Ode to an old-time country church

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Remnants remain from Pleasant View Church’s past.

ELKLAND – A few of the piano’s keys still play, their tones reminding of another time. Of days when people filled the little church’s cobweb-covered pews; of when the pianist left — and came back. A time when memories, made within the walls, were still remembered.

Of years when the church was alive.

Because today, Webster County’s Pleasant View Church is fading fast. A crumbling shadow of its former self, the church hasn’t seen a congregation in years. Decades, even. It’s a passage of time that brings a fate so harsh, yet so common, to landmarks dotting these Ozarks hills.

The fate of merely being a memory.

Early days

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Pleasant View Church sits along Highway 38 near Elkland.

Records aren’t clear on just when Pleasant View came to be. An “old” cemetery, located a little more than a mile away at the church’s original location, dates to 1804. But the institution itself goes back to at least 1860, when land was deeded to trustees of the church by H.W. McNabb.

Little was also recorded about the church’s earliest days. What is known, however, is that it saw turmoil and tragedy at the end of the Civil War.

Rev. Samuel S. Headley, one of the local circuit preachers, was a Southern sympathizer who refused to take the oath of allegiance. His beliefs led him to tear down the U.S. flag, during which he reportedly said “If that has any friends here, they should take care of it!”

His words didn’t go over well with some of the church’s members.

“At the Pleasant View Church there had been a controversy between the ‘North’ and ‘South’ factions over the building, and a committee had warned Rev. Headley to stay away from the church as he would not be allowed to preach, which caused a heated argument between the factions. … He was assured that no one would molest him as long as he did not come back to the church building.

Rev. Headley and his followers left. Meantime three men had met about a half-mile northwest of the church at a lone oak tree at the side of the road on the prairie, and when the Rev. Headley and his followers had gone about one-fourth mile down the road southeast, it was said that there men rode up behind the crowd and shot the Rev. Headley in their midst, and then fled. Rev. Headley was taken to the home of a sister, Mrs. Rachel Hoover, … where he died that day.” — The History of Webster County

Despite the tragedy, the congregation continued. In 1899, the old building was moved to the church’s current location; around 1902, the “new” building was built. That church is the one that’s there today.

Personal memories

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Pleasant View’s choir is shown in an undated photograph. (Courtesy of the Webster County Historical Society)

90-year-old Betty Herman didn’t regularly visit Pleasant View, even though both her parents and grandparents attended there at various times. After all, “it was way on down, and there was lots of work to do, so my mother thought (another church) would be closer,” says Herman.

However, she did spend some time there growing up, and moved right down the road soon after her marriage in 1946.

Looking back, memories of the place stick in her mind. “I know that we had an offering, and it wasn’t anything unusual to give a nickel,” she says. “That was just alight. That was what you could afford.”

She recalls the old-fashioned water pump, still outside the church today. “We’d pump some out ’til it got ‘pure,’ so we thought,” says Herman, who also talks of the church’s stained-glass windows, which are unusual in rural Webster County.

“At one time, there was money at Pleasant View,” Herman recalls, a fact that likely helped fund the windows — and the piano. Regally adorned with floral wood carvings, it’s likely that the instrument came all the way from New York to the church.

She mentions its pianist, a woman named Virginia Gann, who played longer than most would expect. “She got so she couldn’t walk, and two men would carry her up and set her on the seat (so she could) play the piano,” says Herman. “They let her sit on the seat for as long as she could.”

Despite its long history, services were destined to cease at Pleasant View. It all began with a minister, who brought religious doctrine that some of the congregants didn’t agree with.

“They had a split in the church, and some of them stayed at Pleasant View, and some of them went to Marshfield to the Evangelical Methodist church,” says Herman.

The church’s remaining members kept things going as best they could. “But they just needed money so bad, that it just sort of went downhill,” Herman recalls. “The people got older, and the kids got younger and (went) someplace else.”

Eventually, the church decided to close its doors. According to Herman, that was in the late 1940s or early ’50s. Methodist leadership turned the building over to representatives from the cemetery, who agreed that the church wouldn’t be used to hold traditional services any longer.

Except for once a year.

Decoration Day services

KY3’s Ed Fillmer did a story about the church’s Decoration Day services in 1987. (Courtesy of Ed Fillmer and KY3)

Even long before the church closed, people gathered at Pleasant View each May for Decoration Day. The precursor to Memorial Day, it was a time when people adorned — or decorated — the graves of Civil War soldiers who died while serving. Later, the occasion was expanded to include other veterans.

“It was being done when I was big enough to even think or talk,” says Herman of Pleasant View’s celebration. “Oh, they would decorate and talk and meet each other that they hadn’t seen in a year.”

A big portion of the day was dinner on the grounds — something she describes as a “great, big thing.” There wasn’t room inside the building for lunch, so two pews were brought outside and converted into a makeshift table piled high with homemade eats. It was a time to reminisce, to reconnect and to remember.

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Ercel Carter preached Pleasant View’s Decoration Day service for years, just as he did in 2005. (Courtesy of The Marshfield Mail)

But there was more than physical food: A service also highlighted each gathering, which were preached for years by Ercel Cater, a local minister.

“I remember coming here when the men sat on this side and the women sat on that side,” he said in an interview for The Marshfield Mail in 2005.

But those services, too, have faded into the past. The last one was held several years ago.

“The floor got in such bad shape that they was afraid to get people in there,” says Archie Ritch, president of both the Pleasant View Cemetery and Church Boards.

But while the services stopped, time didn’t.

Pleasant View today

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The passage of time.

The building’s exterior does a good job of hiding what’s behind: A scene that’s littered with broken windows, peeling paint and exposed boards. Piles of plaster fill corners of the church; pews creak and groan with age. Empty frames sit nakedly, ones that perhaps showcased pictures behind the pulpit.

But details flickeringly tell of the church’s former life. Sunlight shines through the stained-glass panes, illuminating intricate carvings in woodwork. A rail around the pulpit still decorates the stage. A sign on the wall asks how many people attended service. And in the entryway, ropes for the bell still temptingly dangle down.

The silence speaks, broken only by those piano keys — and memories of what used to be.

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The stained glass windows, if not original, sure are old: 102-year-old Georgia McCall has lived in Elkland since 1919, and says “I don’t remember any other windows in that church.”

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Signs still remind.

Time might’ve progressed a bit slower at the church if not for its current inhabitants: Raccoons, who are responsible for a great deal of the damage.

“It’s just a mess inside,” says Ritch. “The church needs lots and lots of work, but anything can be fixed.”

But while anything can be fixed, there’s still a problem.

“The church don’t have no money,” he says, noting that the building has around $250 in its account. It’s a discouraging figure, illustrated by an estimate he got at one point to fix the roof.

“They wanted $12,800,” he says. “I said then, ‘Thank you for your time, but there ain’t no way.'”

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Life grows from within the rubble.

 The fate facing Pleasant View isn’t a unique one. Many Ozarks churches, schoolhouses and barns are fading into the past, mere whispers of the things they used to be. They’re landmarks known by another time and generation: Things that meant so much, if only enough people who cared were still around.

That’s a challenge at Pleasant View. Now more than 60 years after the church closed, few former members remain to talk about their memories. It’s just been too long.

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It’s empty.

But while a dwindling number are around to talk, it’s not hard to find the people who remember the church: Many of them never left, buried just a few feet away. They’re one reason Ritch is motivated to keep the building around for as long as he can.

“It’s got a lot of meaning, I think, to that community,” he says. “(It’s about) respect for the ones that’s buried up there that’s passed on.”

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Want to help?

Friends of Pleasant View Church are looking to organize a committee to help preserve the church. For more information, contact Ritch at 417-345-6189.