Pioneer Churches Of Hardee And DeSoto Counties, Florida
By Spessard Stone
Used with permission
Since pioneer days, area churches have served the communities' spiritual needs.
To have churches you, of course, have to have congregations, so I'll begin with a brief settlement history.
The first white residents in present-day Hardee County, Florida, then part of Hillsborough County, were the staff, George Payne, Dempsey Whidden, and William McCullough and Nancy Whidden McCullough, of the Kennedy-Darling trading post established in April 1849.
This foray ended when on July 17, 1849 fugitive Indians attacked, killed Payne and Whidden, wounded the McCulloughs, and burned the post. Subsequently, Fort Chokonikla was founded on the site in October 1849, only to be closed due to widespread sickness on July 18, 1850. The sites are contained today in Paynes Creek Historic Site, southeast of Bowling Green.
In the fall of 1854, present-day Hardee County was opened to settlement, but the outbreak of the Third Seminole War in December 1855 slowed growth. The war did, however, cause the founding in early 1856 of Fort Green and Fort Hartsuff, the latter being the forerunner of Wauchula, being named for Lt. George L. Hartsuff, whose destruction of the banana grove of the Seminole chief Billy Bowlegs in the Big Cypress Swamp had precipitated the attack on Hartsuff and company, which ignited the war.
With the war's end in May 1858, settlement accelerated. In 1860, the Methodist campground at Homeland in Polk County had begun annual camp meetings, which was attended by settlers in Fort Green and Fort Hartsuff.
The Rev. J. M. Hayman, a Baptist preacher based in Bartow, had during the Civil War, preached at Fort Hartsuff where he performed thirteen baptisms, but there were no churches in present-day Hardee and DeSoto counties.
To fill the spiritual void, the Baptists and Methodists, the main congregations of the Peace River Valley in the late 1860s to 1880s, established circuit riders.
Circuit riders were preachers who traveled regularly on a circuit of country churches rather than taking up duties at a single church. At first, there being no churches, they preached in the open air, in public or private buildings, or under bush arbors.
Old Manatee County, which includes today's Hardee and DeSoto counties, had two premier circuit riders, the Rev. John W. Hendry, a Baptist, and the Rev. William Penn McEwen, a Methodist, a member of the Pease Creek circuit.
On September 29-30, 1866, J. M. Hayman, A. Wilson, and S. L. Cross organized present-day Hardee County's first church, Maple Branch Baptist Church, north of Fort Green. Maple Branch was in 1873 relocated west of now Ona by its pastor, Rev. John W. Hendry, as New Zion Baptist Church.
South Florida Baptist Association minutes of the second annual meeting, commencing October 2, 1868 at Peas Creek Church, Bartow, listed a Baptist church at Fort Hartsuff with pastor S. Waldron and W. N. Crews, delegate. It was, however, not listed in the October 1869 association minutes. Subsequently, Fort Hartsuff Baptist Church, now the First Baptist Church of Wauchula, was founded in 1876.
New Hope Baptist Church was in existence by 1869 as South Florida Baptist Association minutes of October 1869 show that New Hope Church, S. L. Cross, pastor, delegates Boney and Crews, with 34 members, was called and received into the association, Maple Branch already being a member. (It would appear to be the preceding church at Fort Hartsuff.) The present-day church, however, cites 1879 as its founding.
Paynes Creek Primitive Baptist Church was reportedly in 1870 established five miles west of now Bowling Green.
While not listed as such, it seems highly probable that a Methodist church was in existence in Fort Green by 1882 as the Bartow-Informant of September 16, 1882 noted, "Ft. Green has a large frame church, but it is unfinished; but when transporta- tion comes to the doors of these people, they will have their villages and fine churches and schoolhouses." In 1885 G. W. Mitchell was pastor. Robert Lee Thompson located the Methodist Church and school on the south side of Paynes Creek.
Live Oak, the forerunner of Friendship Memorial Chapel, southeast of Zolfo Springs, was organized sometime in 1882.
In 1886 a Methodist Church was built in Bowling Green.
The First Methodist Church of Wauchula, was organized in 1888 by the Rev. Samuel B. Craft, with the groundwork for it laid by Rev. McEwen.
Other nineteenth century churches in now Hardee County include: Lily Union Baptist Church (1888), Gardner Baptist Church ((1890), Oak Grove Baptist Church (1895).
In present-day DeSoto County, in 1868 Methodists founded a church at Pine Level. Other area Methodist churches included: Davidson Union Church of Joshua Creek (Baptists also worshiped there, hence the designation union), 1873; Fort Ogden, 1879; Fort Windner, 1880; Arcadia (Trinity), 1887; Nocatee, 1890, Brownville, 1892.
Present-day DeSoto County early Baptist churches included: Pine Level (Mt. Pleasant), 1868; Mt. Moriah (Davidson), 1874; Fort Ogden, 1878; Bunker (Oak Hill), 1882; Owens (Mt. Ephraim), Nocatee, 1890; Arcadia (First Baptist), 1890; Arcadia (Elizabeth), 1893.
Other DeSoto County early churches included: St. Paul's Catholic Church, 1890; Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church, Arcadia, 1891; First Presbyterian Church, 1896; Episcopal Church, Arcadia, 1894; Seventh Day Adventist Church, Fort Ogden, 1897.
· Canter Brown, Jr., Florida’s Peace River Frontier, pages 227-231;
· Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South for the Year 1885, 1886;
· Robert Lee Thompson, Peace River Valley: The Puritan’s Utopia, 1980;
· DeSoto County's historic churches," page 34, The Arcadian, May 28, 1987.
This article is adapted from the author’s feature in The Herald-Advocate of January 2, 1997.