Woodlawn Church Building Larger picture of the old church

Church Marker Sign, taken by Ruth Ann Faris

A season passes

Historic church near Steens community slated for demolition

By Vicky Newman, vnewman@cdispatch.com, July 3, 2005, Permission granted for Reprint by the Commercial Dispatch, Columbus, Mississippi

For everything, there is a season, and a season’s end inevitably comes tinged with a degree of sadness.

As another historical Lowndes County building stands slated for demolition, many area residents mark and mourn its passing, and vow it will not be soon forgotten. The Woodlawn Cumberland Presbyterian Church building, located on Highway 12 near Steens,[Correction offered by Ruth Ann Faris on actual location: As soon as you turn North off of Hwy. 12 onto Woodlawn Road it is just about a block or two up on your left. And if you continue East on Hwy. 12 past the Woodlawn Road turnoff you will see Woodlawn Cemetery about 2/10's of a mile up the hill on your right.] is being dismantled after 138 years. Its various appointments, from lumber to collection plates to furnishings, will be sold, most items finding value only with former members desiring a memento of its time here.

The unusual white clapboard church with its unique two-story architectural design was built by the Woodlawn congregation in 1868, of virgin pine lumber and square nail construction. The church served generations of area residents as the faith-based center of their lives. The humble sanctuary, barely altered through the years, was the site for worship, christenings, catechism, weddings and funerals.

Its beginnings

The church was organized in 1861 by the Rev. T.B. Wood. According to documents, the congregation met eight years in a log house before the church was built. Wood preached at the church until his death in 1895.

Throughout its history, the congregation was dominated by families surnamed Vaughn, Kidd and Pressly, as well as Gaston, Price, Caldwell, Wiggins, Farley and Harris. The two-acre plot of land on which the church was situated had been given by Martha Kidd Vaughn, and the timber for the church was donated by A.P. Pressly. Thomas Kidd was the first ruling elder.

Early church members contributed a total of $960 to build the church, which also served for years as a the Masonic Temple lodge.

A rich history

The church was constructed on property beside Woodlawn, a house which also claims a rich history. The house, still standing, was once was known as Kidd’s Tavern, a well-known stagecoach station between 1845 and 1860.

The Woodlawn Cumberland cemetery, located apart from the church, contains headstones dating back to 1812. The land was donated by Capt. Billy Kidd to be used as a cemetery.

In the 1960s, the upright sanctuary was flanked on one side by a new addition, a one-story fellowship hall of concrete block construction. The church remained strong in 1978, when the 110th year was celebrated. At that time, a colorful Columbus character, the late J.Rigg Vaughn, was the oldest church member.

But the once-thriving church had begun to wane in the years after its centennial. As the older generations passed away, services that had been held bi-monthly dwindled to once a month, and many remaining longtime members began to find new churches to attend.

In December, 2003, another congregation, Shiloh Baptist, began meeting in the building. The Shiloh congregation plans to continue meeting there another month or two, until they can erect a metal building for meetings in another nearby location.

Shiloh’s pastor, Lavon Haden, decided to purchase the property from the Presbytery after it was determined that problems with the foundation cannot be readily corrected. Haden will dismantle the sanctuary building and dispose of its contents. The annex fellowship hall will not be torn down. Haden, a carpenter, will make it into his home.

Haden said the decision to sell the building came after the death of Ben Vaughn, the last surviving active member, about a year ago. Vaughn had maintained the books until his death. Haden’s congregation was offered the purchase of the building, but declined.

In consideration of the historical significance of the building, Haden said he had thought of restoring the sanctuary for use as a wedding chapel. It was because of the building’s condition that the idea was abandoned, he said.

Impossible to repair

“It was not feasible to save it,” Haden said. “The foundation is gone on one side, and it’s going to fall. It is irreparable, and it would be an eyesore as it falls. I did research before I bought it. I found it was not registered as a historical site. If it were, it would be worthless to me. It needs to come down.”

Haden has offered the pews to church family members for $125 — an amount considerably less than their worth, he said.

The stained glass windows will not be sold. They were not original to the sanctuary, but were installed several decades ago by a benefactor of the church. They were made to order by Bill Backstrom of Columbus , and are the only items of considerable monetary value.

They will go to Mt. Zion Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Haden said.

Mike Murphy of Caledonia, a local historian and antiques collector, said he believes restoration of the structure would be cost prohibitive. However, he is concerned to see so much local history lost.

“This is one of the last double height, log construction churches in the state. It’s Civil War construction — it’s never been replaced. The walls have crossbeams; there are no center supports....But the walls are sagging, and the beams are rotted with woodworm. The foundation has dropped.”

The absence of the landmark will be felt profoundly by some area residents.

Billy Kidd, a local piano tuner and a descendant of the church’s organizers, said he was shocked to learn the church would be dismantled. “I was distraught and outraged when I heard. I am still a member there, and nobody contacted me.”

Many fond memories

Kidd, like many lifetime members, had not attended the church in several years. However, he never could bring himself to move his membership to another church. “The church was a big part of my family, and it has been part of all of our lives,” he said. “My forefathers founded Woodlawn. Uncles, aunts and cousins contributed to and labored to build the church building. It was a bad feeling to know they are going to tear it down.”

Margaret White said the church was home to her mother, brothers and sister. She still visualizes a time when church attendees walked through the woods to meet for services. “My mother was born the same year as J. Riggs Vaughn. When I joined the church, we’d come and sit on the steps, and Mr. Rigg Vaughn would tell wonderful stories.”

One-time member Sue Sizemore Goodman says she recalls a small congregation of between 35 and 50 during her childhood. “I grew up in that church,” Goodman says. “I started going there when I was 8 or 9, and went there until I married; I left in 1956.”

Today, Goodman still can name each member of each family that regularly attended.

“When I was young, we had church services two Sundays a month, then later on, once a month. My sister played the piano and I used to sing. My father was one of the elders. My sisters all were married there. We had Bible School and revivals. Bible School was upstairs, and the building was hot because there was no air conditioning.

“It was like a family church. I have great memories. I knew everybody. When you are in a big church, you don’t have that closeness. But we all grew up and went our separate ways.”

The building’s imminent demise stands as a warning to those of other congregations with historic buildings, said Nancy Carpenter, Columbus Historic Foundation director. While a historic marker on Highway 12 had been erected at some time and appeared to be authentic, the church descendants learned the building is not registered as a Mississippi Historic Landmark.

“We are saddened by the demolition of any building of this age, and certainly losing a church building of this age is disturbing,” Carpenter said. “If anybody has a historic building they want protected, whether a group or a homeowner, we encourage them to apply for the National Historic Register or a Mississippi Landmark designation.”

Eventually, seasons pass. Goodman summed it up: “People come and go. They live and die. They grow up and move on. I guess churches and buildings are the same.”

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