As you all have probably noticed, I try to write an article on a historic building every so often. After all, their preservation is our Society’s primary mission. Tomorrow being Easter, I thought I’d write on a church near to my heart.
Five generations of my family have worshipped here, though our congregation numbers only seven at Sunday service. It’s just Pastor Rex and Janet, John and Bonnie, Tim and Susie, and me. A small congregation, to be sure, but our doors are always open! (At least, they will be once this current pandemic is over!)
The Hartford Methodist Church was built in 1856, not even two years after Hartford was founded by George Moredock. This was the second church in town, after the Welsh Baptists, which had built a church on Hartford Hill the year before. The United Brethren organized in 1857 and met in the schoolhouse until 1874, when they built the church today known as Father’s House. Finally, the American Baptists organized in 1861 and met with the Welsh Baptists until their building was finished in 1868, which is today occupied by the Pentecostal Lighthouse Church.
Anyhow, back to the Methodists. Moredock was himself a devout Methodist, and his Hartford City Salt Company gave the land for the church. The lumber was donated by steamboat captain Major Brown and was milled for free by William Harpold, owner of the Valley City (later Liverpool) Salt Company. The bell, which stills rings proudly, was purchased from a foundry in Philadelphia by a wealthy benefactor (possibly Mr. Moredock), shipped overland to Pittsburgh, and brought downriver personally by Captain Brown. Finally, as a finishing touch, Mrs. Eliza Moredock and her daughter Jennie provided the first set of Bibles.
Being one of the largest public buildings in town, the church was not only used for Methodist services but many civic meetings as well, especially during the Civil War.
Following the Virginia Legislature’s passing of the Secession Ordnance in April 1861, a town meeting was held in the church to denounce the secessionists. Reverend John Phelps and Daniel Polsley, among others, gave strong Union speeches, and the meeting unanimously approved resolutions stating that “in the event the Eastern portion of this State persists in her secessionist movement, we will do all in our power for the separation of the Western from the Eastern portion of the State.” This is, as far as can be found, the first printed call for statehood from Mason County.
In May 1861 and September 1862, enlistment meetings were held in the church. The first, before Virginia had officially joined the Confederacy, was in support of the local militia. The second was led by the Reverend Phelps, then the chaplain of the 9th West Virginia Infantry.
In 1863, another meeting was held in the church urging voters to support the new state of West Virginia. This was just days before the final vote on the state constitution on March 20th, 1863. According to the Register, the church was so full that “many were unable to get seats.”
Sunday services, weddings, and funerals continued during the war, as they have for over 150 years since with only minor interruption. During the 1884 flood for example, water was two feet deep in the second floor of the neighboring parish house, which would’ve put it nearly to the steeple of the church. Services certainly weren’t held that Sunday!
That same flood destroyed the church’s organ, said to be the first on our side of the Bend, and prompted the congregation to see about raising the building out of reach of the floodwaters. The congregation spent the next ten years gathering the funds, and in 1895, the whole building was raised about 10 feet off the ground, placed on a new cast-stone foundation, and rededicated. Unfortunately, this was not enough to escape the even higher 1913 and 1937 floods, but fortunately the church survived those without much damage.
The church also closed, as it has today, during the 1892 smallpox outbreak and 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic to protect the congregation. Like those, this pandemic will pass. And like our ancestors over a century ago, I look forward to once again worshipping with our small church family. In the meantime, though, the Church is not just a building.
Information from the Weekly Register, Wheeling Intelligencer, and writings of Anna Lederer and Mildred Gibbs.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.