Building Bethel again

Saturday, August 18, 2007
Old Bethel in Jackson will be dedicated today after two years of work to rebuild what was the first Baptist church west of the Mississippi River. (Kit Doyle)

When Baptist missionaries traveling west in the 1800s came upon the Mississippi River, they usually got discouraged and turned back east instead of crossing and setting up a seminary in the Roman Catholic territory beyond the river. When local Baptists came to Goose Creek in Jackson in 2005, they splashed through it and followed the gravel road to the site of Old Bethel, the first Baptist church built west of the Mississippi.

Their mission: to rebuild the church.

The original Old Bethel was built in 1806, after the Louisiana Purchase gave control of the land to the United States. It has been rebuilt over the past two years using original materials and the same construction methods used in the 19th century.

A dedication ceremony will be held from 9 to 11 a.m. today with Gov. Matt Blunt and representatives from Baptist organizations present.

The logs of the original building had been housed in a barn that had long occupied the land after its purchase from the church. Volunteers used as many of those logs as possible to rebuild Old Bethel. A group of men spent hours whittling blocks of wood into pegs to secure the logs. The gable used new wood and screws because they ran out of the 200-year-old wood.

The church was officially called Bethel Baptist Church, but most know it as Old Bethel.

"That was just an affectionate name," said Melvin Gateley, who is on the Missouri Baptist Convention Historical Commission and has been instrumental in the rebuild. The Missouri Baptist Convention owns the building and has funded the project through contributions. They charged Gateley with the responsibility of bringing back the historic icon.

From church minutes, the group found out the church was a 30-by-24-foot room with a fireplace at one end, a pulpit at the other and two or three windows.

Gateley and others involved with the project hope to see it used for picnics, historic lessons, church functions and other events.

"I bet you'll see several weddings here," said Don Sievers, a longtime Jackson resident whose company, Associated Sheet Metal Inc., donated the air conditioning.

"It's come a long way in the last couple of years," he said.

Gateley and about 60 volunteers worked Thursdays through Saturdays for four to five hours each day for two years to construct what they think the original building looked like. Ten to 12 volunteers worked on the structure at any one time.

"I call them my heroes," Gateley said of the volunteers.

The original plan was to have the project complete by the 2006 Missouri Baptist Convention's meeting in Cape Girardeau, but all that stood at that time was the shell of the building.

"It was just a matter of more work than we anticipated," Gateley said.

Now the building is finished, with heat and air conditioning installed, a metal roof above the building to protect it and a garden in the front. The building is fitted for electricity but runs on a generator right now. The land must be annexed by the city of Jackson before power can be run out there.

Steve Strom, who helped with the construction of the Red House Interpretive Center in Cape Girardeau and built a log cabin on his property, assisted in the Old Bethel building as well.

"It took us half a dozen guys a year and a half to build this thing," Strom said. "We only worked until noon, and we were worn out."

But the church building itself was only part of the project. The gravel road out to the church has been widened. The creek now has a low-water bridge to make the passage easier.

Before the road was fixed and the bridge installed, only tractors and four-wheel-drive trucks could access the site because the church is set behind an industrial park and surrounded by fields and woods.

Sievers' father-in-law used to help with the upkeep of the property.

"They had to drive through the fields to get here," he said.

Sievers said he was proud to have such a historic building so near his home.

"It's the oldest non-Catholic church west of the Mississippi," he said Thursday while admiring the building. "Right here in our back yard."

charris@semissourian.com

Old Bethel, which was originally built in 1806, rose again with the help of about 60 volunteers during the past two years. (Kit Doyle)

335-6611, extension 246

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