BY DAVID ZIZZO
Published: June 8, 2010
Modified: June 17, 2010 at 10:58 am
EL RENO — As you approach the Old Spanish-style chapel with twin bell towers, the words painted over its arched doorway, and its past, come into view: SIGN SHOP.
"The state of Oklahoma ran a sign shop out of there” in the 1970s, Andrew Snyder said.
That's just part of the history seen by this building on this historic spot five miles northwest of El Reno where the Chisholm Trail crossed the North Canadian River. Today, although vacant, the chapel serves as the trademark symbol for wines made here.
"It is in remarkably good shape,” said Snyder, who teaches viticulture and enology, the art and science of growing grapes and making wine, at Chapel Creek Winery. The winery is operated by Redlands Community College at its 110-acre Darlington Agriculture Education and Research Center here.
The chapel was built in 1913 by the Order of the Eastern Star, a fraternal organization affiliated with the Masons, as a place for religious services for a home for orphans and aging Masons located here at a settlement known as Darlington. Each Friday night, according to an account in the El Reno American in 1917, the "Masonic Home inmates” at Darlington were treated to "high class, descriptive and educational moving pictures” in the chapel.
A hundred yards northwest of the chapel stands a massive three-story boys' dormitory built in 1909 by the Masons. The deteriorating structure also is abandoned, except by hundreds of swallows that have built mud nests under its generous eaves.
"The walls of the living rooms are glistening white,” a story in The Oklahoman
in 1917 said of the dormitory. "There is not a $5-a-day hotel that is more tidy ....”
Briefly in 1923, the dormitory served as a state home for drug addicts, Snyder said, until "people pretty much ran them out of town.”
The Darlington settlement actually began decades earlier, in the 1860s, as an Indian agency set up for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes. The agency developed into a "full-fledged town,” according to one account, with a sawmill, school, brickyard, various shops and two hotels. In 1869, Brinton Darlington, a Quaker, left his home in Iowa and traveled without the recommended military escort to this outpost in Indian Territory to become superintendent of the agency that would bear his name. Three years later, the man whose Indian name meant "wooden teeth” died.
"By all accounts he was well-liked by the Native Americans,” Snyder said.
In 1876, when relations with the tribes soured, Fort Reno was built a few hundred yards south of the Darlington Agency on the other side of the North Canadian River to maintain peace.
The tribes eventually moved to nearby Concho, and in 1909, the U.S. government sold the Darlington Agency property to the Masons. In 1922, the Masons moved their home for orphans and elderly Masons to Guthrie, and the Darlington settlement became property of the state of Oklahoma.
After the drug treatment center's brief stint, the state Wildlife Conservation Department took control of the property, using one building there as a quail hatchery.
Today, the Redlands Darlington campus is the site of a vineyard and wine research lab, goat dairy, goat meat lab and other facilities.
The old dormitory, too expensive to renovate, has an uncertain future. "They have declared it a historical site so we can't remove it,” Snyder said.
For the chapel, though, there could be an even more diverse future. The plan is to renovate the chapel and connect it to an annex, if backers can find the funds, of course.
"They want to turn it into a convention center,” Snyder said.