--picture postcard courtesy of Eddie Best
The chapel at Camp Robinson,before it was moved to Searcy.
he church in Searcy where I was a member for about 60 years, First Presbyterian, celebrated its 150th anniversary a week or so back and I had the great honor of being invited to speak on the occasion in the sanctuary after a church family dinner in the educational building. The subject I was told was the history of the church.
At 68, I’m still a few years short of the age of the church so I responded that I would reminisce about what I remembered from the years of my youth as well as the stories my family passed on when I was a child. I remembered attending Sunday School in the huge old church on the corner of Main and Center Streets which, when it was built shortly after the Civil War, had a membership of more than 200 and a massive sanctuary with a patterned wooden ceiling made in Switzerland and shipped to Searcy in pieces to be put together here. It was one of the beautiful bits of culture that fell to the wrecking ball in the 1940s. I remembered on those hot summer nights when we were holding “prayer meeting” or a “revival” lying on those oak benches and staring up at that ceiling at my grandmother Baugh’s side.
There was a huge brass chandelier that hung in the center of the room and occasionally swayed as a breath of air moved across the room from the propped-up windows. The heat was miserable but what did I know about that then? I also remember going with dad to the church early on a Sunday morning to get the space heaters going in the winter. They never did much good because the place was cold and moist and drafty due to deterioration as the congregation dwindled. The roof leaked and some of the gray frosted glass windows were cracked.
I told the current membership about watching as the great steeple was pulled down onto a closed-off Main Street on that day in the ‘40s when it was being removed to build the Rendezvous where Myrtle Roberson built a great restaurant that was a way station for travelers between Dallas and New Orleans to St. Louis and Chicago.
I told about finding the place under the old Sunday School kindergarten classroom with the missing knothole where many a child’s nickel or dime fell through over the years. I found a total of $1.35 there which my mother made sure I put in the collection plate on the following Sunday. Goodness knows how old some of those coins may have been.
Then I reminisced about our sojourn as guests at the First Christian Church, also now gone, and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the old Presbyterian manse (parsonage) on East Center Street, and the Trinity Episcopal Church, all of which shared their facilities with us before we bought and moved an old Army chapel from Camp Robinson to the present location, gave it a brick veneer and a redecoration inside.
Those old military chapels were all alike, prefabricated and easy to move and put back up again. I think we paid something like $2,000 for the building and about the same to brick it. The Presbyterian color is a powder blue, which gave rise to the term “bluestockings” to refer to Presbyterians. My dad, though, had an affinity for green, so the sanctuary was painted pale green and the woodwork was a dark brown. Thankfully, we saved a lot of the furnishings from the old church, including the three spire-backed chairs on the raised podium level as well as a Victorian wooden secretary’s desk and a small alter chair, all of which have survived.
The old wooden collection plates were replaced by my grandmother who saved her cake baking income to buy some silver-plated collection plates I remembered so well. I gave their replacements, some gold-oxidized plates that were used for years.
Toward the end of the evening, I asked the minister, Dr. Dennis Bennett, to come up and I gave him one of our family’s most prized possessions, a copy of the Book of Order published in 1839 and given to my great, great grandfather, John Lawrence Morgan, by the Presbyterian church of Blackstone, Virginia, in the 1840s before he moved the family west to Nashville, Tennessee, and then Covington, Tennessee. The old book had been carefully protected by my great grandmother Morgan and my grandmother and mother and was left in my care years ago. The old man … John Lawrence … had been given the Book of Order as a token for having donated the brick to build the church on a spot his father, Captain Samuel Morgan, had given to the church as a means of shutting down a race track next door which was a drawing card for his competitor’s Ordinary (tavern). Old Captain Samuel did his good deed to keep his tavern’s customers.
It was a great time for me, and I loved seeing all the old members I grew up with as well as the new ones who have helped rebuild and refurbish the church. Sue Ekdahl led the recent refurbishing effort, finding among other things that the wiring in the building was extension cord wire, making it extremely fortunate that the whole place hadn’t burned down years ago.
And it was good being home again. vvv
Perrin Jones is editor-emeritus of the Searcy Daily Citizen.