This is part of a series of stories on Oakland Christian Church, a small country church north of Columbia, Missouri.
1872 is not really that long ago. It is only 150 years, but I am 67 and the old church was only one hundred years old in 1972 when I was a junior in high school. When you consider that many of the members of the country church were in their 70’s and 80’s, you were relating to people who had a clearer sense of what life was like in the late 19th century. Their parents and grandparents may have resided in the area before them. Technology had evolved since 1872, but for the most part things like electricity and indoor plumbing would not be a part of rural Boone County until after World War II. I look at my own life and realize that my grandparents’ farm in Southeast Missouri had only recently built an indoor bathroom in the late 1950’s. No one had air conditioning. While electricity was common, some still had wood-burning stoves. I knew of some folks in Columbia who had coal-fired furnaces well into the 60’s.
If there is anything that describes the evolution of modern life it is the arc of travel. Where did one spend most of their life? I recall when my mother died in 2014 it was impossible to arrange a service because the family was spread out from Morocco to Alaska! One my children travels around the world in her job, married to a Ukrainian. The other travels with her husband to various parts of the world for their vacations. I also had the good fortune to travel abroad. But as to day-to-day life, living in the country seven miles north of Columbia, the arc of travel was about ten miles. My parents worked in Columbia, I went to school in Columbia, and my activities as a youth would extend in the opposite direction to Hallsville. It was something we could do every day. It only took about 20 minutes of driving, about half of which was on limestone gravel roads, the rest on black tops.
Yet only a generation before it was much different. Go back 40 years to 1942, the country was at war, but the rural areas still reflected the limitations of travel. Sure, there were more paved roads than before, but it was still an adventure to travel into town. Dotting the county were “stations”, vestiges of the previous generation when a railroad was constructed from Columbia to Centralia. These stations had emerged in the late 19th century as small communities, complete with supply stores, post offices and schools. They appeared every ten miles or so. There was Brown Station, Stephens Station and McGee Station. The arc of travel for the local farmers was, in most respects, limited to the distance between their farms and these stations. People hitched up their wagons and rode down roads that were often not much better than dirt paths. The distance was probably about three or four miles, and it took much of the day to complete the trip there and back.
So in the beginning, the scope of life was much different than how we experience it today. In 1872, farmers around Oakland were much more self-sufficient. They could not just “run to the grocery store.” What they ate was a function of what they could grow or raise for themselves, and what they could obtain at nearby Stephens Station. Today we are impulsive, but in 1872 an adult was deliberate. Today we get what we want when we want it. In 1872, they made do. Today we buy our meals at the deli or prepared for the most part in boxes and cans. In 1872, everything was made from scratch with some canned vegetables if needed, usually home grown and stored in a root cellar. Today we have lights in every part of the house. We go to bed when we wish. In 1872, some would quietly sit in their parlors or on the front porch, with an oil lamp for reading. It must have been much, much quieter. No one traveled the roads at night. Nowhere was the sound of tires speeding down a highway heard. The night air only broken briefly by the distant sound of the train whistle. All one heard was the sound of the crickets, the tree frogs and the cicadas.
The arc of travel defined the community of Oakland. The farmers that gathered together to build the church did so from materials supplied by wagon from Stephen’s Station, although it is feasible that some wagons took a day long journey to Columbia to buy hardware and lumber. It is quite possible that the lumber was obtained from a nearby sawmill. The families that gathered all lived within a few miles of the church. They sent their kids to either Stephens Station or to the school about two miles north. They all knew each other. While the members of the church could regularly assemble, finding a preacher who could travel out to the country church would be a problem throughout much of its history. The relationships that grew amongst these farmers were pragmatic and long term because they never went anywhere else in life. That would change, however, as that first generation of church members died off, their children often choosing to move to the city. The farms were sold to new families. Like their predecessors, they would not move around much. But the roads got better, the automobile appeared, the arc of travel extended into the city of Columbia. Stephens Station would gradually fade away. The large plantation homes that were at Stephens Station and nearby farms would one by one collapse into disrepair. The dirt roads would be replaced with gravel, and then one day the gravel roads would be paved. The members of the church changed with the times. Pastors could now be readily hired because they could easily drive from Columbia to the church. Members came from longer and longer distances. The local farms changed from full-time, self-sustaining plantations to part-time farming operations where both of the adults worked in Columbia. And today, some of those farms have been subdivided into subdivisions.
The arc of travel would, in some respect, explain why the church subscribed to the Disciples of Christ denomination. Why not Methodist? Why not Baptist? Certainly not Lutheran. Most of the farmers in the area in 1872 were of Scot/Irish decent, part of the wave of settlers that roamed into Boone County from Kentucky and Virginia. These folks were typically Presbyterian or Methodist. But in the 1840’s a wave of revivals swept the Mid-West and from that would emerge the Disciples of Christ. The denomination had a simple doctrine because it reflected the realities of frontier life. Churches emerged amidst the farms for the simple reason that people could reach them in a reasonable amount of time. So it was common for a country church to consist of people from several denominations. The Disciples of Christ made it possible for folks from different religious experiences to find common ground. The other reality was the scarcity of pastors. It turned out that Columbia was a center of learning for the Disciple of Christ denomination, with a college in town.
The arc of travel was also a factor in death. It was no accident that adjacent to the church was a cemetery.
But why was the church built where it was? A casual glance around the area may provide a few clues. First, and foremost, the church was built on a rise. The highest point in Boone County is only about three miles north. Add a steeple to the church, with a bell, you have a structure that can be seen and heard for a considerable distance . The second thing to note is that it was on the edge of farmland. While the farms in the area were generally well-endowed with rich soil, the farms were rimmed to the west and to the north with hilly land covered in thin top soil. In some locations, coal was exposed. The church was built on land not best suited for farming.
The country church, today, is struggling to survive. Hundreds have vanished from the landscape, abandoned. The arc of travel has enabled people to go elsewhere, to far off places, to worship. In all the hustle and bustle, of all the constant motion, we have lost the stillness of nearness. We scarcely know our neighbors, much less worship with them. The first generation of Oakland members were bonded by the urgency of simply surviving, transforming a land of forest and prairie into farms that could feed themselves and the people who worked their farms.
© Copyright 2022 to Eric Niewoehner