News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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December 6, 2013

Sifting the ashes: Prairie Creek First Baptist Church

136-year-old church consumed in flames during heavy snowfall

PRAIRIE CREEK — The cause of a late Thursday fire that destroyed a 137-year-old church sanctuary may never be known due to the intensity of the blaze.

But the congregation of Prairie Creek First Baptist Church plans to continue worshipping and serving the community – as they have done for almost 200 years, since missionary Isaac McCoy and his pioneer friend Daniel Boone met with local residents to form the church in May 1816.

“We’ve got a lot of decisions to make here in the next 24 hours on what we’re going to do for church on Sunday,” said Pastor Kevin Dobson on Friday morning as he met near the smouldering remains with deacon Harley Drake and church trustee J.R. Lowe.

Pastor Dobson, Drake and Lowe gathered for a while in a construction trailer at the site, glancing at building plans for the new addition. The plans include a fellowship hall, office and classrooms on one easily accessed ground floor level. The exterior of the addition was close to being buttoned up for the winter so that interior construction could be continued.

“It was really starting to look like that,” Lowe said of the exterior drawing.

A large excavator soon arrived to knock down the remaining exterior walls of the 1870s wood-frame structure. Much of the burning building collapsed into the basement level, including the church bell. The rubble was charred, wet and still smoking in some areas.

“We don’t even know where our bell is,” Dobson said, “The steeple was the last thing to fall.”

He said he was unsure how large the bell was, but it could lift people off the ground when they pulled its rope.

District chief Bill Shields of the Prairieton Fire Department recommended the walls be knocked in to reduce the possibility that the fire could rekindle and spread to the new construction. Begun in the fall, the new portion branches to the east from the south side of the church, creating an L-shape. The new wing was built along the southern boundary of the church cemetery.

The old portion of the church had just been reroofed as part of the project, Dobson said. Layers of shingles had been torn off and the roof deck was replaced. He theorized that during that project, a roofing screw may have touched an electrical wire, causing a short that later sparked the fire.

“Our guess is that it is an electrical fire that started in the roof,” Dobson said.

That theory is partly supported by a neighbor who witnessed the early flames of the fire in the northeast corner of the roof.

Deacon Drake said that a passing motorist on Indiana 63 first saw the flames and stopped to notify a resident across the street from the church. The fire was reported and the neighbor took a photo of the flames on the roof.

The fire did spread into the rafters of the new office and classroom construction connecting the sanctuary to the new fellowship hall.

Only the new fellowship hall area will remain, Dobson said, as some of the new construction will have to be torn down and rebuilt.

Fire Chief Sheilds said it is unlikely the cause of the fire will be determined because of the level of destruction.

Shields was complimentary of the responding fire departments who helped contain the fire mostly to the historic structure.

“Water was never a problem, because we have really good mutual aid agreements with the other fire departments, and we had tankers lined up last night waiting with water,” Shields said.

A drop tank was set up to receive water from the other tankers, so the pumpers fighting the fire could draft water from the portable tank.

Dobson said that most members of the congregation were notified of the fire by Friday morning.

Church clerk and Sunday school teacher Bonnie Chickadaunce said the congregation has had an important presence in the community since its original log cabin days.

Before this last Thanksgiving, the church served a holiday meal to about 400 people, including 167 meals delivered to shut-ins. Due to handicap accessibility issues, however, the meal was served a few blocks away in the Prairie Creek community building.

“Our dream was to be able to host the dinner in church’s fellowship hall next year,” Chickadaunce said.

The church members decided to build the new addition in part because of the difficulties accessing the often damp basement by the aging congregation members, who had to navigate stairs to reach the fellowship area and the classrooms.

“We were going to be able to do so much more to serve our church and our whole community,” Chickadaunce said.

Attendance on Sunday mornings averages between 65 to 85 members, she said.

Several members showed up Thursday night to watch the firefighting efforts.

Chickadaunce said she was pleased to learn that the church safe had been recovered from the building. It contained many historical documents, she said, and she hoped that those documents had survived the intense heat of the fire.

The congregation recently celebrated its 197th year, she said. A church history printed a few years ago states that the first services in 1816 were conducted under large trees near the foot of the hill leading into Prairie Creek. In 1819, the first church was erected as a log cabin with an open fireplace in the center of the room. That cabin was used until 1840 when a new building was constructed. The new building was used for 36 years until the current church was completed around 1877.

The church site was located in the near wilderness, the records state. The Old Army Road that connected pioneer outpost Fort Knox at Vincennes to Fort Harrison at Terre Haute later was developed into current-day Indiana 63.

The congregation has claimed the title of oldest church in the county, and Chickadaunce said she has heard that it is also the second-oldest church in the state.

She said the fire is a setback for the growth of the church, but it will be overcome.

“A church is its people,” she said. “We are a loving church.”

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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