Rev. Charles Madinger (L.) and Harold Thurber, Patagonia Community Church leaders and co-Rotarians, architects of deal to save the old RR Depot and sell to the Rotary Club for one dollar for use as a community center.

One newspaper article referred to the “spooky look” of the empty Gothic building in Patagonia that had served as the railroad depot. The Southern Pacific Railroad had torn up the last of its Benson-Nogales tracks in 1962, leaving behind the 1904 railroad depot. The abandoned depot, once the heart of Patagonia, continued to dominate the landscape, but it was in danger of being razed to accommodate the widening of the new highway.

Its rescue and new life began to take shape in the mid-1960s through the initiative of Patagonia Community Church member Harold Thurber and pastor Rev. Charles Madinger. A look into the archives for celebrating the church’s centennial this year, 2023, has uncovered an interesting process.

Thurber, a prominent Sonoita rancher and PCC church trustee, bought the Depot in May 1965 for $10.00. Then, on December 6 that year, he donated it to the church “to assist. . .in the accomplishment of its religious and benevolent purposes.”

That same day, the church transferred the depot building to the Rotary Club as a community project for the club, with the provision that if the building was not developed by the club and utilized as such, the property would revert to the church. Thurber and Rev. Madinger were co-Rotarians. In fact the pastor was president of the local Rotary Club, and they shared a passion for providing services to the town and its youth.

The Depot was moved 40 feet east to a new foundation out of the way of the highway. An article states, “After the move, there was not a door jammed, and the only missing windows were those already broken. ‘They don’t build them now like they did in 1904,’ Thurber comments.”

A Memorandum of Understanding outlined how the depot could serve as a community center. Rev. Madinger giving a tour to a reporter was quoted as saying,“This baggage room will probably make a kitchen.” Furthermore, “‘The ‘main ballroom’,” he explains climbing the five steps to the floor of the freight room. ‘It’s too small for a really big meeting, but it’s a fair size room.’”

Patagonia resident Mary McKay remembers flipping pancakes as a child with her father in the kitchen for a Rotary pancake breakfast.

One proposed civic use described in the Memorandum was as a “recreation facility for students during non-school hours. . .to [provide] activities [that] would serve to reduce misconduct arising from idle time and offer a Patagonia project which would reflect credit to the town.”

In 1974, the Rotary Club paid the church the sum of $1.00 with the church agreeing to disclaim any interest in the depot building. The church understood that the Rotary Club would sell the building to the Town of Patagonia.

This bit of history might bring a smile to your face the next time you go to the Town Office to pay your utility bill or attend a Town Council meeting.

The Town Hall in Patagonia, built in 1904, was saved from demolition by the Patagonia Community Church and the local Rotary Club in 1965. It became the Patagonia Town Hall in 1974. Photo by Marion Vendituoli

Whether it’s providing the first Patagonia high school location back in the 1920s or a venue in Thurber Hall for traveling high aerial acts in the 1960s, the 100-year-old history of the Patagonia Community UMC Church continues to reveal colorful connections to the life of this area.