Wednesday, March 31, 2004
Blaze destroys historic church
The only thing that remains of the still smoldering Centenary Church is the chimney. The fire started sometime overnight Monday and is still under investigation.
(C-P photo/Dan Dalstra)
By BEV DARR
Of the Courier-Post
The historic little Centenary Church several miles south of Hannibal - built in 1872 with hand-hewn logs woven together by the forefathers of the current residents - was destroyed by fire late Monday night, ending a restoration project that began last fall.
The neighbors who arrived at the fire shortly after midnight Tuesday believe it was a set fire, because the entire building was burning and also all four tires on a tractor near the church were on fire.
"There is hardly any doubt about it being arson," said John Muehring, who lives near the church site. "There was no electricity and no wind."
The tractor is owned by a Monroe City resident, Muehring said, and was there to have repair work done by a local resident, Tim Evans.
Don Epperson, assistant chief of the New London Rural Volunteer Fire Department, reported when firefighters arrived at 12:45 a.m. Tuesday "everything was in a pile in the middle" of the church.
"We just calmed the fire down at that point," Epperson said. Soon only the chimney was left standing.
Both the church and the tractor were destroyed by fire when the fire department arrived, he said. "We put the water on the tractor, too, but there wasn't much left but the tires burning."
Firefighters were on the scene until 4 a.m. Tuesday, and there were no injuries.
The state fire marshal was called to investigate the cause of the fire, Epperson said. "It was questionable," he added, because the building had no electricity, although he did not declare it a set fire. "We are not qualified to make that judgment call."
The church was on Centenary Road, which takes travelers west from Missouri 79 about three miles south of Saverton. It had been closed for about 50 years, according to Muehring. He and several others were involved in its restoration, which began with a new roof and closing up the building last fall. Interior restoration was planned next, he said.
Fund-raisers were held in Saverton, and Barbara Dexheimer explained that the church was near the Centenary Cemetery, so "it had been hoped we would have a little chapel for funeral services." The church site and cemetery are on opposite sides of Centenary Road.
Some funds expected to be used for the restoration were memorials from the death of a former board member, James Aldrich. His wife, Audrey, explained the church is now owned by the cemetery and its restoration as a cemetery chapel was her husband's wish.
The Aldrichs' daughter, Candy Frame, said her home is the closest to the church site, and she was among the first to see the flames. "It's just sickening that someone could do something like that," she said. "I've lived here all my life, and it's going to be missed.
"We heard nothing" when the fire started. "We were asleep." She believes some type of memorial may be put on the church site, because "we can't replace the building."
grew up near church
The little church was called Centenary Methodist Church when 96-year-old Courtney Northcutt McOwan was a child.
McOwan, who now lives in Hannibal, said, "it just makes me sick to think about it being burned."
If it was a set fire, she has a message for whoever did it: "God is watching, and He saw everything that went on. I think God watches everything we do, and He knows when we do right and wrong."
As a child, McOwan lived in a two-story house, "up on the hill right up from the church. That is where I was born, and I went to that church all my life until I came to Hannibal and got work." In Hannibal she joined Broadway Methodist Church.
Some of her best memories of the Centenary Methodist Church were the annual basket dinners when the presiding elder visited. "We would have a big basket dinner. We call them carry-ins now. The women would do their very best in baking cakes and pies and we had fried chicken and ham.
"The men would put posts in the ground and boards on them to make tables under the two big walnut trees. Those trees are gone now, too."
McOwan also remembers how the people walked over the fence that separated the horse and buggy area from the churchyard. "They had a block with steps on it on one side of the fence and steps going back into the church yard" on the other side. "Dad would stand me up on the platform.
"I have many wonderful memories down there. The young people had a league. I stayed home with Mom and Dad, but we could hear those young people singing, and it was so pretty at night in the summertime. Young people came from far and near to the services."
For the monthly services in winter, McOwan's father went to the church to build a fire in its little stove, she recalled. The services started at 11 a.m. "Everybody loved that little church," she said. "People from Hannibal and all around looked forward to coming and seeing their old friends, and it was a nice community feeling."
Her parents were Samuel Ewing Northcutt and Maggie Crandall Northcutt. She believes her grandfather, James Northcutt, donated the land for the cemetery so her grandmother could be buried there.
"My father's mother (Mary Ewing Northcutt) had pneumonia or lung trouble," McOwan said. "She knew she was going to die, and they asked her where she wanted to be buried. She said right over on that hill. She was the first one to be buried there."
McOwan said her father was 11 years old at the time of her grandmother's death, and "he wanted to put something at her grave to mark her grave, so he got a cedar tree and planted that at the head of her grave. That tree is still there."
Muehring calls fire a
Late Tuesday afternoon, Muehring said, "that was a heartbreaker last night."
He added that "one of the sad things is that church had hand-hewn logs, done by the fathers and grandfathers of the people, and we were going to expose the ceiling logs. There is no way to replace something like that."
Muehring said "we were all kinda excited" about the restoration project, and the next work day was to be April 12 "but some things just don't come to fruition. It is hard to understand why it happened."
When he received the call about the fire being discovered at 12:15 a.m. Tuesday, he said, his son, John Jr., and Tim Evans were there, and the church was fully engulfed in flames. "It was all over. That was what made us think it had an accelerant put in it, because it could have started in one corner. And on the tractor all four tires were on fire. I'm convinced that both fire were started at the same time." Muehring walked up into the cemetery to see if anyone was there, but couldn't find anyone.
The little church had not been used for services more than 50 years, he said. "I have lived in this community about 16 years. I have seven children. Four of them and their families live here.
"We, along with John and Candy Frame, Bill Dexheimer, Bill Caswell and several others, got interested in restoring that church. The roof had gone bad. We put a roof on it in September and closed the windows up. That stopped the deterioration.
"We were going to use it for a chapel for funerals, maybe even little weddings. We had set a goal to have a Christmas service this coming Christmas. We had a wood stove to put in it. It is sad, it is a real heartbreaker."
Note: anyone with information on this fire should call the
Ralls County, Misouri Sheriff's office at:
(573) 985 - 5611
keywords: methodist ralls saverton 79 missouri mo march 30
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