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story.lead_photo.caption A group of people walk around the outside of the Smyrna Church in Searcy during a Walk Through History program sponsored by The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program in cooperation with the White County Historical Society and the Searcy Arts Council. Built in 1856-57, Smyrna Church is the oldest “documented” church building in Arkansas. - Photo by Contributing Photographer / Patsy Pipkin

— A large group of history buffs, most with stories to share about earlier days, gathered at a little church beside the road between Searcy and Center Hill in White County on Dec. 5 for a Walk Through History, sponsored by The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program in cooperation with the White County Historical Society and the Searcy Arts Council.

The group was welcomed by Tony Young, president of the historical society, who played his antique pump organ as the crowd gathered and relinquished his seat to organist Teresa McCuen. She continued the music until Young introduced the Rev. Frank Warden, a Methodist minister with memories of bygone days.

On this frosty December morning, Warden led the group in prayer and said, “The only thing missing today is a big Queen heater! The flue is still here and it would surely feel good this morning.”

Many in the group had attended Sunday school and church during past years when the Smyrna Church building provided a quiet place of worship for area residents. Seeped in history, the building’s restoration isn’t complete, but much progress has been made, most notably the new large nine-onnine windows.

Several area families are being called Smyrna Angels because of their significant financial contributions that made the new windows possible. They include the descendants of Jacob and Susan Armstrong who donated in their honor; Mr. and Mrs. Sam Sowell in memory of John Grammar and Leah Sowell and George Wood and Elizabeth Deener Dobbins; Mary Lou Glass in memory of King Irwin Glass, Lucille Irwin Glass and Thomas B. King; Richardean Wilson in memory of grandparents Alfred and Cordelia Cofer Greer; the Killough family in honor of Tom and Maggie Killough; and the Coffer, Dobbins, Fuller, Lewis and Yancey families in memory of their descendants. Plaques in honor/memory of these are to be placed near the windows.

Built in 1856-57, Smyrna Church is the oldest “documented” church building in Arkansas. Rachel Silva, coordinator from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, told the history of the church and how the age of the building was documented by scientists at the University of Arkansas who studied timbers found underneath the floor.

She held the audience’s attention for several minutes as she told of the early days when three groups of worshipers, Methodist, Presbyterians and Baptists, shared a building before the Methodists decided to build the Smyrna Church on its current site near Jaybird Lane. She said that at one time Jaybird Lane meandered through the countryside merging with the old Military Road near Jacksonville.

The building, which has undergone several changes through the years, is being restored to its condition in 1915. Alterations to the building throughout the years make it inappropriate to try to restore it to its 1856-57 condition, but current efforts will maintain thehistorical significance of one of the few remaining antebellum churches in Arkansas.

Bill Leach, preservation chair for the White County Historical Society, named and thanked many people who helped with the restoration project and those who made the day possible.

Charlie Edwards, once a member of the Smyrna Church, has kept the grass mowed through the years since the church closed. His work is credited with keeping the building from burning or being vandalized.

Eloise Muncy of the Searcy Arts Council was credited with spearheading the effort to secure the title of the property to the city of Searcy. The understanding was that the Searcy Arts Council and the White County Historical Society would undertake restoration, and the day marked the start of the restoration project.

Leach also praised state Sen. John Paul Capps, who secured additional grant money from the Department of Arkansas Heritage, funded by General Improvement Funds providedby the Arkansas 86th General Assembly, and to former Mayor David Evans, current Mayor Belinda LaForce, as well as aldermen on the Searcy City Council who have always been supportive of the restoration project.

Searcy Fire Chief Bill Baldridge and the Searcy FireDepartment were recognized for their help in weatherizing the building from further deterioration before the actual work began. Baldridge, assisted by Inspector Phil Watkins, chaired the steering committee, which was made up of Eloise Muncy, Shirley Baugh and Debra Wolfe of the Searcy Arts Council andShelly Wyatt Keech, Eddie Best and Bill Leach of the historical society.

Gary Clements of Clements and Associates Architects has overseen much of the restoration project and has developed plans to finish the project. The outside of the church house has been painted by Vinson Henderson and Randy Feagin, and Master Gardeners Elizabeth and Stanley Heard, Jo Carol Gentry and Marilyn Sims have worked on the grounds and cleaned for the open house. Wesley Gross completed the exterior carpentry, and his daughter, Madelyn, carved the gable embellishment.

The site of Smyrna Church includes an adjacent cemetery and an abandoned cemetery with graves dating back to the early 1900s. The crowd that gathered Dec. 5 walked through the cemetery before stopping for refreshments provided at the front of the church while sharing memories of former experiences brought to life again at Smyrna Church.

Three Rivers, Pages 135 on 12/13/2009

Print Headline: Walk Through History event brings to life memories of Smyrna Church

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