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Church-site restoration proceeds

by RICHARD LEDBETTER SPECIAL TO THE COMMERCIAL | May 30, 2021 at 2:21 a.m.
Soos Glass specialist Nathan Cathey returns a refurbished 1912 Murano stained-glass window to its rebuilt wooden frame. (Special to The Commercial/Richard Ledbetter)

Wednesday proved to be a landmark day in the continuing restoration of the 1912 vintage Presbyterian Church building at 212 W. Fourth St. in Fordyce.

The six largest and most impressive stained-glass window panels have been restored by Soos Glass of Maumelle and reinstalled in wooden frames custom-built by Ernest Waters Construction of Fordyce. Ernest Waters Construction is also refurbishing every window in the former church, returning them to their original condition and making them completely functional.

Beginning in October 2017, a small group of civic-minded residents came together under the name "Historical Fordyce" with the express purpose of saving the long-neglected historic structure in the heart of their hometown.

By April 2018, they had taken possession of the former Presbyterian Church from the Rev. Roderick Rogers, who had previously received the title for the property from the North Louisiana Presbytery. By April 2018, Historical Fordyce Inc. was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) tax-deductible organization, and it began the long process of reclaiming the Gothic Revival-style brick structure from the ravages of time and neglect.

Among the many noteworthy features of the building are its 35 stained-glass windows and 12 glass-paneled doors. One of the main givers and charter Fordyce Presbyterian was A.B. Banks, whose Home Insurance Co. provided coverage for sawmills across the South and who built the historic A.B. Banks building on Fordyce's Main Street.

While taking the Grand Tour of Europe with his wife, Charlotte, the couple commissioned the church's windows. They were constructed by the world-famous Murano Glass Works in Venice, Italy. Being a frugal businessman, Banks managed a deal to have the windows and doors used as ships' ballast, transporting them at no charge deep within the hold of an Atlantic crossing to New Orleans.

From there, they traveled by river barge and train to the railroad crossroads of Fordyce, where the appeal of the stain glass remains to this day. The elegant simplicity of the windows is reflective of Reformed theology. Even so, they may have appeared too ornate to some conservative-minded Presbyterians in 1912. One aspect of the 109-year-old, multicolored glass is how it changes hue throughout the day depending on the angle of the sun.

Numerous steps in the renovation process have been achieved, including boring beneath the footing and pouring concrete foundation reinforcement to stabilize the brick walls. In addition, all the roof leaks have been repaired, and water-damaged flooring has been replaced. With those improvements, the building is again safe from inclement weather.

With preservation of the antique glass completed, a major milestone in the ongoing reclamation has been attained. The strides made thus far would not have been possible without the efforts of several donors. Those include Steve Anthony of Anthony Timberlands and Donnie White of Ray White Lumber Co. for pine lumber necessary to replace rotten floors and joists, roof decking and window framing.

Sheet metal flanges for roof repairs were provided by Weaver Heat and Air and Allstate Roofing, both of Fordyce. Holt Builder's Supply also offered considerable discounts on construction resources.

Without much-needed funding, the project would have never come this far. The Roy and Christine Sturgis Charitable and Educational Trust of Arkadelphia awarded a $26,405 construction grant earmarked toward window restoration.

Other contributors include Walmart and the Dallas County Museum, Jim and Jo Jackson, Mike and Mitzi Garlington, Chris and Ruby Stanfield and Bill Tidball, among others. Historical Fordyce Inc. board members have worked tirelessly, conducting fish fry and barbecue fundraisers, tours and T-shirt sales from the beginning.

Some other unique aspects of the historic structure include the sloping hardwood sanctuary floor with diagonal seating to give every patron an ideal view. Former members fondly recall the antique pipe organ as a favorite feature of the faithful. The three external towers are buttressed with stone detailing to resemble castle battlements.

According to church historian and Historical Fordyce Inc. secretary/treasurer Cheryl Brewer, "The original 1912 window frames were made from pine trees cleared from the property for church construction and milled at S.M. Apple Lumber Co. of Fordyce."

She further stated, "Col. Samuel Wesley Fordyce," who scouted the Cotton Belt Railroad route between Tyler, Texas, and New Madrid, Mo., "donated the original bell to the church upon its completion in 1912 in honor of the first permanent church house in the new born trackside community named for him."

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the community landmark was designed by renowned architect Reuben Harrison Hunt of Chattanooga, Tenn. It now appears among the Ten Most Endangered Historic Sites in Arkansas.

It is anticipated that with continuing financial support, the building will be open for public events as a privately funded city auditorium by 2022. In the meantime, tours will be offered during the upcoming Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival held next door on the Dallas County Courthouse Square on June 17, 18 and 19.

With the project now at the halfway point, the entire restoration is estimated to approach $250,000. The investment is both an act of reverence for the past and a hope for a future where the spirit of community can thrive through private and public events. The revitalized facility will comfortably seat 600 for large gatherings such as live music shows, weddings, concerts, plays, receptions, family reunions and more.

For details, interested parties should call (870) 313-2717. Tax-deductible contributions may be made to Historical Fordyce Inc. at P.O. Box 14, Fordyce, AR, 71742.

Ron Dwarshak (top) and Nathan Cathey reinstall the stained-glass windows at the former Fordyce Presbyterian church. 
(Special to The Commercial/Richard Ledbetter)
Ron Dwarshak (top) and Nathan Cathey reinstall the stained-glass windows at the former Fordyce Presbyterian church. (Special to The Commercial/Richard Ledbetter)
(From left) Ron Dwarshak, Nathan Cathey and Ernest Waters catch their breath after re-installing freshly refurbished 1912 vintage Murano stained glass windows in newly rebuilt wooden frames. (Special to The Commercial/Richard Ledbetter)
(From left) Ron Dwarshak, Nathan Cathey and Ernest Waters catch their breath after re-installing freshly refurbished 1912 vintage Murano stained glass windows in newly rebuilt wooden frames. (Special to The Commercial/Richard Ledbetter)
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