First Congregational Church, 140 South Main Street, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.
It is impossible to study the history of Wellington, Ohio without learning something about the history of the Congregational Church in this community. I am in no way qualified to speak to the complex theological and political issues that shaped the church’s evolution across the nineteenth century. Those interested in a detailed examination of antebellum Presbyterian and Congregational reform movements, for example, should review the work of my fellow blogger and Wellington historian, Joshua Fahler.
I am interested in architecture as material culture, however, and so I have been tracing the different church facilities erected in the village since its settlement in 1818. The Congregational churches are particularly interesting in the ways in which they interweave with the overall development of the town.
Secondary sources often identify the first place of worship of the ‘Church of Wellington’ at what is now the intersection of North Main Street and East Herrick Avenue. The History of Lorain County, Ohio (1879) recorded, “The first place of meeting was a log school house at the center, where the brick block on the corner now stands” (pg. 354). Rev. W. E. Barton’s A History of the First Congregational Church of Wellington, Ohio (1892) concurred: “The first meeting house was a log school-house standing on the corner where J. S. Mallory & Co’s store is now located” (pg. 24). Robert Walden wrote in the mid-twentieth century, “The first church at the center of Wellington was DeWolf’s Temperance. It was open for services April 20, 1824, in a log building at the corner of Public Square and North Main Street. The building was called DeWolf’s Temperance Tavern and was just what its name implied–a temperance lodging where no liquor was for sale” (Robert Walden Notebook, #A158).
Neither Walden nor either of the other volumes offer any documentary evidence to support their assertions. The specific date that Walden cites–April 20, 1824–was the date on which a church body was officially constituted in the village. In the earliest days, services rotated among the private homes of members, including that of Amos Adams, as the unpublished manuscript records of the group show. They also met in the “Center School House at Wellington” on at least one occasion in November 1825. It was not until three years after constitution, in May 1827, that the congregants voted to receive “Mr. Matthew D. Wolf and his Wife Mary…from the Church of Otis” (Records of the First Congregational Church…, unpublished mss., pg. 11).
Mathew DeWolf’s obituary in The Lorain County News noted his forty-year membership in the church, but said nothing about him playing host to the congregation in his business establishment. (I examined his lovely psalter in a previous post.) Interestingly, the author of the obituary, J. B. Lang, knew first-hand that DeWolf had been a school teacher in the village, as Lang was one of his early pupils. Lang knew DeWolf emigrated to Wellington from Otis, Massachusetts “about the year 1827” (7-19-1865, pg. 3). Was there an early structure, belonging at some point to DeWolf, that served as a school, a public house, and a house of worship? I have no definitive proof but it seems plausible to me.
When Wellington’s first Town Hall was erected on Public Square in 1829, that building definitely served as both a civic arena and a religious facility. The Wellington Enterprise published a transcription of the 1829 “Subscription for Town House &C” which read in part, “We the undersigned agree to pay the sums annexed to our names, to be expended in erecting a brick building at the center of Wellington, in the lower story of which there is to be a school room for the use of the district…the remainder of the building to be at the disposal of the first congregational society in Wellington provided they shall lay a tile or brick floor to the upper story and that said story shall at all times be open for the transaction of town business and funerals…” (5-12-1886, pg. 3). The subscribed amount for the proposed hall was $119.50.
The Enterprise dated the dismantling of this first town hall to 1845, but that is not certain. History of the First Congregational Church recorded that (perhaps even before the hall was taken down) a frame structure was erected on the adjacent lot by the congregants in 1839, but it burned to the ground that winter (pg. 25). The same information is included in History of Lorain County, with a note that the loss on the fire was “about three thousand dollars” (pg. 355).
“The next season the church and society entered upon the work of rebuilding, and put up and finished a new one, upon the same site, and upon the same plan as that destroyed, at about the same cost,” it continues. This 1840 structure, which over time came to be referred to as the ‘Old White Church’ is the first Congregational house of worship of which I have located images. If the text in History of Lorain County is correct and the Old White Church was built “upon the same plan” as the 1839 church that burned, we can hypothesize that its facade was similar, if not identical.
“The Old White Church, Built in 1840.” Engraving featured in “The Wellington Enterprise,” 8-28-1901, pg. 2. Photo by author.
Detail of the Old White Church in “Village of Wellington” (1857) by Archibald Willard. Original painting owned by Herrick Memorial Library. Permission to display generously granted by the library.
In 1885, when plans were underway to construct the present Town Hall, the wooden structure being used as a town hall was sold at auction to W. R. Santley and Co. for $209 “that being the highest bid received” (Enterprise, 6-3-1885, pg. 5). In 1892, the same year Barton published, a fire broke out at Santley’s lumber company on the evening of August 3rd. The newspaper headline proclaimed, “The old Congregational Church and Town Hall Reduced to Ashes.” The article explained, “The company owned the building, which was once a Congregational church and then served as a town hall until 1885, when it was purchased by the lumber company and removed to the mill yard” on Magyar Street (8-10-1892, pg. 5). This was the Old White Church.
Over the course of the century, the Congregational Church in Wellington experienced at least two schisms, during which members withdrew from the main body and formed other churches. I would refer those interested in a more comprehensive explanation to read the two published histories of the church and Mr. Fahler’s work. The first group, which called itself the Independent Church, organized in 1843 and eventually reunited with the main body in 1851. It “had no house of worship, but met in the town hall, which even before the division had often been used by the First Church for social meetings” (History of the First Congregational Church, pg. 25).
In 1852, a smaller group of dissenters again broke away from the First Church and called themselves the Free Church of Wellington. The Free Church apparently “received two hundred dollars’ assistance in building its house” (pg. 20) from the Home Missionary Society and put up a frame structure just north of the site of the present church, on the west side of South Main Street. The two factions reunited in 1861.
“The Old Free Church, Built in 1852.” Engraving featured in “The Wellington Enterprise,” 8-28-1901, pg. 2. Photo by author.
Detail of the Free Church in “Village of Wellington” (1857) by Archibald Willard. Original painting owned by Herrick Memorial Library. Permission
to display generously granted by the library.
The Lorain County News reported in early 1866 that “a movement is on foot to thoroughly repair the Congregational Church in this place, which has been long needed. The township trustees are repairing, fitting up and thoroughly painting the Town Hall, which will do away with the necessity of using the church for everything, as for some time past” (3-28-1866, pg. 3). By the end of the year, the church had “received a coat of paint on the outside, which adds greatly to its appearance. The thorough repairing lately given it makes it a very pleasant place of worship.” At the same time, “a fine stone walk, and…lamp post” were installed in front of the Town Hall (12-19-1866, pg. 3). It seems that in 1866, the term ‘Town Hall’ referred to the Old Free Church and the Congregational Church was then the Old White Church. In 1892, Barton wrote that the Free Church building “is now used by Christie & Bennett as a wagon shop” (pg. 25). Ten years later, the Enterprise reported that “the old wagon shop that fronts the railroad tracks south of West Main street and now occupied by Mr. Harry Bennett, was once the Congregational church of this place” (8-6-1902, pg. 1). Its ultimate fate is not known.
[UPDATE: For March 2017 speculation on the fate of the Old White Church, click here.]
When the theological and political rifts of the war years were healing, the next major difficulty faced by the congregation was overcrowding. The coming of the railroad and the Cheese Boom had increased both the population and the overall wealth of the community in the years since the construction of the two wood-framed sanctuaries. Many of the town’s most prominent businessmen were members of the Congregational faith. When a subscription was raised to erect a magnificent brick church on the corner of South Main and Magyar Streets in January 1878, contributors included Noah Huckins, John Wilbur, John Artz, Sidney Warner, Watson Wean, Timothy Doland, David Wadsworth, Sereno Bacon, Joseph Turley, Albert Couch, and many more. I have written before about Hiram Allyn receiving the construction contract for the project, which totaled some $25,000.
“First Brick Church–Built 1878-1879, Burned 1895.” From “A History of First Congregational United Church of Christ of Wellington, Ohio, 1824-1974,” by the Rev. Ronald Boldman.
The 1879 building, which Barton called “the finest and best arranged church edifice in the county, and outside the large cities, one of the very best in the state” (pg. 25) does indeed sound impressive in the descriptions of the time. Its heating and lighting systems were the latest technologies, and its interior was sumptuous. Sadly, it caught fire and was totally destroyed in February 1895. It was less than two decades old.
Interior view of the 1879 brick Congregational Church, which burned in 1895. Photo 970465 of “Wellington Family Album” Collection, Herrick Memorial Library. Permission to display generously granted by the library.
The present brick church, shown at the top of the post, was constructed on the site of the burned church. G. Frederick Wright’s A Standard History of Lorain County was published in 1916, but he copied so much content directly from The History of Lorain County, Ohio (1879) that he did not even bother to note the destruction of the 1879 church and its later replacement, which occurred almost immediately. The present church was dedicated in September 1896.