A Brief History of THE FIRST UNITED METHODIST CHURCH OF OZARK The First United Methodist Church of Ozark has had a long and eventful history going back 155 years to the old log Claybank Church built in what is southwest Ozark today. The huge family of farmer and part-time Methodist minister Dempsey Dowling built the sturdy log church in 1852. The amazing, squared-log structure has survived with minimum maintenance, and could still be used for religious services today. When the sparsely settled community of Ozark was incorporated and became the county seat town in 1873, eighty members of the old Claybank Church moved their membership to the newly organized Ozark Methodist Church. The first Methodist church building in Ozark was built of crudely-sawed wooden planks by Samuel L. Dowling and the first pastor was Methodist Elder, Rev. Angus Dowling. Both Samuel and Angus were numbered among the 106 grandchildren of patriarch Dempsey Dowling.
In 1897 the Ozark Methodist Church bought a little 100' by 100' lot from church-member Major Carroll, at the corner of East Avenue and Broad Street-the site of the church sanctuary today. By 1900 the church had built on the new site a small but charming brick building, graced by many Gothic-arched, stained-glass windows.
During the next thirty years (1900-1930) the church membership doubled-from 311 to 633; the Town of Ozark also doubled its population, from 1,570 to 3,103. By 1930 church-member and architect H. L. Holman had designed and the church built a two-story educational facility at the rear of the existing 1900 church sanctuary. The exterior of the 1930 building had the architectural motif of white, plastered walls for the first story, with red brick walls for the upper stories, and with white plastered guoins on the corners. This 1930 exterior motif was intended for use in (and has been used in) all subsequent additions and structures for the church.
The nation-wide economic depression of the 1930's did not stop the members of the Ozark Methodist Church. By March 7, 1938, 192 pledges for construction of a new sanctuary had been received in the total amount of $30,561 and the old 1900 sanctuary was ordered torn down. The last service in the 1900 church was held on Sunday, May 1, 1938. During the razing of the 1900 building the many stained-glass windows were saved and stored while the new sanctuary was being built; then the windows were placed in the basement of the new sanctuary-out of sight, in the remote, unusable space created by the brick foundations which held up the church steeple. The final cost of the new sanctuary and furnishings was $37,487.31, and it was dedicated on Sunday, April 7, 1940.
Many of the members of the Methodist Church of Ozark have furnished leadership for Ozark and the Dale County community, but never more than during the 1930s and early 1940s. Two members of our church were key men in the building of "Camp" Rucker in the spring of 1942, so much so that without their involvement Fort Rucker would not exist today. Jesse Adams, veteran editor of The Southern Star persuaded his good friend, church-member Congressman Henry B. Steagall, to use his considerable influence in Washington to accomplish two key goals: First, in the 1935-1939 period the Congressman got the U. S. Resettlement Administration to purchase 35,000 acres of Dale County land in a program to help farmers on sub marginal land acquire better land-the government land then to be used as a game reserve (and Lake Tholocco was built). Second, in 1940-1941 the Congressman persuaded the War Department to select the 35,000 acres as the nucleus of a site for an infantry-training camp which was built in five months during the spring of 1942. The engineering plans for building the camp were labeled the "Ozark Triangular Division Camp;" during construction it was named after Civil War General Edmund W. Rucker. Congressman Steagall died in Washington on November 22, 1943. Southern Star editor Jesse Adams died on November 8, 1952, at age fifty, but he had accomplished his goal of giving his beloved Dale County a tremendous economic boost.
The new 1938 Methodist Church sanctuary was built just in time for the boom in Ozark brought on by World War II and the building of Camp Rucker. First, thousands of workers crowded into the city (for four months) to build the huge Army post, then tens of thousands of soldiers were stationed at Camp Rucker (four infantry divisions trained there) from 1942 until the camp closed in 1946-(until re-opened in 1950 for the Korean War). The church opened its arms to the newcomers and participated in W.W.II civic projects; for instance, the basement of the new sanctuary (the "Fellowship Hall" today) was used for making Red Cross bandages, and four hours a day for the Sugar Rationing Board. Eighty-four young men who were members of the church went off to war during this period.
The church continued to grow and several more construction projects were undertaken: In 1958 the church built a three-story educational building which was attached to the rear of the first educational building built in 1930. In 1985 the church completed a renovation of the 1938 sanctuary, including the addition of a balcony, and a small elevator on the west side. In 1992 the church completed a thorough renovation of the two Educational Buildings which had been built in 1930 and 1958.
As the church neared the end of the twentieth century, it was fortunate to have both clergy and lay leadership with vision and boldness. They saw that the time had come for the church to add substantially to its facilities. The church had accomplished splendid renovations of its three existing buildings, but it had not added any square footage of church space since 1958. With strong and graceful leadership a firm decision was made to build additional space.
The planning process for an additional facility-named the Family Life Center-began in 1997. Church-member James Lisenby, of the architectural firm of Seymour & Lisenby, worked with the church trustees and several committees and performed the design work. Additional land was purchased and by the year 2000 Architect James Lisenby was about ready to prepare the final construction plans. Fortunately some of the members remembered the old 1900 church stained-glass windows which had been stacked in the dark space under the steeple since 1939-for 61 years! The old windows were taken out of storage and inspected by the architect who said they could be re-framed and used in the new construction. None of the committees and church officers had ever suggested having a small chapel, but architect Lisenby added one and made it beautiful by installing many of the 1900 stained-glass windows. The remaining windows were placed in the big multi-purpose room of the Family Life Center.
The Family Life Center was consecrated at a service on June 9, 2002. The final cost of the facility and furnishings was approximately $3,000,000. Excellent church leadership and thorough planning has brought sufficient pledges and commitments and the funding and timely payment for the facility has been assured. During the spring and summer of 2002, an elegant Meditation Garden was constructed on the land just east of the sanctuary and in front of the Family Life Center. Special gifts were sufficient to pay all costs of the Meditation Garden, which was dedicated with a special service on October 27, 2002.
Two books have been written about our church and are available for download from ouronline library: "A History of the First United Methodist Church" (1829-1930) by Glenn Wells and "A Cross Above" (1973-2003) by Val McGee