that exists today cannot be termed large. Light bulbs were strung overhead, which were probably installed by time the roller rink opened since it operated in the evening. Pictures of roller-skaters at the Purcellville rink show that some of the large sliding doors were left open, probably to provide fresh air. At some unknown time, the sliding doors that existed along much of the perimeter were removed and in-filled with matching wood siding.
The Purcellville Lions Club also hosted dances and a beauty pageant at the community center. An advertisement described the dance floor as the Largest, coolest dance floor in Loudoun. Oral tradition asserts that Patsy Cline sang at the Fireman’s Community Center. She is known to have sung at many local venues prior to her rise in popularity.
The annual Loudoun County 4-H fair continued to be held in the auditorium and on the surrounding fair grounds until 1953 when it began to be held in Middleburg, Virginia. During the 1952 fair, canned food, clothing, and handicrafts were exhibited in the large auditorium.
In 2008, the community center was purchased by the Town of Purcellville which then renovated it. The Purcellville Roller Rink now continues its long tradition of hosting roller skating and community events.