ELLSWORTH — Last weekend, the plot of land known as 84 Christian Ridge Road was a spartan clearing. But as of Sunday afternoon, it was home to a spacious, low-slung building complete with sloped roof and cream-colored vinyl siding: a new Kingdom Hall for Ellsworth’s 100-member congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Despite the building’s purpose, its creation was no miracle, but the result of thousands of volunteer hours: hammering, sawing lumber, painting door frames, packing in insulation, and serving up countless plates of steak and cups of coffee.
Three-day work marathons have become a tradition among Jehovah’s Witnesses. When a congregation needs a new building, or their current hall requires extensive renovations, Witnesses from hundreds of miles around converge on the site for what they call a “Quick Build.” Earlier this year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses built new halls in Auburn and Caribou.
“It isn’t easy,” said Jeff Quimby of Gray, of the long hours of work and driving. “It’s a sacrifice. But we consider it’s worth it.”
The Ellsworth group has been trying to move to a new hall with more parking for about eight years, said congregation member Ric Murphy, but they couldn’t find a buyer for their Route 3 property until now.
The previous Kingdom Hall had only 30 parking spaces, so people had to park along the highway. This one will have 100 when the lot is paved in the spring, and room for more on the 3.8-acre site.
Volunteers started construction Friday, but had to stop due to the pelting rain and gusts of wind so strong that the food tent had to be tied to trucks so it wouldn’t blow away. A wall full of insulation had to be stripped out and replaced after it got wet.
“We spent three hours singing in the rain,” said Adria Higgins of Patten. “Every rain song we knew, all the oldies.”
Saturday morning was chilly and overcast, but dry. More than 400 Witnesses from Maine and other New England states descended upon the Christian Ridge Road by about 10 a.m. and the cooks were preparing lunch for 600. The shriek of table saws slicing lumber and the dull pounding of dozens of hammers could be heard from Route 3.
At the muddy, crowded site, an all-terrain forklift and a crane maneuvered piles of lumber into position, while volunteers in colorful hard hats swarmed all over the skeleton of the new building. Many were licensed professionals, equipped with tool belts, who handled the more technical tasks such as installing the wiring and plumbing. Others simply chipped in wherever they were needed.
“It seems like mad chaos but everyone knows what they’re doing,” Murphy shouted above the din inside the building, where women were sweeping and vacuuming up water pooled on the concrete floor. “You figure to build a building in three days, you better be organized.”
Organization for a “Quick Build” starts early. Before a single volunteer arrived, the Ellsworth congregation set up three storage trailers packed with building materials. They brought in nine portable toilets and baked 6,000 cookies.
Even the approach to the site was carefully choreographed to avoid congestion. Parking attendants directed volunteers into lots that had been donated for the day, and instructed them to walk to the site on the right-hand side of the road with the flow of traffic.
“Single file, please, sisters,” said Sam Cottle of Albion, dressed in a bright orange traffic vest, as three women headed off on Saturday morning.
The effect of all this organization was clear by Sunday evening. As darkness fell upon the completed building, light shone from the three windows, illuminating a group of volunteers still at work building a stone wall along the road.
The Witnesses get plenty of practice in perfecting their hall-raising technique, as their building activities keep pace with their growing numbers. Cottle said that when he joined the faith in 1945, he was among just 150,000 Witnesses. Now there are 6 million in the world. The Witnesses say they build about 200 new Kingdom Halls in the United States each year.
“We’ve outgrown the halls we’re in,” said Cottle. Murphy said the number of congregations in Maine has doubled from about 30 to 60 in the past 10 years. At 100 members, he said Ellsworth has just about reached its limit.
“You get much bigger and how can you know everybody?” he asked. Bar Harbor has a Kingdom Hall as well, and plans are under way to set up a third Hancock County congregation in Bucksport.