Mt. Ephraim Baptist Church has survived Charley, economic change
Jun 17, 2014
By CAROLYN NICHOLS
The histories of the Owens Community in DeSoto County and Mt. Ephraim Baptist Church are tightly intertwined, according to Church Historian Michelle Montgomery. First settlers were among the 19 charter members, and the church remains a vital part of its rural community.
|The 100-member congregation now meets on a campus that was rebuilt in 2007. Courtesy photo|
Owens Community, three miles southwest of Arcadia, was named for Owen Huggins Dishong, DeSoto County’s first sheriff and one of Mt. Ephraim’s charter members. He gave three acres of land for the construction of the church and the cemetery, where he is now buried.
The church was established in 1884—the same year the Florida Baptist Witness published its first edition.
Circuit-rider Alderman Wilson conducted the first meeting on August 9, 1884, when charter members organized and selected a name for the church. The church first met in a log building called the Hayman School, and J.H. Hayman served as the first pastor. The church’s first building, constructed in 1888, was located across the street from the present sanctuary.
Kerosene lamps suspended from the ceiling replaced candles that were used for lighting in 1888. Before electricity came to the community, a gasoline-powered generator was installed that sometimes “left the preacher preaching in twilight to total darkness,” according to a church history written in 2010 by former member Bob Tuttle.
A cement block sanctuary was built in 1942. According to Montgomery, most of the blocks used in the construction were made by church members from sand taken from Horse Creek. Photos of the church’s first two buildings are all that remains of them.
“When I look at the photos it makes me think about the revivals held there and the old hymns that were belted out to raise the rafters,” Montgomery said.
A lifelong resident of the Owens Community, she is the fourth generation of her family to attend Mt. Ephraim Baptist. Her forefathers, Elmer, Harold and Eddie Garner, were church leaders, and she has been a member of the church for most of 50 years.
“I heard them tell about Owens having businesses and its own Post Office in the early days. It was a much busier place then than it is now,” she said.
A century ago, orange groves covered the area and provided income for area families. The church’s long-held motto is “The Church in the Orange Groves.” Before picnic tables and the church fellowship hall housed the church’s annual homecoming, church members ate fellowship meals while seated on orange crates from Sorrells Brothers, Montgomery said.
“Those crates would be considered vintage now,” she said.
Pastor Jonathan Booher, who has served the church almost two years as its 42nd pastor, said the community still has orange groves but is beginning to resemble his Texas home with “cattle ranches replacing aging groves,” he said. He described his 100-member congregation as “wonderful people who are hard-working and independent.” The church is “small and closely-knit,” he said.
The church’s mettle was tested nearly 10 years ago when Hurricane Charley took aim at Florida’s southwest coast on Aug. 13, 2004. Mt. Ephraim was one of three Florida Baptist churches in the area that were destroyed by 145-mph winds, along with hundreds of homes. The concrete block building from 1942 was destroyed and its surrounding oak trees leveled, but the fellowship hall building and parsonage were repaired.
“We were heartbroken,” Montgomery said. “We are fighters, though, and we don’t give up. We went right to work cleaning up.”
Mt. Ephraim moved into its new sanctuary in February 2007, and has since completed an educational building. Apart from its buildings, the church also had to rebuild its bylaws and constitution that were lost in the storm. Some historical records were also lost, and “what was left was distributed to different households,” Booher said.
The congregation remains active in its community and maintains a presence at DeSoto County events such as the annual Pioneer Day and the July 4 Arcadia Championship Rodeo. The church extends outreach to new area residents and has ministries to troops serving abroad and to families with newborns in the community.
Mt. Ephraim is also focusing on its 2014 Vacation Bible School that will welcome about 40 children to its evening sessions July 14-18.
“We have a long history, and we are still seeing progress,” Booher said.
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