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It would be a mistake to think the people who first settled in this area in the 1830’s were God loving church members and attendants. For the most part, they had little or no connection with the church. Some were drifters who never settled in one place for long. There were the social misfits who did not want neighbors within several miles. Others were running from the law, and there were those for whom the other side of the hill was always more promising. Many were illiterate, or poorly educated. Moving with these people was a small group of Methodist preachers, often little better educated than the people they served.
Whenever and wherever they could gather a few people together, they would preach the Word, and attempt to establish Methodist Societies. In the early 1850’s two changes occurred in Illinois that encouraged a more responsible group of people to put down roots and begin communities. First was the coming of the railroads that allowed access to markets for farm products. Second, the sale of government land for as little as $1.25 an acre enabled many to become land owners. Land developers from the east bought land and began to lay out towns along the railroads. So it was with Paxton.
The railroad came to east central Illinois in 1854. William Pells laid out the town, and houses and businesses began to be built in 1856. Among the earliest settlers was Benjamin Stites and his family. They had been members of a Methodist Church in Ohio. It was in his home on East Ottawa Road (site of Just Hamburgers today), that a Methodist meeting was held in the fall of 1856. The meeting and the organization of a Society was the result of a visit by a Rev. Haun. We know nothing about this man other than his name. It is possible he was connected with the Tennessee or Missouri Conferences that had worked in Illinois as early as 1816. Those present at this first Society meeting were: Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Stites and daughters Hannah, Margaret, and Phebe, Jonathon Covalt, I. W. Cooley, Mrs. Howard Chase, Mr. and Mrs. Jonas Randolph, Mr. and Mrs. Olmsted and Mr. and Mrs. Henry Aloah.
On Sunday, May 3, 1857, the Society was organized as a Methodist Episcopal Church of the Illinois Conference, by Rev. Eli Dunham. In September of 1857, Rev. Dunham was officially appointed to the Paxton circuit which included the Paxton Church, Loda, and the Patton School House. A native of Connecticut, Rev. Dunham was a superannuated member of the New England Conference who had settled on a farm north of Paxton. He served the Paxton Circuit for two years. He died on August 3, 1879, and is buried in the Pine Ridge Cemetery near Loda, Illinois. The Methodists soon outgrew the Stites house on Ottawa Road, and began meeting in the town’s first school house, which still stands today. It is located on the southeast corner of East Franklin and South Union streets. Henry A. Daggett, who arrived in Paxton on April 8, 1859, wrote that when he attended his first service on April 10, the school house was too small to accommodate all who came to church, so the men stood outside. By 1865 the Methodist congregation grew large enough to require a church building. William Pells donated lots on the southwest corner of Center and Taft, where the present building stands.
The first church building was a two story frame structure. The second floor sanctuary could seat 300 people. The windows were glazed with ordinary glass, and the pews were home made. The pulpit stood on a raised platform which extended almost all the way across the west end of the room. The choir was seated to the south of the pulpit. To reach the sanctuary it was necessary to climb a winding staircase of 20 steps. So steep were the turns that it was not possible to carry a casket up the steps. It was heated by stoves until 1889, when a furnace was installed, and lighted by oil lamps until electricity was installed in 1893. The lower story was used for a Young Ladies Seminary briefly, and then became the Sunday School room, the place for prayer meetings, and social events.
About the same time, a two story addition was added to the west side of the building. It was used as a community reading room, and kept open evenings. When it was discontinued the books were donated to the public school, forming the nucleus for the high school library. In 1867 Methodists living north and west of Paxton, under the leadership of Mr. Hugh Meharry, built Meharry Chapel which became a part of the Paxton charge, until 1903. This was the first church building in Ford County outside of Paxton. Other groups that still met in homes and were part of the Paxton Circuit, were Ten Mile Branch, Flagg’s Branch, Dopp’s Appointment, and a group that met in the Patton School House. The church began the twentieth century with some interest being shown in the construction of a new church building. In spite of two unsuccessful financial drives a building committee achieved success with plans that were approved by the official board. On June 8, 1902, the last services were held in the 1865 building. Services were held in the Court House while the new church was being built. The cornerstone was laid on August 20, 1902.
The new church was dedicated on March 23, 1903. In 1918, the men of the congregation excavated, largely by hand, the present basement which had never been completed. During the same year an outside entrance and kitchen were added. Hard wood floors were laid in the sanctuary, the congregation meeting in the Court House during the work. After World War II, the hand fired coal furnace gave way to automatic firing, and finally a completely new system heated by gas was installed. In 1955, a gift of $5,000.00 was made to the church in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Oscar H. Wylie by their daughters. The money was used to commission Mr. Emil Thum, a woodcarver, to create an interpretation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. The work was carved in oak, weighed over two tons, and took two years to complete. It is the frontispiece of the sanctuary, and was installed on May 3, 1958.
The addition of an educational wing on the south side of the church was approved on April 9, 1961. It became a reality when it was consecrated on October 28, 1962, adding 5,300 feet of needed space. The sanctuary still appears much as it did in 1903, with the exception of the choir area. Decorating changes have occurred over the years, and the organ has been replaced several times. What has not changed is the human condition. Since that Sunday in 1856 when Mr. Stites and his friends organized the Methodist Church in Paxton, thousands of Sundays have come and gone. People in all situations have come to this church. They have been believers, doubters, and scoffers. Many who have come found the church a place of refuge and retreat, a place in which to listen and examine one’s life. One could hear the ancient Word, join in a simple hymn sung by a few at a prayer meeting, or listen to a Bach chorale by the choir. Here they came to be baptized, to be married, and to be buried.
The church never questions their station in life or what their fortune might be. It never asks if they have fulfilled their membership vows of attendance, prayers, gifts, and witness. It never insists that their faith be sincere. It embraces them, comforts them in time of need, rejoices in times of happiness, and never questions if their only appearance is to use the services of the church but never to be a part of the Body of Christ. We encourage one and all, to come and join us – together, we can carry on the mission we have been called upon to do, which is to serve the Lord, and to love one another. Praise God!
Rosemary Kurtz Former Church Historian
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